Road kill

Children are dying on Jerusalem's roads. It doesn't have to be that way.

road accident 88 (photo credit: )
road accident 88
(photo credit: )
The item in last month's Jerusalem Post was terse. Ro'i Leifer, 30, and his two-month-old son Tomiya, were returning to the mobile home that he and his wife had recently rented in nearby Moshav Bar Giora, after doing early morning errands in Betar Illit. According to an initial investigation, a van hit their car from behind, sending it spinning into an oncoming bus. Both father and son were pronounced dead at the scene. Police notified Leifer's wife, who was waiting for her family to return home. In 2004, 1,859 people were involved in car accidents in Jerusalem and its environs, many of them pedestrians. Twenty-nine people were killed - 20 of them pedestrians. More people died on the streets of Jerusalem during 2004 than in any other city in Israel, according to the annual road accident report from the National Road Safety Authority. The capital's 2004 road death toll was over twice the nation's second-highest figure of 14 in Tel Aviv, which dropped from 28 in 2003. The report further showed that the 29 fatalities in Jerusalem during 2004 contrast to the 15 fatalities in 2003 - although experts found it difficult to explain the spike. Although there was an almost even number of accidents in both the east and west parts of the city, this statistic is misleading. According to the National Road Safety Authority Information Center, since there is a smaller population in the east, the numbers in that half of the city are proportionally higher. An unreasonable number of these fatalities are children. "More children die on the roads than from anything else in the country, which is absolutely unacceptable," says Zelda Harris, director of public relations for Metuna, a volunteer road safety organization. Yet it is perhaps another sad comment that neither the Jerusalem Municipality nor the Transportation Ministry were able to provide In Jerusalem with more specific numbers or specific data regarding child traffic fatalities, despite repeated requests. Experts all agree that it doesn't have to be this way but the lack of infrastructure, a shortage of funding and parental neglect all combine to put our children at risk. Infrastructure, often thought of as necessary for drivers, is no less necessary for pedestrian safety, as the numbers of pedestrian fatalities proves. But infrastructure improvement and even maintenance have dwindled due to budget cuts. And even crosswalks, unless combined with other measures, including lighting, sidewalks, railings, signs, paint, gradations and other measures, cannot ensure safe crossing. According to a report by the Central Bureau of Statistics, of all the pedestrians injured while crossing the street, 57 percent were injured while crossing at a crosswalk. Forty-five percent of the children (ages 0-14) injured while crossing the street were also injured at crosswalks. These problems are compounded by Jerusalem's topography and history, which have resulted in narrow convoluted roads that are substandard and a far cry from the ideal of straight and flat roads. And while the infrastructure situation in west Jerusalem is glum, it is even worse in east Jerusalem and in some haredi areas. In areas such as Beit Yisrael, children can move from the slow, narrow, streets of their neighborhood to the multi-lane fast moving traffic of Route One with just a few steps. In addition, drivers coming off the faster roads bring "spill-over speed," a tendency to keep driving fast, into the slower residential streets. Residents in Romema and along Rehov Bar-Ilan suffer from the same effect off Rehov Yirmiyahu. In east Jerusalem, Beit Hanina, Shu'afat and Jabl Mukaber have the same problem of proximity to fast moving traffic. Nationwide, Arabs, who account for close to 20% of the national population, accounted for 23% of those injured in traffic accidents and 26% of those killed. The numbers for children are much worse. Twenty-six Arab children were killed in accidents in 2003 - comprising 54% of all the children who died in accidents that year. And experts warn that the numbers may actually be larger in Jerusalem, because not all accidents are reported. Some survivors or even passersby may take a child directly to a hospital in Jerusalem, the police may never receive notification, and the child's death will not even make it into the official statistical listings. According to the National Road Safety Authority, rear seatbelt use, a proven life-saver and a legal requirement, is at an abysmally low 40%. In their most recent report, the authority states, "…if all the passengers and drivers involved in crashes in 2004 had been wearing seatbelts, at least 30 lives would have been saved." Yet according to a federal survey described by Yitzhak Kadman, the founder and director of the National Council for the Welfare of the Child, 50% to 80% of children, especially in the city, are not using seatbelts while someone is driving. This is, he says, particularly true in Jerusalem. "There is no question that enforcing this law would decrease the number of injuries and fatalities to children," said Kadman. "But authorities currently do little to enforce it." Jerusalem has other difficulties, particularly in the Arab and haredi sectors, including overcrowding in vehicles and use of unauthorized mini-buses and vans to transport children to school. Since transportation costs are no longer covered, in most cases, by the municipality, parents, already pressed to pay high school costs, often turn a blind eye as drivers illegally crowd three children or more in a space meant for two. Needless to say, these children are not belted up, either. "In Jerusalem the haredim use illegal or irresponsible mini-buses," Kadman accuses. "They [the drivers] load the