The road not taken

There are many worthwhile measures, many of which have been taken against road accidents.

accident 298.88 (photo credit: Channel 2)
accident 298.88
(photo credit: Channel 2)
This past weekend, seven Israelis lost their lives on the roads. In the most deadly "accident," a truck driver with 195 prior moving violations crushed a car in front of him on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, killing a man and his five-year-old daughter instantly, severely wounding his wife, and leaving his six-year-old son with his family wiped out. The word "accident" must be put in quotation marks not because the truck driver intentionally caused such carnage, but because what happened was so obviously preventable. How could a driver with so many previous violations remain on the road? When a bomb goes off, it can be termed an "accident," but hardly an unexpected one. In response to this weekend's toll, the Traffic Safety Authority called an "emergency meeting." It was reportedly decided to increase the number of police cars, add police shifts and recruit more traffic volunteers. One might have thought that the first thing that would be done would be to set some limit to the number of violations a professional driver may have without being automatically removed from the road. A driver's license in the hands of a truck driver with dozens of violations becomes a license to kill. Not only should such a driver have lost his license long ago, but the company that employed him should have been liable to heavy fines. Yet even if the Traffic Safety Authority had announced it was taking serious measures against recidivist drivers, this, combined with the announced band-aid steps, would also have to be considered a travesty. Such incremental measures, taken in response to a particular bad weekend, imply that our normal death rate of about 500 citizens a year is acceptable and inevitable. In truth, this toll, which we pay daily, weekly, and monthly regardless of whether it makes any headlines, is largely preventable by measures that are well known internationally and in Israel. We can reduce deaths on the roads by more than half simply by doing what Great Britain, France and Australia have already done to great effect: Install a national camera system to enforce speed limits. These countries save thousands of lives by directly taking on the main factor in deadly "accidents" - speed. Dozens of studies have proven what basic physics and common sense tell us: As speeds go up, so do the frequency and severity of accidents. Nor do we need to trust studies; the results of automated speed camera systems in other countries speak for themselves. Everywhere they have been deployed, they have immediately begun saving lives, without punishing law-abiding drivers. For years now, road safety authorities have promised that Israel will also install such a system, and much of the legal and bureaucratic groundwork has been laid. The obstacle has been the Transportation Ministry, which has been reluctant to budget the relatively small sums required. That such a life-saving program would be held up for budgetary reasons can only be termed a form of bureaucratic insanity. Speed camera programs pay for themselves many times over through the fines collected, though this is, of course, not the reason to employ them. Indeed, any money collected should go to road safety programs or back to the public through reduced taxes. Even if all the income from fines is "recycled," the economy and state budget would gain greatly from reduced mortality and injury rates, which cost billions in insurance payments and lost income and work hours. The most important reason to save hundreds of lives is not economic, but moral. The first objective of any society must be to take reasonable steps to save lives and prevent suffering. This is especially true when there is not only no net cost to doing so, but a large net gain. It is time to end the usual pious talk about more police, more educational programs, the supposedly wild "Israeli driver," or a "war against road accidents." There are many worthwhile measures, many of which have been taken, and some of which have had marginal impact. But none compares with automated speed camera systems and their proven record of drastically reducing road deaths. This is the true road not taken. When it is, Israelis will look back with wonder at how so many lives had to be lost to bureaucratic timidity and inertia and to ministers who, year after year, never bothered to take such a basic step to save the lives of their citizens.