Why are we so insane on the road?

Blame our hectic lives and a traffic system that brings out worst in us.

accident 298.88 (photo credit: Zaka)
accident 298.88
(photo credit: Zaka)
"Godless sociopaths, the lot of them," Jackie, a Tel Aviv taxi driver for the past 18 years, says of Israeli drivers. "They care about nobody but themselves. I used to carry around a baseball bat in the cab and I used to shout and scream at people, but now I've mellowed out. Every year I go to Holland for three months to visit my brother and it's hard to come back to these streets. "It gets worse every year," he goes on. "They're godless and they're mad, and this is the real face of the nation. They rush for no reason; they want to get in front of you for no reason, just so that they can wait in line one place in front of you. I can't explain it. I think Israelis drive like they do because life here is such sh*t, in every respect. The Israeli eats sh*t all day, and then gets into his car and takes out all his frustrations on the road," the taxi driver says. You know the type of driver Jackie's talking about: The one that cuts you off, putting you milliseconds from a crash for no apparent reason; the one who drives so close to your tail that you can read his lips as he talks on a (hand-held) cellphone; the same one that, at night, drives right up behind you and starts flashing his headlights for you to get out of the way, regardless of whether or not there is another vehicle on your right or left; the same one that suddenly moves across two lanes so as not to miss the exit, without looking, signaling, or even putting the phone down; the one that doesn't understand that the safe distance between cars is not an extra space into which more cars can be squeezed; the same one that takes the parking spot you've waited patiently for, turn-signal on and all. What is it about Israeli drivers that makes them so thoughtless about their own safety and the safety of others? Why are we killing each other on the roads faster than any exterior enemy? This year is no better or worse than last, with 380 Israelis losing their lives on our roads so far in 2007. But now, a glimmer of hope has appeared in an otherwise grotesque national picture: One of the world's foremost researchers of traffic safety and human behavior has been appointed chief scientist of the National Road Safety Authority. Dr. David Shinar, an international authority on hazard perception, accident analysis and driver behavior, is leading a new unit established by the Transportation Ministry to find solutions to end the carnage on Israel's roads. Shinar is currently the George Shrut Professor of Human Performance Management at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, where he heads the Driving Research Laboratory and teaches ergonomics and highway traffic safety in the Department of Industrial Engineering and Management. His team is already starting to make recommendations to the ministry. Based on his record, Shinar may be able to offer a somewhat more reasoned and complex analysis of the Israeli driver than that provided by Jackie the taxi driver. In his new book, Traffic Safety and Human Behavior, Shinar uses models of driver behavior to explain the malaise, and he elaborated in an interview with the Jerusalem Post: "We think of human behavior as something that happens in a context and not in a vacuum. In a theater, for example, most people behave the same way. The situation dictates how you behave much more than your personality. Everybody sits quietly and looks ahead at the screen. So your personality doesn't come out except in extreme cases." But, he goes on, "if you are in an environment devoid of much context, like being alone in the desert, then your personality has a tremendous role in what you're going to do. You can say anything you want, you can shout whatever you want." What Shinar's model means for the roads is that Israeli drivers would drive differently in different parts of the world, because they would have to adapt their driving behavior to the context. The context in Israel, he says, is one of a rushed pace of activity, traffic symbols that are not very conducive to smooth traffic flow, overcrowded roads and a generally impatient population of drivers and other road users. "If you put Israeli drivers into suburban areas of Cape Town or Vancouver, they would drive differently. They would not be as aggressive. They would give someone who was trying to get into the mainstream the right of way sometimes. They might even do the same in some parts of Israel, like in Kochav Yair, or in Omer [in the south] where I live," Shinar says, adding that there is research that points to cultural differences in driving styles. "It's ridiculous to say that the Israeli driver doesn't know how to drive. If you put an Israeli driver in Vancouver and he cuts someone off once, people will honk, and after several rebukes he won't do it again. Eventually the driver will see that cutting people off doesn't really give you much of an edge anyway." The situation reminds Shinar of Israeli air travelers rushing to get off the plane upon landing. "You see people rushing to get off the plane. What's the difference? You're all going to get to the baggage claim and you'll all have to wait for the moving conveyor belt to bring your luggage. What's the big rush for?" he says. So why are Israelis like they are? Shinar boils it down to the "hectic" pace of life here. He also blames the traffic system for helping make Israelis the way they are: The 'protected green' traffic light system, the lack of clear markings on roads, undivided highways, and misguided legislation. In essence he's saying we're bad enough as it is, but our traffic system helps bring out the worst in us. Take for example the ubiquitous cutting off of vehicles across lanes when approaching traffic lights and intersections. Shinar explains that the protected green traffic light system used in