End the Russian roulette on the roads!

It has been a grim year for road fatalities in Israel: A shocking 345 people lost their lives – needlessly.

Members of the ZAKA rescue service display empty body bags outside the Knesset in Jerusalem in a Road Safety Awareness event. (photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
Members of the ZAKA rescue service display empty body bags outside the Knesset in Jerusalem in a Road Safety Awareness event.
(photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
I just threw away my notes for this column. For the last few weeks I have jotted down pertinent thoughts, facts and figures for an end-of-decade review. That was a lot of preparation.
Believe me, nobody in Israel died of boredom. We’ve handled rockets, waves of terrorism, the “fire intifada,” wars and mini-wars – and nonetheless we’re still standing strong. We even hosted the Eurovision Song Contest and fans around the world sung our praises.
 As the Arab world descended into turmoil, the Jewish state thrived as the Start-Up Nation – and in the well-named Operation Good Neighbor offered medical assistance to Syrian patients wounded in the civil war.
We shone in the world of entertainment, made new alliances diplomatically, and became a top tourism destination for everyone from Jews to Christian pilgrims, members of the gay community, seekers of sun and sandy beaches and foodies. Israel is a good place to live and visit. 
So why did my copious notes go by the wayside? Because when I started working out how to put it all on the page, I could not do it.
There was a different story calling out to be written. It was the voices of the dead. Those killed on the country’s roads.
It has been a grim year for road fatalities in Israel: A shocking 345 people lost their lives – needlessly.
The accident this week in which four people were killed when the driver of an Egged Company bus plowed into a concrete bus shelter was the latest in a long, tragic list. The driver, facing charges of negligent homicide, reportedly told police he has no idea what happened.
Three of the victims have been named as I write these lines: Hayley Sevitz Varenberg, 35, an English teacher from Jerusalem who made aliyah from Cape Town, South Africa, married a popular tour guide and was loved by many local readers of this paper; Yosef Kahalani, 79, from Petah Tikva, whose wife, children and grandchildren were waiting for him to come home to light the first candle of the Hanukkah holiday; and Bertha Schwartz, 71, a teacher from Philadelphia, in Israel after a long absence, who was looking forward to the birth of her fifth grandchild here, the grandchild she’ll never see.
Earlier the same day, two Palestinians were killed in a road accident in Ramat Gan on their way to work.
Last week, two cyclists – Tomer Weinstein and Yaniv Lugasi, each a father of three – were killed as they went for an early-morning ride. Police suspect the man who killed them was driving under the influence of drugs.
Sometimes the devastation is so appalling that it continues to haunt us. Gifted musician Haim Tukachinsky was killed while walking home from the Western Wall after Sukkot prayers in September 2018. Seventeen-year-old Ari, the son of filmmaker Avi Nesher and a rising name in the cinema world himself, was killed as he rode an electric scooter in Tel Aviv the same month.
In November 2018, all eight members of the Atar family were wiped out when their van went up in flames after being hit head on when the driver of a vehicle swerved out of the opposite lane close to the Dead Sea. None of them – the parents and children ranging in age from three to 12 – will ever again go on a family outing, sing songs and laugh together.
They’ll never return home at the end of a day of fun. Just two weeks before the Atar family was massacred, Kfir and Shira Avitan (both 28) and their 10-month-old daughter, Gaia, perished on the same road.
Two sisters, aged four and seven, were killed as their family drove from Tel Aviv to Eilat in June this year, not long after they had emigrated from France. A future erased.
A mother and her baby were killed near Gedera the same month when their car was hit by a truck as it was parked on the side of a highway. In October, a mother and her 12-year-old daughter were killed at the Ben Shemen interchange. Irena Rosenberg was pregnant when she died. Her baby was delivered posthumously by cesarean section but didn’t survive.
At the beginning of this month, 34-year-old Tzipi Rimmel and her three-week-old daughter, Noam Rachel, were killed and other family members seriously wounded when a speeding driver smashed into their car. How do you even begin to eulogize babies so young they haven’t yet learned to smile?
I could continue to fill this page with names and descriptions of people whose deaths have left a void among families and friends. Names that people cry over. And then there are the lives devastated by injuries: the people who have to learn to walk and talk again – and those who will never succeed.
THERE’S A reason that those working in the field refer to the accidents in terms of “terror on the roads.” According to figures from the National Road Safety Authority, there was a 10.7% increase in fatalities this year.
The Central Bureau of Statistics recorded 926 accidents with casualties in November alone; 27 of them fatal (30 deaths), 158 with serious injuries.
It is not a new phenomenon, more Israelis have been killed on the roads than in war or terror attacks. The factors are varied. In some cases, particularly on the southern stretch of Route 90, the infrastructure is often blamed – the narrow lines, lack of hard shoulders and above all the fact that there are no dividers between lanes. 
Speed kills. It’s that simple. If you see someone racing, report them; if you’re a passenger in a car going too fast, tell the driver to slow down; if you’re a driver in a hurry, remember: It’s better to arrive late than never arrive at all.
Many accidents are caused by human error – or human failing, such as being distracted or falling asleep at the wheel. Truck drivers and bus drivers must be given adequate rests.
The cellphone is the driver’s friend – and enemy. Waze will only help you reach your destination if you keep your eyes on the road. A road-safety campaign last month featured bosses of big companies telling their employees not to text and not to answer text messages while driving. “If it’s important, I’ll call,” was the motto.
Previous campaigns have urged pedestrians and drivers to make eye contact at crossings; others reminded drivers that the elderly need more time to cross the road. The slogan: “On the road – be smart, not right” should be a life lesson. The Israeli fear of being a “freier” – a sucker – costs lives. Too many lives.
Lack of patience, another national trait, also comes with a heavy price attached. Drivers are unwilling to wait and are willing to risk their lives – and the lives of others – trying to overtake cars despite being unable to see what lies ahead or by suddenly switching lanes.
And then there are the cyclists and motorbike riders who swerve in and out of traffic at great speeds like there is no tomorrow – and there might not be. In 2019, 67 motorcyclists were killed compared to 44 last year, according to a Jerusalem Post report this week.
We need more enforcement and more deterrence, but, ultimately the knowledge that every time you get behind the driver’s wheel you could kill or be killed should be its own deterrence. The old “don’t drink and drive” message needs to be expanded to “don’t drink, do drugs or text.”
There should be more – and better – road safety lessons in schools. And the level of instruction of those learning to drive must be raised. The instructors themselves should have closer supervision.
Upgraded roads and increased public transport can’t guarantee improved road safety unless the driving culture changes.
Israel is a powerhouse in technology for vehicles: Think Mobileye that already saves lives by warning of possible collisions. It is also at the forefront of the autonomous, self-driving vehicle revolution, which in the future could reduce road fatalities. But we shouldn’t be waiting for the future and the human factor will always count.
As we head into 2020, we need to take the stories of the victims to heart. These deaths could have been prevented. There are plenty of reasons accidents happen but no excuses. 
Throwing out the notes for my column wasn’t a sacrifice. It’s the lives that are being thrown away that truly hurts.