Road rage: Why are Israelis taking their lives in their hands?

SOCIAL AFFAIRS: Road rage has turned into the scourge of the country and it will be hard to stop.

 THE FUNERAL of Yuri Volkov who was stabbed to death during a road rage incident in Holon last month (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)
THE FUNERAL of Yuri Volkov who was stabbed to death during a road rage incident in Holon last month
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

On Sunday, as she was waiting at a red light at a major Jerusalem intersection, Nurit – who asked that her real name not be used – was threatened with murder.

She had just dropped off her eight-year-old son at school, just like every other Sunday, and was waiting for the light to turn green when the man in the car behind her began honking his horn wildly.

The light had not even changed yet and behind me I heard crazy honking,” said Nurit, 50.

At the time, though – when she was still living in a universe of normative reality – after the driver signaled her to stop, she did, thinking innocently that he wanted to talk to her. She rolled down her window and suddenly her ordinary morning routine turned into a nightmare:

“He started cursing me and trying to get into my car. Lucky for me he didn’t try to open the door – I don’t know why he didn’t, but he came at me through the passenger’s side window and got halfway into my car, trying to beat me, as I tried to close the window, and there was so much cursing with hard words, and he shouted at me: ‘I will kill you, I will stab you directly in your heart.’

 THE ROADS in Israel have become rife with violent attacks by drivers on other drivers (credit: FLASH90) THE ROADS in Israel have become rife with violent attacks by drivers on other drivers (credit: FLASH90)

“I was in shock. I couldn’t do anything. This went on for some time as I tried to close the window and he tried to get in.

“Then he suddenly left, after photographing me and my car, and said: ‘I know who you are, I know where you live; you won’t stay alive. I was sure I was going to die; he had so much rage in his eyes. I can’t understand how someone can get to that point.

“The crazy thing of it all is that I was in such a state of shock that, when it was all over – it lasted a few minutes – I just sat there. And when the light changed I continued to drive like nothing had happened until I realized tears were rolling down my cheeks and I was trembling uncontrollably. I had to pull over; I couldn’t drive anymore,” she said. “What a crazy experience.”

The violent incident, which has shaken her to the core, is not an isolated incident, as anyone who regularly drives on Israel’s roads or pays attention to the news knows.

The stabbing of Yuri Volkov

The threat to stab her in the heart came only a few days after a motorcyclist killed pedestrian Yuri Volkov, 52, instantly by stabbing him in his heart.

The shocking November 23 stabbing of Volkov, who worked at Ichilov Hospital, was documented on security camera footage, which shows a motorcyclist cutting off Volkov and his wife, Lena, on a pedestrian crosswalk in Holon.

The suspect, 22-year-old Adi Mizrahi, who has admitted to the crime, was originally charged with manslaughter until a public outcry, when the charges were changed to murder.

According to Volkov’s widow’s account, she started to take pictures after the crosswalk incident and Mizrahi yelled at her, demanding she delete them. Even though she did so, he took out a sharp instrument and stabbed her husband directly in the heart before driving off.

After that incident, social media video accounts surfaced of other recent attacks:

One video from about a month ago shows a motorcyclist – suspected attacker Arik Greenfeld, 37, who, according to Hebrew media reports, has previous criminal convictions related to road violence – pummeling another driver with his motorcycle helmet during an altercation in the middle of rush hour traffic on Tel Aviv’s Ayalon Highway, continuing to kick him when he was down.

The victim was hospitalized in intensive care with fractures to his skull and intracranial bleeding. Greenfeld, who said he acted in self-defense, was charged with aggravated assault.

Another video, of an incident from two weeks ago, shows a fight between two motorists cursing and shoving each other on Highway 431 in central Israel. One of the two men pulls out a knife and punctures two tires on the car of the other driver, who puts up his hands in surrender and walks away from the suspect threatening him with the knife.

A suspect from Bat Yam was detained by police and then released, though charges are to be brought against him, according to media reports.

And now, at the beginning of this week, a 50-year-old woman reported that a man driving in front of her got out of his car in the middle of the road in the city of Rishon Lezion, also in central Israel, and threatened her with a knife through her car window, telling her she didn’t know how to drive, according to media reports. A 20-year-old suspect has been arrested in that case.

“To say to someone: ‘I will stab you in your heart, you will not stay alive’ – until today I am in shock,” said Nurit. “Luckily, I had just dropped off my son at school, because that would not have stopped him. He would have done the same thing over my son’s head. He was a young man, around 30 years old, driving a jeep.... It is disgusting. It was in the middle of a major intersection. He had stopped in the middle of traffic, but nobody tried to interfere, to calm him down. Maybe I can understand why. This is what we have become; this is the face of society. The violence has come onto the streets.”

Despite a new campaign by police calling on people to report any such incidents they have experienced, she is too frightened to go to the police, Nurit said, although friends and family have also urged her to do so. Since the incident took place in a major intersection, she is certain the attack was photographed by security cameras, but she is afraid of the police doing nothing, and the case file being closed, and the attacker knowing who she is and possibly coming after her.

She had to seek mental health support after the incident, she said.

Israel Police declined to be interviewed for this article. “You can’t imagine the amount of rage that there must be in someone that he can pop a fuse so much in a matter of seconds that he can kill someone,” she said.

