Editor's Notes: How many people do you want to kill?

If the speed camera network set up in the UK 15 years ago had been immediately replicated here, an estimated 3,140 Israelis would still be alive today.

October 5, 2006 20:58


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The fast had ended all of 20 minutes earlier. I was out running an errand, stopped at my first post-Yom Kippur traffic light. The red turned to green and in that initial split second, because I had failed to accelerate away with the alacrity of a Michael Schumacher, the driver behind me honked in impatience. I raised both hands and waved them back and forth at the side of my head, hoping that Mr. Quickstart would be able to see me, in a gesture intended to convey something along the lines of, "You've (probably) just spent 25 hours engaged in comprehensive introspection. Now, within minutes, you're back to being the lunatic Israeli driver again?!" And, not for the first time, I wondered what it is about the Israeli psyche that makes us a nation of such road menaces, murderers of more than 400 of our own fellow citizens each year. Except that, by and large, ascribing the relentless carnage on the roads here to a flawed Israeli psyche is apparently mistaken. Yes, we are lagging far behind northern Europe and probably a little behind southern Europe when comparing certain key statistics about road deaths. And no, the annual death toll here has not dramatically declined in the past decade, despite seat-belt laws, better road engineering, improvements in car safety-construction and substantial advances in trauma care. But according to road-safety guru Dr. Elihu Richter, there have been radical advances in the last 10 years in the science of road safety, to the extent that we have now established pretty conclusively what costs lives and what doesn't, what helps reduce deaths and what doesn't, and by how much. And the major factor, in Israel as everywhere else, is simply that "speed kills." Indeed, worldwide studies are a good deal more precise than that. They've determined, says Richter, head of the Hebrew University-Hadassah Unit of Occupational and Environmental Medicine and Center for Injury Prevention, that wherever you cut average speed on a given road by 1 percent, you reduce the death toll by 4%. Raise it by 1%, equally, and the death toll rises by 4%. It's an iron-clad rule, confirmed most recently, he says, by a Norwegian study that synthesized the findings from no fewer than 75 international academic papers (including Richter's own). At this point, I should make an admission. I had arranged to meet Richter in the aftermath of that minor post-Yom Kippur traffic light experience, expecting him to confirm at least part of my prejudice against lunatic drivers here. On Wednesday morning, however, a few hours before I set off to meet him, an item of mail arrived at my office with particularly fateful timing. It was a speeding ticket. I had broken the limit a little over three months ago, on Jerusalem's Begin Road. Far from critiquing my fellow drivers in patronizing despair, I must acknowledge that I am part of the problem - the central, incontrovertible, worldwide problem. There are other factors that play a significant part in determining the death toll in Israel, Richter stresses. He lists among them the impact of the trucking industry here, with accident after accident attributed to driver exhaustion; the drink-drive problem that becomes freshly apparent every Friday night; the need for further adjustments in order to slow traffic flow around pedestrian areas, with roundabouts contributing to an improvement of late, and the availability or lack thereof of convenient alternative means of transport, noticeably inter-city trains. He says the Trans-Israel Highway (Road 6) may have been "more dangerous than the Autobahns" when it first opened, but that its management seems to have reined speeds in a bit of late, although he stresses that he has not been able to obtain the hard data. But as for purported national traits of irritability, impatience, exaggerated macho-ism and other oft-cited uniquely Israeli road-death exacerbations? They figure nowhere on his list. "The Israeli 'character' as a significant factor in road deaths?" He snorts. "That's bull." THE CAUSE of death on the roads, wherever on earth you do your driving, cycling or walking, is rooted in the indisputable Newtonian rules of motion. "Only one man in these parts managed to suspend those laws," Richter tells me, with the practiced air of a speaker who has polished his text many times over, "halting the sun just north of the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway. And in the [Bible's] next sentence we're told that no mere mortal will ever achieve the feat again." For as long as Newton rather than Joshua holds sway, "increased speed will mean more death and injury, and killing speed will save lives." How best do you go about killing speed? Again, the answer is both simple and demonstrably so, Richter says. The unarguable evidence is that when you introduce a proper system of speed cameras, thoroughly enforced, death tolls come tumbling down. "Not only do you catch the worst offenders, but you slow everybody else down a little as well. And, as I've told you, a small decrease in speed means a big drop in