Israel means that once you have a green you can turn right, left or go straight, whereas in the US a green light means both you and the traffic opposite you have a green light, and if you want to make a left turn you know that you have to give way to oncoming traffic. In the US when you want to make a left turn it's not a protected left turn and you can't assume that you can just go; this inhibits some of the left turning, unless it's in the direction of the traffic, in which case there will be a left turn arrow. But when you have a green light for one direction of traffic, as is the case in Israel, you cut down on what is known as 'phase time' - the amount of time the traffic light takes to go from one green light to the next one. In Israel, when one direction has a green light, all the other intersections usually have a red. That divides the total phase time in that intersection by four, which makes it very short. For instance, assume you have one minute for a whole green cycle - from the moment it turns green until it does so again. You have a green, then the traffic on the crossroad on your right has green, then the traffic opposite you has green, then the traffic on your left has green, and then you have green again. If the total cycle time is one minute you basically have 15 seconds for each one of the four traffic arms, which is very little time. In the US there are 30 seconds for each traffic arm, and cars move in two directions at the same time. On the surface, the Israeli system seems safer, because you don't have to worry about somebody coming opposite and hitting you as you're making a left turn. Shinar points out, however, that what this system does is shorten the total green phase. What this means is that in Israel, if you're approaching the traffic light and unless you are one of the first five or six cars in the lane, you won't make it, and then you'll have to wait a whole cycle until it comes again. Worse still, some drivers trying to squeeze through at the tail end of the green light could get stuck in the middle of the street, and then oncoming traffic from the other side cannot move due to the obstacle. "This is conducive to people cutting and weaving, always trying to minimize the number of cars ahead of them in the queue because they are concerned that they won't pass," Shinar says, adding that he has done research in Israel that shows people tend to run the red light much more when the green cycle is short than when it is long. "The shorter the green phase the more people are likely to run the red light. It's as if they feel cheated. And it means to them that they will have to wait for another cycle if they don't get through. It's not just the drivers' behavior, then. You can actually identify the components in the traffic system that causes people to behave differently," he says. This can help explain driving behavior inside cities, but what about the drivers who shine their headlights at you as they tailgate on an intercity highway at night? According to Shinar's model, highway driving is an environment with a less defined context, which allows for personality to come more into play. "If all of Israel's roads were divided highways, the driver would flash you once or twice and you would move over to the right lane right away. He would probably flash at you way before he got to be on your tail. He would pass you on the left and you would notice no aggressive driving. Basically we have aggressive driving whenever there is a situation where one person impedes the movement of another person. This is also true of aggressive behavior in general. Aggression is usually the end product of frustration from achieving a goal. "If you're standing at a red light and somebody who is very much in a hurry comes up behind you, he is not going to honk at you because he knows you're stopped at a red light. You're not the thing that is frustrating his movement. But if you then stay when the light has turned green, he's going to honk very quickly. We say that the shortest measurement of time," he quips, "is from the moment when the light changes until the honking starts behind you." Shinar has measured the time it takes for people in Israel to honk at drivers in front of them, and compared that data with tests conducted abroad. The results are not surprising. Israelis wait significantly less time before honking than in the United States. "People are more edgy and easily frustrated here than they are in the US in general," Shinar says. The other model of driver behavior is not what we intend to do in certain situations (personality tendency), but what drivers are capable of doing in certain situations. This model has to do with reaction time, visual skills and motor coordination, and drivers' ability to focus and divide their attention on the right things at the right time. Researching the effects of cellphone use on the driver behavior model, Shinar argues that the current law limiting the use of cellular phones in cars to hands-free sets is not only wrong, it is actually dangerous. "Cell phones disrupt driving not because they require one hand off the wheel, but because they require attention. There is research that shows that the impairing effect of cellphones [is] pretty much the same whether it's hands-free or hand-held. It doesn't make any difference. The current law is counterproductive because what it does do is give you legitimacy to drive while talking on the phone, lulling you into the belief that it's safe, because otherwise why would they allow it. The law should ban the use of cellular phones altogether if we are concerned about traffic safety." Even Shinar realizes this is unlikely to happen and would be impossible to enforce, as so many people use the phone for business and personal calls that it would greatly reduce productivity if all phones in cars were banned. "On the other hand," he concludes dryly, "if you kill yourself in the process, it's not so cost-effective."