Grumpy old man: Road rouge

The fact that traffic accidents kill more people than do wars and terrorist attacks combined. It’s time we faced up to that ugly truth.

TEL AVIV’S congested Ayalon Highway in 2014.  (photo credit: MOSHE MILNER / GPO)
TEL AVIV’S congested Ayalon Highway in 2014.
(photo credit: MOSHE MILNER / GPO)
It’s like putting lipstick on a pig, or better yet, some rouge over a skid mark. All this talk about accident statistics that go up and elicit great concern, and then go down, allowing us to say we’re finally doing something right, and then go up again, eliciting even greater concern....

We all know what the problem is. Aside from some glaring exceptions, it’s not poor roads. The projects under way are encouraging – and in certain areas astoundingly so – although there are sections that tell you the designers were out to lunch when they planned that particular stretch. And no, it’s not the condition of our vehicles. In fact, the annual testing they undergo at license-renewal time is pretty stringent.

The biggest part of it is us. We tend to be impatient and impulsive. We often show insufficient respect for others. And worst of all, the last thing we want is to be a freier, a sucker. It’s a national ailment, and what better place to show our prowess at being king of the road than, well, on the road?

A Jerusalem Post Magazine feature last spring by my colleague David Brinn cited experts who said the problem was an insufficient police presence. There’s definitely something to this, but it’s not just the lack of a presence – our traffic cops seem to have a way of focusing on one thing to the exclusion of others. For example, when going after speeders, which is what they tend to do, they ignore every other scofflaw. And our scofflaws are legion.

These cops should be made to read about the “broken-window” theory of American social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, which basically says that enforcing laws against misdemeanors such as vandalism (the broken window) creates a positive norm that filters upward and reduces crime.

In other words, worry about the small stuff and the bigger issues, or at least some of them, will decline by themselves.

As controversial as this methodology might be – in New York City, where the theory was adopted in the mid-1990s, critics noted that the focus was almost solely on minorities – statistics have shown that there is something to it. So our traffic cops might want to start with my pet peeve: the turn indicator.

WHEN I learned to drive, we were taught that any time you turn or change a lane, you should signal your intent far enough in advance to give those around you ample warning. For some reason, this lesson stuck with me more than the vicissitudes of, say, parallel parking.

When I asked my kids where the proper use of the turn indicator stood out in their own driving lessons, they said it had been part of the syllabus, but not particularly emphasized. If that’s the case, it shows, and I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that the improper use – or non-use – of turn signals is the most common traffic offense on our roads.

It’s as if we’re all supposed to be mind readers.

The guy driving down a local street ahead of you comes to an intersection. He wants to turn but leaves you to guess which way. Or the guy in front who suddenly stops and then gets angry that you haven’t left him enough room to back into the parking space that’s now abreast of your own car – the one he intended to fill while thinking that nothing in the world could be more obvious.

These instances are relatively harmless. After all, high speeds are not involved and it’s mostly a matter of annoyance at others’ lack of road manners. But out on the open road, especially our newer highways, manners give way to matters of life and death.

That guy up ahead of you on Route 6? He’s going to change lanes. It’s obvious. He’s doing about 180 kph in the right lane and coming up on a vehicle sticking (strangely enough) to the speed limit. Simple.

But not if you’re in the left lane passing slower cars and then the driver of one of those cars decides he’s had enough and, like you, wants to pass.

This guy is about a car-length-and-a-half ahead of you. You expect him to look in his side-view mirror and signal before making a move. But no. Side-view mirrors are mere automotive ornaments and turn indicators are for freiers.

You lean on the horn and hit your brakes. One of three things will happen: (1) The guy discovers his side-view mirror, where he sees you panic-braking – a dead giveaway that it’s okay to continue changing lanes; (2) the guy cancels the maneuver and gives you a dirty look when you decide it’s safe to continue; (3) the guy cancels the maneuver and looks over as you pass, acknowledging his mistake with a plaintive look or gesture of apology.

If have listed these in the order they are most likely to occur.

Then there are those who think the turn indicator is something to use the moment you begin to turn, even before you look in your side-view mirror (if you do at all). I’m grateful to those who use the turn signal. Really But its purpose is to signify the intent to turn before the fact. The idea is to give advance warning, a timely caution that doesn’t rely on mind reading.

Which brings me to the reason I think most drivers don’t use their turn signal: They reveal your intent to the drivers around you – who promptly speed up so as not to let you complete the maneuver and thus turn them into freiers. God forbid we should let another driver get the better of us.

SO KEEP those speed traps out there. Place personnel just past the stop signs that drivers statistically ignore. But dear traffic cop, please pay more attention to the little things. They add up. And they indicate a readiness to cross more serious boundaries, perhaps the type from which there is no return.

Today’s turn-signal scofflaw is tomorrow’s speeder, and once the speed rises, no amount of rouge or lipstick will allow us to paint over the fact that traffic accidents kill more people than do wars and terrorist attacks combined. It’s time we faced up to that ugly truth.