Death on the roads

The 46-victim increase in road deaths from 2014 to 2015 was greater than the number of Israelis murdered by terrorists over the past few months.

Police car at crime scene (photo credit: SHLOMI)
Police car at crime scene
(photo credit: SHLOMI)
A session of the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee last week afforded the opportunity for its members and guests to express their alarm at last year’s spike in road fatalities to 355. Chairman Eitan Cabel (Zionist Union) declared: “The danger facing Israeli citizens on the roadways is worse than any security threat.”
This hyperbole was obvious to Cabel, who proved it by noting that the 46-victim increase in road deaths from 2014 to 2015 was greater than the number of Israelis murdered by terrorists over the past few months. The remainder of the discussion did not stray from the obvious.
It heard a reiteration for the umpteenth time of how we should use more hi-technology, like our brief experiment with speed cameras, and even more low-technology, such as upgrading dangerous roads. But in all the dutiful pro forma rhetoric, the elephant in the room was invisible.
Indeed, 355 people were killed on the country’s roads in 2015 – and it is taken for granted that they were drivers or passengers in vehicles. But if last year’s final rate is consistent with the 279 killed in 2014 – when 161, or 58 percent, were pedestrians – the pedestrian toll for last year would come to 206, or more than half.
According to a 2014 report by Dr. Haneen Farah, a researcher at the Or Yarok road safety organization, there are 326 kilometers of dangerous roads and 85 junctions where 55 people are killed every year. In other words, these road fatalities cannot be attributed to infrastructure.
As Farah writes, “When I say human factor I am also referring to pedestrian behavior, people who try to cross intercity roads and walk in the shoulders, pedestrians in cities who jaywalk. We urge pedestrians and drivers to increase alertness, not to handle cellphones while driving, and to pay attention to crosswalks.”
While it cannot yet be determined statistically, the 2015 spike in accidents may very well be linked to the ubiquity of cellphone addiction. How many of the unfortunate 161 pedestrians stepped off the curb looking nowhere but at their little screens, texting their final message? The striking fact that more than half of the nation’s road victims were neither driving nor riding in cars means that our approach to road safety has to be more people-oriented, rather than hardware or infrastructure-oriented. One direction would be to upgrade driver education, perhaps making it a compulsory subject in high school.
Another would be to enforce the traffic laws by activating the apparently dormant National Traffic Police and having it establish a notable presence on the roads.
And we are not talking only about highways. Nearly half of road deaths – 46% – happen in urban areas; about 40% of all fatal crashes occur on roads where the speed limit is 50 kilometers an hour or less.
According to Or Yarok, the National Traffic Police patrols the roads with 113 police cars, and another 200 are needed.
The National Road Safety Authority has donated 100 patrol cars to the Israel Police since 2013. These cars were earmarked for traffic police volunteers within urban areas.
With more than 100 marked Traffic Police cars, one would think they would be more visible. An unscientific survey on numerous trips from Jerusalem to the Negev and to the coast found the Traffic Police to be apparently clandestine, with at most a single car observed each trip.
“When you drive, you can see it for yourself. You don’t see police,” Or Yarok’s policy chief told The Jerusalem Post.
One way to enhance enforcement would be to recruit more volunteers to the Traffic Police. There are currently some 7,000 volunteers, who undergo 60 hours of training and are given police authority to issue tickets for violations.
According to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, about 48% of road fatalities involve people who weren’t using a safety belt. The category includes people who text while crossing busy streets. Perhaps the visible presence of more police volunteers on urban roads would reduce this grim statistic.
As far as statistics go, some reassurance may be found in the 2014 World Health Rankings of the best and worst countries for road fatalities, compiled from data from the WHO, the World Bank, UNESCO and the CIA. It may be surprising, but Israel ranks 162 out of 172 countries in death rates per 100,000 population, with a score of 3.89.
We concede the best rating to the Maldives (172) at 1.05.
Perhaps not so surprising, the worst is Iran (1) at 43.54.
For comparison, the US is ranked 131 at 9.99, while the apparently more civilized United Kingdom is ranked 169 at 2.97.