Speed cameras - now

Governmental policies are the major determinant of how many shall die on our roads in the new year.

car crash 88 (photo credit: )
car crash 88
(photo credit: )
The High Holy Day mahzor asks: Who shall live, and who shall die? But if it were to ask how many will die on the roads, the answer would likely be some 500 Israelis. Yet Pirkei Avot tells us choice is given. The answer could be close to zero. Here are some personal choices for next year that will determine who shall live and who shall die: Wearing seat belts, not driving over the speed limit, not driving when fatigued or after drinking alcohol, using child restraints for infants, not using a cellphone, and wearing a bike or motorcycle helmet all reduce risks for involvement in fatal crashes probably by some 50 percent. Taking the bus and train reduces risks by 90% to 95%. But those at greatest risk are our children and grandchildren, for whom educational messages have little impact, and professional drivers forced to overwork by their employers. The mission of injury epidemiologists is to predict and prevent. We can now make fairly accurate predictions concerning the risks from the choices we make, not only as individuals, but also as societies. We now know that governmental choices and transport policies and laws are the major determinant of how many shall die on our roads. Israelis already readily internalize coherent safety messages embedded in law, as judged by the better than 90% compliance rate with seat-belt laws. Yet, in Israel, road death tolls have actually risen over the past 15 years - mainly from speed creep and urban sprawl. During these years, tough nationwide speed-camera enforcement reduced deaths by nearly 50% in Australia, and by 40% in the UK and France. Most of the drop was immediate, and the revenues from their operation paid the costs five times over. But Israel's efforts to set up a nationwide program have been wallowing, as a result of lethargy in the Ministries of Transport and the Traffic Police. Some 200 to 250 deaths per year, or 2,500 deaths over the past decade, is the toll from this drift - a sin of omission. CHOICE IS given. We have procrastinated on choices that save lives. Speed-camera networks are to road safety what childhood vaccination programs are to child mortality rates, and their effective operation is a marker of our public concern for human life and our competence in implementing this concern. Israel reduced death tolls from political terror by almost 90% in the past four years. It now needs speed cameras to quickly produce similar large reductions in deaths from road terror. Such reductions will not happen without a nationwide network in speed cameras, for the same reasons that polio cannot be eradicated without compulsory polio vaccinations. The first place to operate such systems is on the Trans Israel Highway, where cameras are already in place to police toll collection. Research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has shown that high travel speeds on this road have made travel several times more dangerous than on the Autobahn, in keeping with predictions of Dr. Gary Ginsberg of the Health Ministry several years ago. Are there sins of commission? On November 21, Transportation Minister Meir Shitreet will decide whether to raise the national speed limit, in keeping with recommendations of the Livne Committee. If he does, with the stroke of a pen he will pass a death sentence on some 40 to 60 Israelis per year. Groups including Metuna, the Hebrew University Injury Prevention Center and the Noam Center at Jerusalem College of Technology, Anashim Ba'adom and Or Yarok have all protested this outrageous recommendation. It's the equivalent of pouring the cholera bacillus into our drinking water. The choice is between burying the recommendations of the Livneh Committee and burying the victims of this unethical exercise in human experimentation. The extreme rise in the price of fuel is an opportunity to be exploited on behalf of road safety, since lower speeds not only save lives, but also conserve fuel, as we discovered during the fuel crisis following the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Yom Kippur is a day for reflection on what life is all about, and its paradoxes and choices. It is the day when traffic deaths in Israel fall to zero. The High Holy Days are when we should reject the paradigm that says loss of life is the price we pay for "progress." Let's instead choose life and define progress as zero road fatalities. The Post recently reported Jaime Lerner's brilliant successes in Curitiba in Brazil, where a free city-wide bus transit system reduced road deaths and rich-poor social gaps in access to mobility, improved quality of life by preventing urban sprawl and promoted prosperity and economic growth. Curitiba chose more life, not more asphalt. The highest Jewish value is the preservation of life. Our failure to reduce our road death toll is a disgrace. The first responsibility of governments is to protect the life and safety of the citizens who vote them into power, and for us as individuals to see that we as a society make the right choices. How many shall live, how many shall die? The choice is ours. The writer, a physician, is head of the Center for Injury Prevention at the Hebrew University-Hadassah School of Public Health.