Comment: A toothless watchdog of the roads

While 2006 saw a 10% reduction in road deaths from 2005, Mofaz doesn't yet deserve the credit.

nir yisrael crash 298 88 (photo credit: Channel 10)
nir yisrael crash 298 88
(photo credit: Channel 10)
The "Or Yarok 5" conference in Tel Aviv last week celebrated the traffic safety lobby's most successful year yet. Not only did 2006 see a 10 percent reduction in road deaths from 2005 (assuming the trend does not change radically in December), but it marked the year of the creation of the National Traffic Safety Authority that will begin work on January 1. "We're here to say that Israel's roads will be arteries of life and not arteries of death," declared Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz in the opening session of the conference on Wednesday night. "The goal isn't [merely] to lower the death toll," he added, "but to touch zero. Every life we save is an entire world." These sentiments, evoking the moral parables of the Talmudic Sages, are unquestionably noble. But Mofaz, the minister who will oversee the operations of the new authority, does not yet deserve credit for saving lives. "Quiet revolutions advance by small steps toward a great goal," Mofaz said. And the new authority, media chatter notwithstanding, is a small step indeed. What began as a concerted effort by some MKs to implement the Sheinin Commission recommendations on road safety was turned by political bickering into a toothless authority with a vague mandate to "integrate" the government agencies concerned with road safety. So much is missing in the new authority compared to the original recommendations of the Sheinin Commission that it looks more like a campaign promise than a major overhaul of Israel's traffic safety policy. As Prof. Ian Johnston, a renowned Australian expert on road safety, told the Or Yarok conference on Thursday, managing a successful road safety strategy requires integration of various authorities and agencies. "Road transport is a system," Johnston said, and advocated a national "systems thinking" policy that brought together such disparate responsibilities as police enforcement of the seat belt law, power companies' placement of roadside poles that claim a significant number of road deaths each year and transportation authorities' establishment of speed limits to each section of roadway. Integration requires regulations that encourage accountability and make it necessary for often competing government agencies to work together. In the Australian province of Victoria, for example, the public insurer, the police and the Transportation Ministry submit the periodic report on traffic safety together as a single integrated document, with all three institutions equally responsible for the report's contents. Yet Israel's new authority, charged on paper with such "integration," does not have the statutory clout to bring together competing agencies. It will therefore be unable to formulate and then enforce a coherent and independent national road safety strategy. Three specific cuts to the authority's powers provide excellent examples of the virtual incapacitation the authority suffered, due to government infighting. One of the primary functions of the authority, according to the National Traffic Safety Authority Law that created it, is to conduct comprehensive research that will guide traffic safety policymaking. Yet, while the authority will have a functioning research institute, it will not have the authority to conduct in-depth investigations of traffic collisions. Following an accident, police investigators are charged with discovering the parties responsible. They do not - and should not - examine the systemic problems, such as infrastructure, vehicle safety, driver awareness, speed policy and the like, that may have led to the crash and will likely cause the next one. Without this basic tool, removed during the legislative process, it is hard to see how the authority can compile the kind of specific, comprehensive data it needs to develop and fine-tune a national policy. The law also does not include the recommended provision enabling the authority to close roads deemed too dangerous for use. The loss of this power, a crucial tool for expediting infrastructure and regulation changes in particularly dangerous sections, means that the most perilous roads in the country will remain in the incompetent hands of the same local authorities responsible for the road's condition in the first place. The third example of the authority's in utero debility is the lack of an independent funding mechanism. As Or Yarok founder Avi Naor noted in opening the conference, "Transportation ministers in the past decade have served an average term of less than a year." With budgets rising and falling, and priorities changing as coalition agreements evolve at breakneck speed, the dependence of the authority on a state budget is a recipe for long-term uncertainty. Yet the Knesset Economics Committee, apparently out of concern over public displeasure, rejected the creation of a driver's license tax that would give the new agency an independent source of income and would free it from the whims of easily distracted politicians. Speaking to The Jerusalem Post on Thursday, Or Yarok CEO Hezi Meshita called the authority "a positive change of direction," since it was "interdisciplinary, with a multi-year plan and a multi-year budget." However, he confided, "Or Yarok hasn't finished its work" and would lobby intensely to add more powers to the committee. Meshita was effectively hinting that the new authority was hardly the agency Or Yarok hoped for all these years. Can an authority stripped of regulatory and investigative powers and financially dependent on its political masters wield the political force needed to unite the competing latifundia of government bureaucracy toward a common goal? Will such an authority be able to set a national road safety strategy and develop the desperately needed action plan that will save hundreds of lives and prevent thousands of injuries each year? If the authority's beginnings are an indication of what is to come, the unfortunate answer is no.