BGU, Or Yarok team to examine human causes of road accidents and ways to minimize them

"Compared to the number killed on highways abroad relative to the number of residents, we are one of the safer countries," says BGU professor.

We all know the stereotypes: macho Israelis drive as if they were still in the IDF tank corps, and they do business behind the wheel while holding their cellphones. Accidents are also caused by crowded and narrow roads and inadequate law enforcement. But Dr. Tal Oron-Gilad, a Ben-Gurion University engineer, and Prof. David Shinar, a BGU psychologist and chief scientist of the National Road Safety Authority, are trying, with the aid of a new research center, to find out scientifically what really causes human errors on the road and suggest ways of minimizing them. The new Ran Naor Center for Human Factors in Road Safety was officially established on Thursday by Avi Naor, director of the Or Yarok organization for reducing the human toll of road accidents. Naor, a cofounder of Amdocs, set up the road safety organization a decade ago after his son, after whom the new BGU center is named, died in a road accident. BGU President Prof. Rivka Carmi signed the cooperation agreement with Naor and Or Yarok, which will invest NIS 2 million annually over three years to find out why drivers cause accidents. "We gave high priority to research in this field at the university. We wanted to deepen our existing research, and then [Avi] Naor came with his proposal. It will be much bigger than anything else in the field here. We know that infrastructure and law enforcement problems are also factors, but preventable human error is very important." Shinar, of the university's department of industrial engineering and management, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday that Naor had picked BGU because he was familiar with its work testing devices claimed to improve safety on the roads, as well as ergonomics and the behaviors involved in accidents. The BGU psychologist had been a member of the Or Yarok executive board, where Naor became familiar with his work. "We still don't know if the average Israeli is a bad driver; we don't even know if we are," Shinar said. "Compared to the number killed on highways abroad relative to the number of residents, we are one of the safer countries, but relative to the number of kilometers driven, we are not doing that well. Our infrastructure is not on par with England, France, Denmark or Holland. The US used to be among the safest, but it has lost the lead." Some Israeli drivers, he said - especially young men - are more aggressive than some Americans, but their environments are also different. When an Israeli spends time driving in the US, he will notice American behavior and become more courteous, and when an American drives here, he will also adapt to local behavior and conditions, said Shinar. Women drivers have fewer accidents than men, but men drive more and cover longer distances. Younger men are the worst drivers worldwide, he continued. Adults aged 30 to 65 are the safer drivers, and the accident rate rises beyond pension age. However, the statistics are tricky, as older people are more frail and therefore more likely to be injured and their cases reported to the authorities. It doesn't necessarily mean that they are poorer drivers, he stressed. Oron-Gilad said the new center would conduct joint research with other academic institutions in Israel and abroad and was planning international conferences on the subject. So far, BGU researchers - who, with the new center, can now count on consistent funding rather than seeking out grants for research - have focused on fatigue and how to counteract it. Half of all drivers admit to driving until they are almost incapacitated by fatigue, Oron-Gilad said. "There are electronic sensor devices worn on the head that sound an alarm if the driver nods off and is about to fall asleep at the wheel, but they are not proven, and drivers could regard them as a crutch and drive when sleepy because [the devices] will supposedly wake them," he said. "Theoretically, the best safety device would be a big, sharp tack on the front of the wheel that would pierce the abdomen, but we won't recommend that. Some have suggested computerized trivia games [that can be] listened to while driving," said Shinar. Cellphones, whether held (illegally) or used with a remote microphone attached to the dashboard, are equally unsafe. However, the latter option is legal. "It gives a sense of false security. Even people who have had near-accidents because of phones continue using them. Global Positioning System (GPS) devices that orally give directions do not require continuous attention, but they can also be dangerous, especially when you enter your desired destination," Shinar said. "Factory-installed GPS devices won't allow entering this data when the car is in motion, but most people have separately purchased devices that do [allow it]." The Naor Center has received a 2008 grey Cadillac as a gift from General Motors to use in simulations for testing study participants. These will include students, retirees and others, said Shinar, who admits to using his cellphone by remote in the car, but tries not to, especially in heavy traffic.