Traffic Accidents: Investigating a tragedy

What can be learned from the catastrophic traffic accident that nearly wiped out a whole family?

Car accident- 8 members of Atias family killed 370 (photo credit: MDA)
Car accident- 8 members of Atias family killed 370
(photo credit: MDA)
Sifting through burned-out wreckage, Traffic Police officers in the North continue their painstaking investigation into the horrific accident that claimed the lives of eight members of a single family this week.
The vehicle they were travelling in experienced catastrophic brake failure as they drove along a steep, winding road just outside Tiberias. As the minivan picked up uncontrollable speed, the parents made a desperate call to police, but minutes later the Mitsubishi careened off the road into a 30-meter drop, flipping over and bursting into flames.
A family that was much admired and loved in the Bar Yochai and Migdal Ha’emek communities had been erased, leaving relatives and friends in shock.
Parents Rafi and Yehudit Atias, both 42, died in the accident along with children Avia, 17; twins Shimon and Elyshav, 16; Shira, 11; Tair, 9; and Noa, 5.
No one should have been able to survive such a crash, yet somehow seven-year-old girl Rahel did, after she was flung out the window of the vehicle before it was engulfed in flames.
Israelis shed a collective tear for this sole survivor and orphan. She now faces the unbearable burden of starting a new life without her family.
Despite the pain and grief, road safety professionals have begun asking difficult questions about the crash. They are guided by the principle that out of every tragic road accident, future collisions can be prevented and lives can be saved if the right lessons are learned.
In fact, that was the principle that guided Avi Naor, a one-time high-flying executive, to found the influential Or Yarok (Green Light) traffic safety institute in the late 1990s after losing his son, Ran, in a road accident.
“Accidents always happen. We can’t sterilize the road,” Naor told The Jerusalem Post. “But when the state does things correctly, like installing road safety infrastructure and deploying Traffic Police who check on vital car functions, then when accidents occur they are surrounded by safety layers that prevent them from turning into death sentences,” he said. “If the right steps are taken, accidents don’t have to end in deaths,” Naor added.
Shmuel Aboav, CEO of Or Yarok, said two lines of inquiry should now follow the accident.
“First, there is the police investigation, which examines who is guilty, who broke the law and who, if anyone, should stand trial,” he said. But alongside the standard police check, a team of independent professionals, who are experts in various fields of road safety, should also investigate fatal crashes to draw conclusions for the future, he argued.
“Three things need to be checked in this accident. Firstly, why did the railing on the roadside not prevent the vehicle from flipping off it and falling? Secondly, why did the brake system not work after just three months of the van passing its annual test? Thirdly, perhaps it is time to teach drivers what to do in emergencies when brakes fail,” Aboav said.
Aboav said that drivers believe that if their car passes the annual test, their brakes are in good condition. “If the tests don’t give drivers information about the state of their brake linings, perhaps drivers need to be informed of that,” he added.
The police investigation into the crash is indeed focused on the condition of the brake linings. Investigators said they found the brakes to be “very eroded,” adding that this formed the center of the investigation into what went wrong.
The second investigation should enable the public to “learn from this, rather than find guilty parties. This is the thinking that should guide us,” Aboav said.
He called on the Transport Ministry and the second government body responsible for preventing accidents, the Road Safety Authority, to lead the parallel inquiry.
Transport Minister Yaakov Katz has vowed to do just that following this week’s accident, saying, “We will learn lessons from this terrible disaster.” He added that “it happened specifically during a year when there was a dramatic fall in the number of accidents.”
A check with the Traffic Police confirmed Katz’s claims. So far this year, 116 people were killed in accidents prior to the tragic crash. In 2011, there were 26 more casualties – 142 total – between January and May.
One of the reasons for the decrease in casualties could be the 500 Traffic Police inspectors who pull over vehicles for safety checks across the road network every day.
In 2011, 30,000 cars were taken off the road after defective technical components were found in the checks. Out of those, 16,000 cars lost their vehicle licenses due to severe failures, such as defects in the steering, car frame and brakes.
“If we have 30,000 cars taken off the road, this means there are tens of thousands of additional cars out there with safety failures. People who fail to maintain their vehicles aren’t doing it on purpose; They don’t want to commit suicide. They just don’t know,” Aboav said.
But auto mechanics are supposed to know better, and here lies part of the problem. There are 2,000 unlicensed garages in Israel which have eluded state monitoring. They often sell defective automobile parts, many of them smuggled in from the West Bank from wrecked car that are dumped there.
“These parts end up in illegal garages, which lure drivers with low prices,” Aboav said. “Some people don’t know that in the event of an accident, their car can turn into cardboard instead of saving them.”
A State Comptroller’s report from 2011 found alarming numbers of garages – 879 – that are only checked by the state every two to five years, while a further 189 garages are checked by safety inspectors every five to 10 years.
“The answer is to only go to a licensed garage, which has a certificate from the Transportation Ministry,” said Aboav. “You wouldn’t go to a unlicensed doctor or attorney, and you wouldn’t send your kid to an illegal school. An unlicensed garage can be the most dangerous thing.”