deaths." After 20 years of argument and vacillation here, finally there is room for cautious optimism. As I can now personally attest, some such cameras are already in situ. But the Transportation and Internal Security ministries are close to introducing a much wider speed camera system. Once it is in place, the traffic police, Richter says, expect to see the death toll fall by 30% or more. Research by his mentor, Prof. Gerald Ben-David, suggests that up to 50% might be feasible - "death tolls fell 40-50% in Australia, the UK and France in the last 15 years, mainly because of speed cameras," Richter says. That would mean more than 200 Israeli lives saved a year, and a boost, courtesy of revenue from fines, for the Treasury coffers into the bargain. What's tragic - scandalously, criminally tragic - is that it is taking so long. All those wasted lives. Noting that this is a line he's adopted from the British TV presenter and road-safety campaigner Nick Ross, Richter argues that governments contemplating how much effort to put into reducing the death toll on the roads are essentially asking themselves, "How many people do we want to kill next year?" The speed camera network set up in the UK 15 years ago could have been replicated here immediately. Had it been, Richter and his students have estimated, 3,140 Israelis - more than 40% of those killed on the roads here in that lost period - would still be alive today. I'll write that again. Three thousand, one hundred and forty people, most of them in the prime of their lives. Ultimately, Richter says, "there's no reason why the death toll can't go down to zero. My interest is not 'road safety,' but sustainable, environmentally friendly transport. This need not be a case of, 'how many people do you sacrifice for greater mobility?' It must be: 'How do you achieve greater mobility with fewer and fewer deaths?'" Rather than naming the government ministers who failed to act swiftly, Richter chooses to praise former transport minister Avigdor Lieberman as someone who "got it, right away" and "implemented everything that we brought to him." He is concerned that various lobby groups will yet try to stall the speed-camera system, which is why he's so willing to talk me slowly through all the facts and figures. His hope and expectation is that media pressure, and consequent public awareness, will help ensure the program stays on track. RICHTER walked me around the road-death rudiments over a snatched lunch at a caf near his home base, the Hadassah-University Medical Center at Ein Kerem. Actually, he tells me, he formally retired just a few days ago, albeit without a discernible impact on his work-rate. He is a good-natured and passionate guide, stressing the need for personal responsibility - keep to speed limits; don't drink and drive; don't phone and drive; always buckle up; keep your distance; don't drive when you're tired - allied to public responsibility as the key to reducing fatalities. And his presentation is peppered with memorable observations. He notes, for instance, that speed is addictive, that speed sells and that humans have no genetic fear of speed, presumably because our unique ability to move this quickly is so recent a development. "We're the first animal to develop ways to travel faster than our legs can carry us," he says. "And our bodies have not evolved, and will not evolve, to protect against the impact of that greater velocity." Car manufacturers led by Mercedes-Benz, he goes on, are trying to do Mother Nature's evolutionary work for her - perfecting expensive vehicles that, with their air-bags, seat belts and protected driver and passenger cabins, will allow their human cargo to walk away unharmed from collisions even at speeds over 200 kilometers-per-hour. But what, he asks plaintively, about the less fortuitous driver in the collision, driving the cheaper, inferior vehicle? And what about pedestrians (who constitute about a third of our fatalities)? At one point he suggests that changing the wording in the contracts for the companies that mark the white lines on the roads might help reduce accident rates, too, since at present they are required to "paint" rather than "paint and maintain" their handiwork and thus appear to have an incentive to do a shoddy, fast-wearing job and get called back again quickly. "The road markings in Baghdad look better than ours in Jerusalem," he snipes. Toward the end of our conversation, I ask Richter if he favors closing off city centers to vehicular traffic altogether, increasingly the vogue overseas. "I'm all for it," he says, "and for social reasons too. Road safety strategy should be part of wider social and environmental considerations. Think of how air quality would improve, for a start." He also wants bikes made available free for use in town, as in some major European cities, and a national bike path network. I have to ask him whether he's ever got a speeding ticket. His answer: no, but he did hit a child who ran into the middle of the road on Jerusalem's Emek Refaim 30 years ago; the boy was taken to the hospital for observation but was unharmed. Finally, I wonder how it is that Richter became so informed and expert in the field. He looks at me over his glasses. "I'm a doctor," he says. "It's an epidemic."

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