The danger of Israel's roads: Who is to blame?

After a decade of a steady decline in traffic fatalities, Israel has experienced a consistent rise for the past five years.

Tel Aviv traffic (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Tel Aviv traffic
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
In November 2015, Bracha Koren was driving home to Netivot from her nearby job as an English teacher.
Right near the famed burial site of Rabbi Israel Abuhatzeira, the Babi Sali, at the western entrance to the city, a driver traveling in the other direction passed a truck and collided head on with Koren. The father and his two children in the other car were not injured in the crash, but Koren nearly lost her life.
“The doctors didn’t give me a good chance of surviving. I had a broken sternum and ribs, damage to my liver and lungs and my bodily systems were collapsing. I was in a coma for a month and a half,” said Koren in a halting tone as she recounted the harrowing period after the accident.
Koren defied the odds and emerged from the coma, but her life since then has been a series of operations, a long rehab stay at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, and continuing day treatment at the Aleh Negev center in Netivot. She has cognitive impairment, which has resulted in memory problems – including much of her English, which had been her livelihood. She manages to get around with a walker, which she hopes to leave behind some day.
“I hardly sleep anymore. I’m full of anxiety and constantly suffer from pain. My quality of life has been seriously damaged. I was always a very calm person and today I’m a bundle of nerves,” she said.
Koren considers herself lucky though. About 13 years ago, her father was killed near the same spot when another driver sped through a red light and crashed into him. He joined the road fatality statistics that have recently seen a worrisome uptick.
For the decade 2002-2012, there was a 47% decrease in road deaths – from 548 in 2002 to 290 in 2012. Since then, the number of fatalities on Israel’s roads has counter-intuitively made a drastic U-turn. The number rose to 356 in 2015 and last year reached 371 – an almost 28% increase in only four years during a time when the stated goal of the Transportation Ministry was a 5% annual decrease. So far this year, as of March 28, 76 people died on the roads, compared to 73 last year.
Tel Aivv Street (Marc Israel Sellem)Tel Aivv Street (Marc Israel Sellem)
The stats are counter-intuitive because during that same period, just about everything surrounding driving and road safety improved; there are better safety features installed in cars, like the much-celebrated Mobileye warning system; the quality of roads in Israel continues to improve with ambitious infrastructure projects; and the emergency medical treatment here is among the best in the world.
So, what could be the reason for Israel’s 180º detour toward higher traffic fatalities? There’s no real need to cite statistics or surveys when determining whether Israelis are cautious drivers; a half hour out on the roads will dispel any such notion.
Passing on the right, ignorance of the function of the blinker lever, tailgating and weaving are par for the racing course that defines Israel’s roads. Going the speed limit? Forget it, unless you want to be stared at with incredulous looks or unceremoniously left in the dust on both sides. A fellow driver slowing down to give you the right of way or allow you to cut in will surely be a sign that the messianic age is at hand.
The situation could be darkly comic, except for the fact that it’s deadly serious. However, the experts who are professionally involved in examining road fatalities don’t attribute the rise in victims to the driving habits of Israelis. They all point to one factor that has changed for the worse amid the better technology, roads and treatment – less police presence on the roads.
MOST ISRAELIS are familiar with the name and face of Shmuel Aboav, the kindly looking, soft-spoken public face on TV and radio campaigns for Or Yarok (Green Light), the association for safer driving in Israel that was established in 1997. Aboav recently stepped down as the non-profit’s CEO, but in an interview with The Jerusalem Post Magazine before his departure, he placed the blame for the “national failure” on decreased police enforcement and presence on the nation’s roads.
“For 10 years we succeeded impressively, and for the last five years we have failed. While everything from roads to car safety technology to medical treatment has improved drastically, the one thing that has deteriorated is law enforcement,” said Aboav.
“Five years ago, there were more than 300 traffic police mobile units on the roads; they’ve been reduced to 100. Five years ago, there were more than 400 traffic policemen; now there are fewer than 300. The budget going to traffic police was reduced from NIS 100 million annually to NIS 30m.”
