Analysis: An unforgivable act in an unforgiving situation

The bus driver took extreme and unnecessary risks - risks that were obviously dangerous.

bus accident 248 88 (photo credit: Uzi Barak/Kav Press)
bus accident 248 88
(photo credit: Uzi Barak/Kav Press)
"The road was very narrow, but for some reason our driver decided to overtake [the other bus]. People were cut to pieces," Natalia Gavrilova, a Russian tourist who survived Tuesday's horrible bus crash near Eilat, said from her hospital bed. Three factors influence any driving situation: the road, the car and the driver. Newer roads and modern cars are built to be "forgiving" - engineered to account for driver error and to increase the chance that such errors won't necessarily result in an accident. But if we are to believe what the surviving passengers aboard the doomed tour bus told the media - that their driver was drag-racing the bus in front of them and generally being aggressive - driver "error" can be ruled out here, and more forgiving engineering probably wouldn't have made a difference. In Israel, newer roads are built with safety in mind and include hard side rails and, in many places, broad shoulders. Unfortunately the desert road winding down to Eilat is not one of these. The are also restrictions on drivers' speed, which seem to have been ignored in this case. According to Dr. David Shinar, chief scientist of the National Road Safety Authority, there was a convergence of three factors that made this accident unforgiving in the extreme. First, the road: The serpentine route from Netafim to Eilat, with its steep declines and sharp turns, gives very little protection against being hurled over the cliff into rocky ravines. The road usually does not have much traffic on it, a factor that invites some drivers to speed. Second, the bus: Unlike private passenger vehicles, buses are not padded with airbags, and many do not have seat belts. It has been proven that seat belts reduce life-threatening injuries, since they keep passengers from flying out of vehicles and hitting hard objects outside. Wearing a seat belt also reduces the chances that passengers will hit objects inside the vehicle, like the dashboard and windshield. Many new passenger vehicles have various electronic alerts and stabilizers that increase the driver's control of the vehicle. The bus in question did not. Third, the driver: According to eyewitness accounts of the accident, and even Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz's assessments, the bus driver took extreme and unnecessary risks - risks that were obviously dangerous. This was not driver error - which could result from distractions and take the form of forgetting to signal or missing blind spots - but driver violation. The risk this driver took in attempting to overtake the bus in front of him was a calculated act that was either an underappreciation of the actual risk or a tremendous overconfidence in his driving capabilities. The driver performed a dangerous act on an unforgiving road unsuited to that type of maneuver, and the driver should have known that. According to eyewitness accounts from the bus, the driver's behavior was more akin to drag racing than to responsible driving. The driver in question also had 22 past traffic violations, although a correlation between violations and crash risk although drawing a correlation between violations and crash risk is a statistically untenable proposition, Shinar said. According to Shinar, however, there will now be an effort to measure the suitability of professional driving candidates by cross-referencing their previous violations. Shinar, an international authority on hazard perception, accident analysis and driver behavior, is also the George Shrut professor of human performance at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, where he heads the Driving Research Laboratory. He says it could be possible to learn more about these types of drivers by mining government databases, and to then institute legislation banning certain people from obtaining commercial driving licenses. People who have accrued violations for aggressive driving, for instance, could be targeted. Aggressive driving can happen whenever one person impedes another's movement. This is also true of aggressive behavior in general. Aggression is usually the end-product of frustration over not reaching a goal. If you're standing at a red light and somebody 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 what is frustrating his movement. But if you then don't move immediately when the light has turned green, he's going to honk right away. In the race to get to the roadblock at the entrance to Eilat, the driver whose bus overturned may have felt frustrated by the bus in front of him. The reason he might have felt this way with at least 5 km. to go before the barrier remains a mystery at this stage, but it can only attest to his level of frustration. Again, however, this behavior has nothing to do with mobility, but with psychological pressures. What can be done to contain the beast within the Israeli driver? First, there is an urgent need to improve the licensing criteria for professional commercial drivers. One obstacle to doing so is that these drivers are not paid much - the average monthly salary of a commercial driver is somewhere around NIS 4,000, and much of that is made up of tips. As such, commercial bus driving is not a prestigious vocational choice that attracts quality personnel. "Sometimes you're scraping the bottom of the barrel," Shinar says. Paying drivers more could attract better people, but as always, budgetary constraints determine where money is spent. Perhaps money should be spent on putting seat belts on all buses, although statistically this action does not pass a cost-benefit analysis - and whose to say that all passenger would wear them? Second, the road to Eilat could be improved and expanded to make two lanes in both directions, which would make overtaking simpler and safer. But the obstacle here is again money: These kinds of projects are only undertaken if and when the traffic volume on the road in question merits the investment. Current traffic volume on the Eilat road does not justify this expense. The NRSA has decided to launch its own independent investigation into Tuesday's crash. Through computerized simulations and other techniques, it will attempt to determine what the impact on the accident would have been had all the passengers been wearing seat belts. Third, and perhaps most importantly, commercial bus drivers could undergo a more stringent analysis of their previous violations, including speeding, illegal passing and even parking violations - items that show they have little respect for society's rules. If, through database mining, patterns of driving violations can be picked up, a clearer profile can be constructed of potentially dangerous drivers. Furthermore, medical and psychological records can be better vetted to examine drivers applying for commercial licenses. Currently all applicants for this type of license must be approved by the Health Ministry's Medical Institute for Highway Safety. For more of Amir's articles and blog entries, see his personal blog Forecast Highs.