car with children above the number allowed with some very problematic cars that aren't safe. This sector in particular is facing problems of getting children safely to educational facilities." Yet despite the structural and human obstacles, some organizations are attempting to change the situation. The Education Ministry has instituted several programs to educate elementary and junior high school students about road safety and other programs beginning as early as kindergarten. The Jerusalem Municipality maintains an Office for Road Safety, divided into sectors according to locale and culture. However, while the municipality was forthcoming regarding the office's numerous activities, no official at the municipality was willing to provide In Jerusalem with information regarding the office's current or future funding. Among its various responsibilities, the office coordinates complaints from schools and parents regarding necessary infrastructure repairs in areas close to schools. "I try to give them a rapid response because children are more likely to get hurt," says Diana Kogan, office director. "I have more and more people talking to us with more requests." The office conducts conferences with teachers, principals and drivers from the mini-buses. She advises them to talk to the students and parents about wearing safety belts and hiring authorized drivers. She reminds parents - "To think about the children, not just about the money." Her office, however, has no authority over these transportation businesses. The office distributes fliers in Hebrew, Arabic and English for parents at school and also pays for theatrical shows on road safety, which appear at schools throughout the city, in Hebrew and in Arabic. "I can't compete with mathematics or science, but I can reach [the students and parents] culturally," notes Kogan. The department also maintains a center for teaching road safety, where children from the four through sixth grades come for four hours, once a year, to learn how to ride a bicycle safely on a model roadway. [See box]. And in an effort to increase awareness and motivation, Kogan's office evens sponsors a contest at the end of the school year, awarding a monetary prize to schools in each sector (Arab, secular and religious) that have instituted their own best road safety programs. This year's award ceremony will take place June 19. Other organizations have also enlisted in the attempt to teach children and teens about road safety. Last year, Hadassah-University Medical Center initiated a program to show teenagers what the absence of road safety can cause. In four-hour sessions, high school students hear first-hand accounts from accident survivors. They speak with surgeons, orthopedic doctors, a social worker and other professionals who show what accident victims and their families undergo during the recovery. The different components of the day are intended to combine to make students understand the necessity of safe driving and emphasize that an accident has many victims, direct and indirect. Yet despite the concern professed by the authorities, it was budget cuts and reallocation of funds that put an end to a demonstrably successful program that consultant Katz had initiated in the neighborhood of Neveh Ya'acov. With money provided by the National Road Safety Authority, Katz improved the infrastructure in the neighborhood by putting up barriers and conducting campaigns. He sold booster seats at whole-sale prices, gave children who wore helmets a ticket for a free ice cream and worked with schools and community councils to educate about road safety. In 1996, when Katz began his program, the death toll on the roads in Neveh Ya'acov was among the highest in the city - an intolerable 26 for that year alone. By 2002 the number of deaths related to car accidents had dropped to zero. But then the program was stopped, and the numbers have risen again, but never back to the 1996, pre-program, levels. "You have to beat people over the head with this," Katz concludes. "It takes a number of years to be protected toward road safety." Currently, some sixth grade schoolchildren do participate in a program called Zahav, where they act as crossing guards for their fellow schoolmates. Similarly, Metuna also runs the Kol Hayeladim program to prevent child-related accidents. Kol Hayeladim has children speak about their concerns toward driving and the roads. Aside from having professionals work with them, the children also are encouraged to use creative methods to express their worries and in offering solutions. Metuna has also begun to sponsor the Vision Zero Jerusalem Project in 14 Jerusalem neighborhoods, designed to raise awareness about road safety and to stop car accidents. Vision Zero is active in six Arab communities and eight haredi communities. Similar to Katz's Neveh Ya'acov project, this project also uses four components to change the numbers injured or killed: infrastructure improvements, education, local committees and safety campaigns. Yet paradoxically, these programs place much of the burden of safety on the child, rather than on the responsible adults and authorities. And all the safety precautions children learn may not protect against a speeding car. Israel does not have cameras that catch accidents at traffic lights, and the cameras at Jerusalem's main intersections serve primarily to observe the flow of traffic, according to Kogan. Yet the National Road Safety Authority says that speeding was the most common cause of fatal crashes in 2004. Harris, an indefatigable warrior for road safety, sums up the current situation. "Pedestrians should have enough things to protect them from being killed - railings, signs, and clearly-painted crosswalks. Even paint and signs could cut the number of deaths. "No one in a city should be killed." Erika Snyder contributed to this report.