Grumpy Old Man: On a road to nowhere

Speed kills. So do poor training, lax enforcement, lenient sentences and officials who spin their wheels when it comes to traffic safety.

Egged bus (illustrative) (photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Egged bus (illustrative)
I wrote the following, which appeared in the op-ed section of The Jerusalem Post on February 21, 1995: The other day, I watched an Egged driver maneuver around a bus that had stalled on a narrow section of road.
An iron railing lining the curb on the opposite side left little room to spare, and I marveled at the driver’s ability to handle his long, multi-ton vehicle with such confidence and finesse.
A true professional, I thought – before he raced a yellow light into the next intersection and crossed on red.
We see them everywhere.
There are the speed demons who routinely exceed the limits by huge margins, and the weavers who ignore solid lines.
Then you get the high-beam dazzlers who blind you at night, and the lane hogs who refuse to pull over for merging traffic.
There are drivers who don’t believe in looking in their mirrors or signaling before a turn, and traffic-light racers for whom yellow means hurry up – even when the only result is gridlock two meters into the intersection.
In short: Israeli drivers.
It’s bad enough when the offender is some Mario Andretti wannabe in a BMW – a car, by the way, which seems to come equipped with its very own set of traffic laws. But it’s absolutely infuriating when the offender is a professional driver.
Webster’s Dictionary defines “professional” as “a person who makes a business of an occupation, practice, etc.” and “an expert” – like that Egged driver who so adroitly eased around the stalled bus (before running that red light).
Or the driver of the phosphate rig heading for Ashdod harbor and a new land-speed record. Or the taxi driver who cuts across three lanes without signaling, to pick up a fare. Or the bus driver who pulls away from the curb without bothering to look in his side mirror, feeling safe in the knowledge that most drivers won’t relish the thought of being dragged to the next stop in a crumpled sedan, and so will give way.
(I’m not even going to bring up the police commissioner’s driver who was recently spotted committing six traffic violations, including speeding and failing to signal turns, while driving his boss two kilometers to the Knesset.) Why do so many people who spend their working day behind the wheel understand “professional” only within the context of earning a living or as an indicator of expertise – getting in and out of tight spots, understanding engine compression ratios or downshifting without sounding like a 747 in a belly landing? How about some expertise in preventing accidents? Or some simple road courtesy? I know that many professional drivers abide by the law. But I’ve lost count of the times I’ve felt like rolling down my window to tell one that he drives like my neighbor’s teenage son. There have even been times I’ve felt like stopping a driving instructor and telling him that he was probably the one who taught my neighbor’s teenage son.
There is no question that the traffic police should pull over every lawbreaker and issue stiff fines or summonses for immediate trial. But they should pay special attention to professional drivers – because they are the ones who ought to be setting an example for the rest of us.
And if these professionals cry that harsh fines or suspended licenses would take the food off their families’ tables, the judges can remind them of those they placed at risk of losing not their livelihoods, but their lives.
If the professionals don’t like it, they should be told to find another profession.
After a second offense, they should be made to.
MY WRITING STYLE has changed in the ensuing 21 years, but my road sentiments have not, for almost a generation later, we’re talking about the exact same things: Excessive speed. Recklessness. Impatience.
Inattentiveness. A lack of courtesy.
And two decades on, with the advent of the smartphone, it’s far worse.
When I hit my horn at an intersection, you can be reasonably sure that the driver in front of me is too busy texting or doing something else on a smartphone to notice that the light has changed. Not as often, but often enough, I also notice people texting as their vehicle is in motion, even on a super-highway.
In the days of simple cell phones, the hands-free device was the answer. Sure, some people can’t talk and drive at the same time, but it was a start. Now, as we await a proper hands-free texting device, I look around at all the drivers who raise their eyes to the road only for as long as it takes to press Send.
There’s virtually no end to our road ills.
But again, I must go back to the professionals – many with smartphones seemingly welded to their hands.
On occasion, I have to hold myself back from slamming on the brakes because some jerk of a bus driver is paying more attention to his texting than to my rear bumper. The only thing that keeps me from doing this is the knowledge that 1) I’d become an integral part of a steel accordion and 2) the bus driver would be back on the road before the end of my shiva.
I do know one thing, though: People who drive for a living had better do it a thousand times better than I do – especially those who drive what amount to wheeled super-weapons. Just as much emphasis should be placed on teaching them safety and courtesy as is placed on teaching them skills and technique.
Also, no phone conversations without a hands-free device. And absolutely no texting. None! Never! Aside from more comprehensive and difficult driving courses, the only things that will help are stiffer company regulations, vastly expanded law enforcement, a no-nonsense traffic court system and tougher vehicle-licensing requirements.
For example, in our start-up nation, all the latest safety doodads should be made mandatory in commercial vehicles, especially those of more than a certain size and tonnage, and long before they’re introduced even as an option for the rest of us.
Had the bus that caused the fatal accident two weeks ago on Route 1 been equipped with a lane- or obstacle-warning system, even if the driver was on his phone, as some have suggested, six more people might be alive today.
Too expensive? Some of these devices cost less than the annual insurance premium for just one of these wheeled behemoths.
I can also guarantee you that the insurers would give Egged and other fleet operators vast discounts for installing such systems – they’d make less money, but they’d more than make up for it with reduced claims.
WHEN IT’S wars and matters relating to peace, we always invoke the hope that by the time the next generation comes along, it will know nothing of what we’ve known. Of course, a lot depends on the other side – the enemy.
When the issue is road safety, though, there is no other side. It’s up to us, and us alone.
So why are we our own enemy?