Make biking safer

Biking is one of the most dangerous modes of transportation in Israel. But it doesn't have to be.

bicycle sign 88 (photo credit: )
bicycle sign 88
(photo credit: )
On Saturday morning, the 18th biker this year was killed (compared to 16 in all of 2004) as he was out cycling near the main road to Kfar Saba. The 40-year-old foreign worker was struck by a passing car and later died of his injuries. According to police statistics, in 2004, 390 people were injured in bike accidents, of whom 156 were seriously injured or killed (40% of all bike accidents). That makes biking one of the most dangerous modes of transportation in Israel. But it doesn't have to be. According to B'Terem - The National Center for Children's Health and Safety, one third of all accidents among children under 17 are bike accidents. Sixty-three percent of young cyclists age five to 17 do not wear helmets, though helmets prevent about 85% of head injuries. Clearly, a law requiring bicyclists to use helmets - like the existing seat belt law for cars - would reduce injuries, possibly drastically. B'Terem has convinced MK Gilad Erdan, head of the Knesset Traffic Safety Committee, to sponsor such a law. That proposal is in its initial stages and deserves the Knesset's and the public's full support. However, wearing a helmet will not always help bikers struck by a vehicle as they ride on the shoulders of intercity highways and intra-city roads. These riders are forced to navigate the perilous shoulders of major highways where motorcycles and mopeds routinely speed by in their attempts to bypass car traffic and where drivers frequently veer onto the shoulder with little or no warning. The answer to these easily preventable tragedies is not, as Hezi Shwartzman, head of the research division of the Traffic Police, told Army Radio: "In light of the alarming rise in cycling fatalities in 2005 … we simply do not recommend cyclists use intercity roads." Rather, to protect these riders, who have the same right to use the roads as drivers of motor vehicles, the government should invest in bike lanes. Rather than attempting to discourage bicycling, the government should urgently develop the infrastructure that many modern countries have to facilitate this activity, which has many positive benefits once it is made safer. Bicycling combines recreation and sports, while potentially reducing traffic congestion and pollution, and increasing environmental awareness and appreciation of the land. Nor would building bike lanes and paths break the bank. The Israel Cycling Federation estimates that constructing 300 kilometers of paths would cost at most NIS 30 million per year for five years. This a mere two percent of the budgets currently allocated for road safety and road building each year - about NIS 1.5 billion. Currently, the only ministry to budget funds for bike paths is the Environment Ministry, which budgets a paltry NIS 4m. in the event a municipality submits a plan that includes them. Moreover, it is not enough to simply allocate money for bike lanes; they must be included in municipal and national transportation planning. For instance, as Jerusalem continues its efforts to expand many main thoroughfares to accommodate fast lanes for public transportation, bike lanes could be included in some of those building projects. Along the same lines, as more lanes are added to Route 1 from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, a bike lane should be included. A mandatory helmet law and bike lanes along major transportation routes would prevent future avoidable deaths and make the roads safe for cyclists. But safety is just the beginning. With a modest amount of investment, there is no reason why Israel could not become a favored destination for cyclists from around the globe. As a small country with varied landscapes, a mild climate and lots to see, Israel is - potentially - made to order for bicycling. The popularity of cycling is only increasing worldwide and in this country, where there are already an estimated 80,000 regular recreational riders. The only question is whether the government will continue to ignore and resist this trend, or take advantage of it for the benefit of our economy and quality of life.