From the tragedy to Vision Zero

How can we prevent deaths at train crossings?

train crash 311 (photo credit: Channel 10)
train crash 311
(photo credit: Channel 10)
How can we achieve Vision Zero – no road deaths at train crossings? Seven members from three generations of the Bernstein family were killed on Thursday, when a train crashed into a minibus whose speeding driver ran a gate that was down on the rail line crossing Route 353 near Kiryat Gat. Only last week, five drivers broke train barriers, and their punishment was a mere fine of hundreds of shekels. Each year, hundreds of drivers play Russian roulette with their human cargo.
Eradicating the epidemic of drivers running train barriers is a straightforward case in the ABCs of injury prevention.
Closed circuit TVs mounted on all crossings will detect and deter reckless violators, whose driving licenses should be permanently revoked. Speed bumps will slow down speedaddicted drivers at every rail crossing. An emergency program can put these measures into effect in a year.
But what about Vision Zero – no road deaths nationwide? Injury epidemiologists have long known what works and what does not work to reduce road deaths among vehicle occupants and pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists everywhere – on our interurban roads and in our cities. And since 1990, we know how many deaths we can expect to prevent with the measures that work. We also have learned, the hard way, how many deaths will be added by taking the wrong measures.
We know that speed kills, that more speed kills more, and that killing speed saves lives. A 10 percent increase in average speeds increases deaths by 45% and a 10% decrease in speeds reduces deaths by 45%.
Strangely, political, academic and legal elites in Israel need to better informed of the life-anddeath implications of this basic fact of physics and biomechanics.
The carnage resulting from the government decision to raise speed limits in 1993 was some 40 to 60 persons per year, or some 400 to 600 over the years.
None other than then-justice Aharon Barak headed a High Court panel that rejected a petition by a group of academics and activists in 1994 asking to cancel the increase in the speed limit, which we called an unethical exercise in human experimentation.
At a recent conference at Mishkenot Sha’ananim on the Ethics of Road Safety, the keynote speaker, a senior professor at the Hebrew University in political science and a recent recipient of the Israel Prize, betrayed near complete ignorance of the science and policy implications of the principle that we have to kill speed because speed kills. Our judges send mixed messages when enforcing speed, drink-driving, and other major laws.
In 1989, following the introduction of system- wide speed camera networks in Australia and the UK, there were abrupt, large and enduring reductions of 45% to 50% in road deaths. The same results were seen in France in 1999. In all three countries, the revenues from fining violators more than paid for developing and operating the system.
Had such cameras been operating in Israel, the allegedly speeding, negligent minibus driver – who had 11 previous violations – would have been removed from the roads a long time ago.
Right now, the Traffic Police are introducing some 20 cameras to our interurban roads in a trial project based on the Australian, British and French models. The Ministries of Finance and Transportation bear responsibility for cutting back the scale of the initial project from 60 cameras, despite the overwhelming evidence for their success in preventing deaths by killing speed.
Cmdr. Avi Ben-Hamu, head of the Israel Police’s Traffic Branch, has been a valiant and fearless fighter for the speed camera network, and deserves the support and appreciation of the public.
But there have been positive developments.
In 2009, road deaths suddenly fell to 354, from 455 in 2008 – a drop of 23%.
Our Center of Injury Prevention, working with data provided by the Traffic Police, teased out answers to the “w5h questions”: who, when, where, which, what and how. The data showed that the drop in deaths was system wide – on interurban and on city roads, and in all categories of road users – vehicle occupants, pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists.
Among vehicle occupants, there was an especially large drop in passengers as compared to drivers – a fact that suggests that rear passengers are finally buckling up.
But what was most striking about this trend is that in just about all of these subgroups, the extreme and fairly sudden large drop in deaths occurred despite no real changes in the total number of crashes and persons injured. In short, crashes were less lethal.
The most plausible explanation for the reduced lethality of the crashes is reduced speeds of impact. My hypothesis is that this large reduction came from a mere 6% to 7% reduction in speeds of impact, in keeping with what is called the fourth power model of the relationship between speed changes and road deaths. My guess is that this trend is the result of slow, steady increases in enforcement of speeding and drinking laws, violations that tend to go together – especially in young drivers at night. Sadly, the downward trend of 2009 seems to have taken a U-turn in 2010, with a 10%-15% increase so far.
Some 100 to 200 speed cameras on our interurban roads – including the Highway 6 toll road – as well as on our urban roads will permanently reduce our annual road deaths to between 200 and 250. Speed cameras, combined with breath testing, will capture many drinking drivers. Cellphone use while driving – a recognized danger –becomes ever more dangerous when those who are using them are driving fast. Speed cameras will also help catch motorcyclists, among whom 39 were killed in 2009.
But speed control is not the whole story. We need to protect pedestrians and cyclists, improve truck driver working conditions, establish a national bike path network, restore the partially repealed bike helmet law and continue to improve pre-hospital trauma care.
Cyclist Shneur Cheshin’s death near Rosh Ha’ayin on June 20 speaks to a distorted sense of priorities in our transport system. The 43- year-old father of three from Tel Aviv had been cycling with a friend when he was struck by a speeding vehicle, which dragged him along the road, in a hit-and-run accident.
One hundred and fourteen pedestrians – including many kids and seniors – were killed in 2009. Everywhere, they can be protected by roundabouts, speed bumps, speed cameras, pedestrian malls and better markings – all low cost measures – which would save about 30 to 40 lives a year. The goal: Reduce in-city speeds to 30 kph where there is heavy pedestrian use.
Fifty-nine people were killed in 2009 from truck crashes. Our truck drivers are ruthlessly exploited. Many work 14 hours or more per day, and are driven by incentive premiums.
The Egged bus cooperative continues to perpetuate the inter-generational transfer of habits of sudden stops and starts. Deaths from trucks and buses hitting smaller vehicles and pedestrians would fall by some 30% –about 18 deaths a year – with tighter organizational safety programs.
But restricting truck traffic in some areas to off hours has already been a help.
Forty people were killed in 2009 in head-on crashes on two-lane roads. All these could be prevented by dividers.
Twenty-four were killed from hitting poles, barriers, and other rigid obstacles. Israel has to either get rid of the booby traps on its roads or retrofit them. These barriers need to be padded. Old tires filled with sand will do the job. The road engineers who sign off on rigid steel poles and other dangerous road furniture (objects and pieces of equipment installed on streets and roads for various purposes), should be prosecuted for contributory negligence to manslaughter every time some one is killed or injured from crashing into a non-forgiving piece of road furniture – or else sentenced to hard labor filling the tires with sand. All 24 need not have been killed.
All the above road improvement measures would cost a fraction of the budget for building more roads, which Israel does not need.
And our train and bus networks need to be improved into a national integrated transport system that simplifies getting from A to B to C, including, in my opinion, on Shabbat.
How many shall live, and how many shall die? Add up the numbers of lives saved from all the above measures and you will see that effective, coherent governmental policy and practice can bring us to Vision Zero – no road deaths. Who shall live and who shall die? Kill your speed, don’t drink before driving, remember that fatigue kills, wear your seat belts and bike helmets, belt your kids, don’t use your cellphone while driving.
Three generations of the Bernsteins are gone forever. The choice is ours – at the national, regional and municipal level – to ensure such a tragedy will not happen again.
Prof. Elihu Richter (, MD, MPH, of the Hebrew University-Hadassah School of Public Health and Community Medicine has worked in research, project development and policy analysis in the epidemiology of road injury for some 35 years. He is currently working on the role of incitement in the prediction and prevention of genocide in Genocide Prevention Now (