Aboav added that the Israel National Road Safety Authority, the Transport and Road Safety Ministry wing that is pegged to implement road safety measures, had plans to install 300 cameras at the most dangerous spots on the country’s roads, but so far only 100 have been installed.
“For all those reasons, according to surveys that we conduct in an ongoing manner, the public doesn’t feel any police presence and doesn’t believe that they’ll be caught if they speed or SMS while driving,” said Aboav, laying blame on the ministry and its minister Israel Katz.
“For years, the ministry has focused on big projects, the development of new roads, interchanges and the like, and we have seen the impressive results around the country. Yet in that same time, the Israel National Road Safety Authority was supposed to have invested NIS 400m. annually in the ‘red’ roads, the most dangerous spots. However, it turns out they only earmarked NIS 200m. Our claim is that it was possible to improve twice the number of dangerous accident spots, in addition to the large projects they undertook. Transportation Ministry surveys show that in the dangerous spots that have been improved, there has been a 50% reduction in accidents,” said Aboav.
According to Aboav, to add 300 patrols, train 300 students to man the patrols and add another 200 cameras would require a budget of NIS 80m. The cost of all accidents in Israel each year surpasses NIS 15 billion.
“Not only is it the right thing to do morally, it also makes economic sense,” he said.
Earlier this year, the Transport and Road Safety Ministry issued a statement that appeared to try to absolve itself for the spike in road deaths.
“The ministry is working continually to reduce the number of road injuries, but it must be remembered that safety enforcement is the area of responsibility of the Israel Police and the Public Security, Ministry, and that the Transport and Road Safety Ministry has no responsibility in the matter,” said the statement.
A woman walks nest to a light rail sign. (Marc Israel Sellem)A woman walks nest to a light rail sign. (Marc Israel Sellem)
IN ATTEMPTING to speak to Katz, three different Transportation Ministry spokespeople were involved with passing the buck before the final one referred all questions to Giora Rom, the director of the Israel National Road Safety Authority.
Rom offered a similar reason to Aboav’s for the rise in road fatalities, pointing to reduced police enforcement, but he also added a twist – there are more roads and more cars on them every year.
“The number of accidents is a function of the total kilometers of roads – and that rises by about 2% every year,” said Rom, who has served as the authority’s chairman since May 2016.
He emphasized that the authority, which works under the direct supervision of Katz, is developing long-term programs in three areas that have been identified as being involved in a high percentage of accidents – Arab drivers, pedestrians and trucks and buses.
“Arabs constitute 20% of the population, but they are involved in 33% of road casualties. The same is true for pedestrians – 30% of casualties are pedestrians, which is much higher than most countries in the EU, for example. While trucks and buses represent less than 10% of the vehicles on the roads, they are responsible for about 20% of traffic accidents,” he said.
In each of those spheres, Rom said that the authority is building a coalition “from the bottom up” of both government and civilian bodies that will attempt to reverse the trend, but he admits it will take time.
“We’re talking about a sociological change and an educational process,” he said, adding that it will only work if it’s combined with more stringent enforcement on the roads.
“I know there are efforts within the police and Public Security Ministry to change things around and add more budget, but you should really ask them how they allowed themselves to reduce the number of police patrols while people are dying more and more on the roads.”
Neither a representative from the Israel Police or the Public Security Ministry headed by Gilad Erdan had any interest in being interviewed about the subject, but the police did send a statement decrying the reduced budget over recent years to combat accidents that “has created an absurd situation in which the amount of traffic on Israel’s roads is inversely proportional to its budget. In other words, as the number of cars on the road and length of roads has increased, the budget has been cut.”
According to the statement, the 2016 budget was increased by NIS 30 m. following an agreement between the Public Security Ministry and the Finance Ministry, and other resources from within the Israel Police budget were allocated to reinforce this traffic police division.
“These funds will enable the department to overcome the challenges it currently faces through an additional 200 student positions and 126 police patrol cars,” said the statement, adding that Doron Yedid, the head of the Traffic Division of the Israel Police, will be implementing a program in the coming months that will increase fines for traffic infractions with a goal of creating a deterrence in an attempt to alter the Israeli driver’s habits on the roads.
