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Some facts are clear about the fatal crash on the Tel Aviv-Netanya railway line on Monday - five people were killed and scores were injured when a train hit a stalled pick-up truck and came off the tracks. Other facts are less clear. According to some reports, by the time the train's driver received word of the blocked track he had no time to stop his train, which hurtled into the stranded pick-up at about 140 kph.
To call this an "accident" is to place too much of the blame on fate, and not enough on the negligence of policy makers. Like much of the carnage on our roads, this "accident" could have been prevented.
The only sure way to prevent collisions between trains and cars is to eliminate the crossings where the two might meet. This should be done in the many cases where plans have been made to do so, yet the plans languish, waiting for bureaucratic approval or budgets.
But bridges and tunnels cannot be the solution everywhere. The hundreds of millions of shekels that could be spent on elaborate engineering solutions might be more sensibly invested in other measures that can be extremely effective.
In the US, fatalities due to railway/highway collisions have dropped by more than 50 percent - from 728 in 1981 to 355 in 2005. This was accomplished by improving safety measures at the crossings, legal measures, and by a substantial educational effort among drivers - professional and private - and in schools.
A 1996 study by a task force appointed by the US secretary of transportation - after a train hit a school bus and killed seven children - noted one particular effective way to prevent drivers from violating the law at crossings: "Photo enforcement systems have been successful in deterring transit crossing violations in the United States, Europe and Canada... The use of photo enforcement for speed and crossing violations has significantly reduced accident rates wherever it has been used. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority's (MTA) photo enforcement demonstration project has reduced violations at highway-rail grade crossings by 92%... The Task Force found that this technology shows great promise in stepping up enforcement."
It is common to blame aggressive and brazen Israeli driving habits for road carnage of all kinds, including attempts to race under, around or through railway barriers. But even if local drivers have a greater tendency toward lawlessness, there is no reason to believe that they will not adapt their behavior when faced with the certainty of being caught.
Israelis have demonstrated very high rates of compliance with laws requiring the use of seat belts, using headlights during the day, and a new law requiring a safety vest in the car that must be worn while making roadside repairs. In each of these cases, the threat of high fines has been effective.
Similarly, as this paper has advocated for years, there is every reason to believe that automated speed cameras would drastically reduce speed limit violations on the roads and would - as they have in the UK, France and Australia - save scores of lives each year.
Much has been made of the fact that a "spotter" who was present at the Beit Yehoshua crossing during rush hour was not there at noon when Monday's crash happened. The Railways Authority, in the wake of this week's horrible event, says it will deploy an experimental radar system at some crossings that would alert an oncoming train to such an obstruction on the tracks. It is not clear, however, that such a system would be used to catch drivers who smash or evade barriers at rail crossings.
It is hard to fathom why the Railways Authority would use a manned observation system - which for budget reasons must be partial - when an automated system can be deployed at dozens of gated crossings, around the clock.
The Road Safety Authority and other bodies are soon expected to issue a tender for an automated speed camera system to be deployed on a number of problematic roads, as a pilot for a nationwide program. This tender should be expanded to include cameras at rail/highway crossings. Rather than simply lament tragedies such as Monday's, it is incumbent on the relevant authorities to take obvious, proven and cost-effective measures to prevent them.
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