Road violence has always been a part of driving in Israel

ROAD VIOLENCE has always been a part of driving in Israel, said Oz Dror, vice president for communication and strategy for road safety organization Or Yarok. Social media are just allowing far more, faster and wider publication of the incidents.

“The road is a part of our society, and if we have violence in our society, that will spill off into our streets,” said Dror. “The atmosphere in Israel has begun to be more violent, in the conversations, in the line in the supermarket, in the relationship between people, on social media. You can go out into the field and feel it. Sadly, this resulted in the loss of life, but [the death of Volkov] is not the first time this has happened.”

According to police statistics, they have opened 1,367 cases of road violence this year, compared to 1,112 cases in 2020, he said.

Research by the American Psychological Association in 2014 suggests that young males are the ones most likely to commit violence on the roads, with environmental factors such as crowded roads, displaced anger and high life stress also linked to road violence.

Still, among the statistics pointing to an increase of violent incidents on the roads, a survey conducted by Or Yarok in August 2022 showed a 50% increase from five years ago, when only 20% of the respondents said they had seen a physically violent altercation at least one time on the road. In 2022 the number was 48%. Five percent of respondents said they had encountered such an altercation more than six times in the past year. Some 92% reported seeing at least once one vehicle cutting off another vehicle, or riding on their back. A further 79% reported they encountered verbal violence (curses) and threatening movements at least once in the past year; 16% encountered this phenomenon more than six times.

Nevertheless, he said, most drivers in Israel are good drivers who follow the law, but there are those few drivers who spoil the whole pot. Some people come to the roads already angry, and if they are stuck in a traffic jam, they try to cut in front, or cut from the side, and others see that and want to do it, too.

And though many times fingers are pointed to the “Wild West” feel of the roads in the South with drivers from the Bedouin sector, notably these recent incidents of road violence have all been in central Israel and on the Ayalon, said Dror. The issues of the wildness on the roads in the south are connected to different problems, and not to the issue of road violence, he said.

Indeed, the roads in Israel in general, said Dror, are not a pleasant place to be on with their traffic jams, stressed-out drivers and – most importantly – insufficient number of traffic police units. In all of Israel, there are only 250 traffic police cars monitoring what happens on the roads, he said, when there should be at least 450.

“It’s like a classroom without a teacher,” he said. “It is chaos.”

Following COVID-19, Israelis have been left with less patience, more anger and more stress, and more traffic jams, he said, and when all that gets behind the driving wheel on the roads, it is a recipe for disaster.

The role of a significant presence of traffic police on the road is to create an acknowledgment among drivers that there is someone keeping an eye on things, he said.

“The bottom line is that when someone gets on the road and doesn’t see any police, they allow themselves to behave this way... they have no fear of being caught,” he said. “In Israel you can drive for hours and hours and not see any police on the road, so people think: Okay, I can do what I want.”

Although at Volkov’s funeral Itamar Ben-Gvir promised a stronger and tougher police force, Dror noted that the police do not have to be stronger or tougher to deal with road violence; they just need to be present.

Surveys show that when people see police on the roads, they have an understanding of how they should behave, he said. The surveys also show that every meeting between the police and a driver, even if just to check the driver’s license, leaves the driver with the awareness that he is not alone on the road. When drivers see police on the road, they slow down, put their phones aside, and are more mindful of their driving behavior, he said.

“That is the purpose of police units; they create more awareness and understanding that you are not alone on the road,” he said.

But all the responsibility should not be put on the police, said Bar-Ilan University’s Prof. Tova Rosenbloom, head of the Research Institute of Human Factors in Road Safety of the Management Department. The courts also play a role in the lax attitude toward road violence, when they mete out light sentences for violent altercations on the road.

“Enforcement is always important, but also the [punishment]. But this problem doesn’t only exist in Israel. In many traffic courts around the world, judges give up very easily, or the cases come up for judgment only after many years,” she said.

“We need effective and intelligent government [policies]. The government needs to be focused in a specific way on the situation, but that does not mean that the police are weak today. We do not need a police of force; we need a police of brains.”

The situation regarding road violence — and violence in general in the educational system, in the health system — in Israel is very similar to what is happening in other countries of the world, she added, even those with presumably less stress than Israel.

“Israel is not unique in that. You see it also in Europe and especially in the US, where they coined the term ‘road rage.’ It could be that this is just human nature,” she said. “There are crowded roads, egos – but nothing justifies the violence. Israelis don’t have more aggressive or bigger egos than other countries in the world. There are countries that are very similar [to Israel in this way], like Italy, France and Greece.”

But in addition to the “law and order” approach to the issue, Dror said, the key to releasing the tensions on the road is to create a sufficient and efficient system of public transportation – both intercity and intracity – to entice people to get out of their cars and let someone else do the driving.

“If public transportation is faster and more comfortable, people will leave their cars at home and will use the bus and train every day,” he said. “That is one of the most effective ways to avoid road violence.”

In the meantime, until that day comes, Nurit said she is keeping her distance from other drivers.

“Today, whoever wants to cut me off, they can cut me off; if they want to honk their horn, they can honk,” she said. “I will not react. I will not roll down my window for anyone.”