Killers at the wheel

Automobiles have become vehicles for machismo and competitiveness.

bus accident 248 88 (photo credit: Uzi Barak/Kav Press)
bus accident 248 88
(photo credit: Uzi Barak/Kav Press)
Automobiles have become vehicles for machismo and aggressive competitiveness on our roads. Since as far back as the 1950s, the peculiarly popular local chant on bus excursions has been: "Brother Driver, hurry up! Go faster! They're catching up, trying to overtake you…" The macabre accident near Eilat this week, which seems gruesomely inspired by the above ditty, is only unique in the unprecedented number of casualties for a single calamity - 24 dead. Sadly there have been past disasters nearly as ghastly. On October 9, 1999, 17 passengers lost their lives when the bus they rode overturned near the Galilee's Golani Junction and tumbled into a ravine, not unlike the latest tragedy. In the intervening years, other buses - including more than a few school buses - have been involved in all too many mishaps, often causing fatalities. In most cases the appalling results were eventually ascribed to outright driver recklessness (the 1999 accident being an exception). However, even when road conditions contributed to the dreadful outcome, slower and more cautious driving could have averted or at least mitigated the harm. In this week's accident, the driver ferrying more than 50 Russian travel agents to a mid-winter holiday on Eilat's sunny beaches was allegedly more than imprudent. According to what has been gleaned so far, he was outrightly reckless. Imperfect as the winding road and side-rails may have been, they were quite adequate with sensible driving. Conversely, even infrastructure improvements couldn't have entirely prevented a catastrophe that foolhardiness apparently wrought. UNSATISFACTORY as some of our roads may be, blaming external circumstances is patently misleading and defeats our purpose because the chief impediment to traffic safety in this country is driver attitude. Besides the prevalent devil-may-care mindset, a detrimental factor in its own right, our highways and byways are full of what can only be described as primed time-bombs: drivers with a history of egregious offenses. Some continue to drive although their licenses have been suspended. The Eilat-bound death-bus driver had amassed a set of 22 citations in the past seven years alone - an average of a moving violation every four months. He was caught perpetrating the above 22. We must assume that there were more we'll never know about. Most drivers involved in killer-crashes turn out to have a notorious record. They plainly shouldn't have been allowed back behind the wheel. The problem, though, is enforcement. Imaginative means must be devised to ensure that delinquent drivers stay off the roads. A no-exemption, zero-tolerance approach is essential to keep potential killers away from potential victims. Even bureaucratic penalties could be considered. A steep hike in insurance premiums (as is about to go into effect in America) could be applied regarding any driver who caused an accident - no matter how seemingly minor. Those who run stop-signs can kill, too. (Our insurance firms have fought tooth-and-nail against similar regulations here.) Any commercial transport firm must be held legally responsible if it hires drivers with a record of moving violations. This must factor large into insurance premiums and liability for damages. If transport companies are forced into greater selectivity, they won't be able to scrape the bottom of the manpower barrel and get away with derisory wages. The book must be thrown at a company whose buses go out without a functioning "black-box," as was the case in the latest accident. Anyone apprehended driving with a suspended license must be unceremoniously jailed. Judges must cease imposing lenient sentences on traffic offenders. They are especially lax with professional drivers, lest their livelihood be impacted. Additionally, not only must the severity of the punishment fit the gravity of the crime, justice must be swift enough for the connection between the crime and its punishment to be apparent. In our judicial system it often takes long years before any case is prosecuted and concluded, years over which the deterrent effect of the legal proceedings dissipates. Vehicles steered by unruly individuals are lethal weapons. Unless these individuals personally fear the consequences of their misbehavior, the Eilat accident will inevitably be followed by similarly bloody sequels.