Israel's driver's education needs to change, and here's why

You know what would be useful? Give us a booklet, written in proper English, when we apply to transfer our foreign license to Israeli.

 Questions on the Driver Safety Program (photo credit: Courtesy)
Questions on the Driver Safety Program
(photo credit: Courtesy)

"All phones turned off and put away. If I see you using it you will be kicked out of the course.”

The Voice at the front of the classroom continued. “No eating. Masks must stay on at all times.”He then pointed to the schedule for the next two evenings, already written on the chalkboard. Four hours each day with one half-hour break.

There I was, super jet-lagged – having returned a day earlier from Canada – the only one of 30 “students” over the age of 25. We were all required, by law, to take a Driver Safety Program. No exceptions.

Taking a quick poll of the room at the outset, the instructor asked if anyone had been behind the wheel for more than five years. One guy had been driving for seven. Me? More than 40.

That got a laugh. For the wrong reasons. What’s the old lady doing in here?

Our sort of scary, gruff instructor, Avi, turned out to be an avuncular teddy bear who made what could have been an unbearable two days into a very positive learning experience. He neutralized my surly attitude, the swagger of the hotshot young men with designs buzzed into their scalps, and the general resistance of pretty much everyone else to being there.

 TRAFFIC JAMS on the Ayalon highway in Tel Aviv. (credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90) TRAFFIC JAMS on the Ayalon highway in Tel Aviv. (credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)

A born teacher, Avi also conveyed – with passion – an encyclopedic knowledge of road safety issues and habits and did everything in his power to scare the shit out of every young (but me) driver in the room. You could see the expressions on the faces of smart-ass kids fall as they absorbed the numbers of road fatalities and injuries in Israel, so often due to aggressive or stupid or drunk driving.

Since 2014 the Ministry of Transportation has required all “new” drivers in possession of an Israeli driver’s license for five years or less to take the course – at a cost of NIS 200 shekels – in order to maintain a valid license. Caught inadvertently by this law are people like me; olim who have been driving forever. At some point in the last seven or eight years, you’d think that a sharp public servant might have caught that slip-up and recommended fixing it.

“Vivian,” Avi growled at me, midway during the first evening, “Why are you looking at your phone?”

Mortified, and mildly furious, I advised him that I was looking up a word in my Hebrew-English dictionary.

“No!” He admonished. “It’s forbidden. If you do it again you’ll be thrown out of the course.”

I stewed. And sat. And stewed.

Then, there was the delicate creature sitting in the front row by the large classroom window – which was wide open while the AC blasted (an Israeli phenomenon I’ll never understand). Wearing what we boomers used to call a “pop top,” the poor thing was cold. So the window must be closed.

And I think, “Typical millennial. All about ME.”

A gallant young man, no doubt with ulterior motives, immediately offered the damsel his light jacket.Crisis averted.

Avi complimented the jacket guy: “What a gentlemen” (it being Hebrew, of course).

Had I been at the front of the class, my disciplinary instincts would have been opposite: reprimand the semi-clad young lady and let the Anglo boomer use her damn online dictionary. A topsy-turvy world, I tell you.

AT THE end of it all a short test is given: 10 multiple-choice questions. A score of five correct answers gets you through. A booklet of study materials is provided in English and the test – for those who request in advance – can be written in English.

Well, “English” is a slight exaggeration. The test is a product of Google translate, meaning you have to guess. A lot. The translation is poor, at best.

The booklet is better but still rife with translation and grammatical errors. And it’s not a restaurant menu. It actually matters.

The booklet could easily have been emailed out a week or two in advance to provide an opportunity to review it. But. No such luck. It was handed out at the start of the first class and contained a heck of a lot of material to review for the test the next day.

Yes. I was a little freaked out. I studied like the biggest browner in high school. No way was I going to flunk.And I didn’t.

But if anyone in the translation section of the Transportation Ministry is paying attention, I suggest you modify things. Yesterday.

It’s silly and a poor use of everyone’s time and resources to force a senior citizen with an excellent driving record for more than 40 years to take this course. The target market is young drivers. Clearly. Otherwise every 60-year-old Israeli driver would have been in there with me. And, in fairness, they could likely benefit more than I did from the “refresher.”

You know what would be useful? Give us a booklet, written in proper English, when we apply to transfer our foreign license to Israeli. Educate us on unique road signs and practices. Like the “law” that allows the use of hand instead of car signals. Yup. You read that correctly. In this place where a babel of languages is spoken we are somehow to accept that there is a universally understood sign language that is safe to use on the road. Which, by the way, wasn’t taught.

Finally, I understand why Israeli drivers almost never deploy car signals to indicate that they are changing lanes on the road. They just shove in. Pretend they don’t see you. I must be missing the hand signal.

Or this nugget that makes less than no sense: When driving in a “built up” area – i.e. urban or developed – neither the taxi driver nor any passengers are required to fasten their seat belts. Fact.

Don’t ask me to explain. That one makes my head spin. And also explains why so many taxis don’t have working seat belts and why the drivers could care less.

So, as a good citizen, I offer these thoughts to Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli. While in the US recently with her newborn son, she announced gleefully on Twitter that all Israeli driver license renewals from now on will be valid to age 70.

Not much of a whooppee for me.

But, wow. If she were to announce that she would close this loophole punishing new, older olim and forcing them to take this driver safety course geared to kids in their early 20s, well, I’d throw the best roof party ever in Tel Aviv. And anyone who has read to this point? You will thank me.

Just need a roof. 

The writer was the Canadian ambassador to Israel from 2014-2016. A former lawyer, she consults for international clients on a range of issues and resides in Tel Aviv.