Erdan did address the subject at a traffic safety conference sponsored by Or Yarok at the end of March, where he revealed the impending establishment of a new traffic police unit involving 22 officers and five vehicles to specifically monitor trucks and buses, which are involved in a high percentage of road accidents. The unit will include undercover detectives who will document the behavior of bus drivers.
According to Erdan, efforts to double the number of traffic police patrols are currently under way, and since last year there has been a significant increase in the police presence on the roads.
“The Traffic Police is in the midst of a historic recruitment drive of hundreds of police and students that will greatly bolster enforcement on the roads,” said Erdan, adding that there had been a 134% increase in traffic-related arrests and a 64% increase in the number of cars being taken off the roads due to violations.
“We will show zero tolerance toward repeat offenders.”
AFTER HEARING from the bodies and officials tasked with keeping our roads safe, the overlying impression is that after the decade of success in lowering traffic fatalities, there was a sense that maybe the situation had improved because of the better roads, better technology and… better drivers. Why keep spending all that money on patrols, cameras and enforcement – we’ve solved the problem.
It’s taken the five-year backlash to pound in the fact that the problem is still there. The dramatic rise in traffic deaths in the last five years has seemed to activate reactions among all the relevant bodies, but efforts to reach a cohesive plan aren’t helped by the feeling that there are often adversarial relationships at play, especially between the Transport and Road Safety Ministry and Or Yarok.
Katz canceled an appearance at the Or Yarok conference and issued a statement claiming that the organization actively worked to undermine the ministry’s authority by “using false data and completely ignoring the facts while cooperating with businesses with a vested interest.”
He told Army Radio that Or Yarok had become “a political entity in every way, whose role is to attack the government and the Transportation Ministry in particular.”
“I have no intention of working with Or Yarok… The Transportation Ministry, along with the National Road Safety Authority, will continue to work in promoting road safety to prevent accidents,” he said.
Katz’s traffic authority representative Rom, on the other hand, said he is happy to cooperate with Or Yarok, but conceded that its analysis of the cause of the spike in road deaths is not necessarily the same as the authority’s.
“At the end of the day, we are the government and they are an NGO.”
DESPITE THE wheels set in motion by all the ministries, organizations and authorities to lower the carnage on the roads after five years of runaway rises, the buck ultimately stops with the driver.
All the law enforcement, early warning technology and financial deterrents aside, some drivers have demonstrated that they’ll still revert to their worst inclinations given the opportunity.
But are the driving habits of Israelis really that different from drivers anywhere else? Or Yarok’s Aboav thinks not.
“I don’t think that drivers are more reckless here. We shouldn’t blame them,” he said. “Drivers in Israel don’t have different genes than those in England or France. Humans wake up and they make mistakes. There’s no reason that a mistake like talking on the phone or sending an SMS while driving should result in a death sentence – that’s too cruel.
“We have to ask what the responsibility of the government is to its citizens. Cars with driver warning technology save lives. Police road traps save lives. We have to create an environment that prevents the dangerous behavior of drivers.”
Giora Rom demurred from targeting Israeli drivers as being worse than others, but acknowledged that the behavior of some drivers on the roads is the biggest problem, not infrastructure or enforcement.
“It’s a process. It requires a sociological change, and that takes time,” he said, adding that early warning systems are a godsend.
“I think that any smart driver would be eager to install a system in their car, and we should encourage all car owners to do so. The Transport and Road Safety Ministry has already established a regulation requiring trucks over a certain weight to have them installed, and I would like to see that regulation expanded to all vehicles.”
Even if the requested budgets for more enforcement were granted, early warning systems became mandatory and every dead man’s curve in the country was rectified, it still probably wouldn’t have helped Bracha Koren.
Her accident in 2015 was caused by a driver who had a number of prior accidents and who had recently gone through rehab himself. Koren said that the driver was never arrested or charged with a crime, and that as far as she knows, he didn’t visit her following the accident, although his mother and brother both stopped by during her rehab process.
She said that she isn’t bitter though, and expends her energy instead on her physical therapy and the logistics of dealing with insurance companies, approval forms, payments and doctors’ appointments.
“I know that my shoulders and my ankles will get better after some more operations, but there are some things that will never heal as a result of the accident.”