Israel,  Opinion,  Public Health,  Times of Israel

The price of a life: More or less than the costs of traffic safety measures?

[Repost from the Times of Israel]

       Friday the 25th of December 2020. For some just a regular Shabbat evening, for others an evening with Christmas celebrations, or just an evening like any other. However, for the families of three young Israelis this was a night that changed their lives. During early nighttime hours, at the infamous Highway 4 (Kvish Arba), two cars made a full-frontal crash. Killing one of the drivers on the spot and leaving the other driver as well as its passenger critically injured.

       In typical Israeli or maybe just current-day fashion, photos and comments about this tragic accident circulated freely on social media. Something that really stood out, was a comment provided by Gal Yitzhak: the policeman in charge of handling this incident. His words: ‘’I ask in every language of request NOT to drive on Road 4, at least try.’’ Simply put: just don’t drive the road, at all, period. Unfortunately, for many people, this is not an option.

A typical section of Highway 4, source: Google Streetview

       For those that are unfamiliar with the route 4, let me draw the picture. The Highway 4, also known as the ‘old’ highway, is a road running all along Israel’s coastal plane from Gaza to Rosh HaNikra. Most of the highway actually consists of multiple lanes, but the infamous section just South of Haifa – between Tirat Karmel and Furadis, only consists of 2 lanes. One single lane of traffic in each direction. Without separation.

       Now, this is where the real problem starts. I think it’s an understatement to say that Israeli’s – in general – are not the best drivers. Driving far over the maximum speed is considered the norm. The typical chutzpah and directness displayed in traffic by constant honking and ‘swirling’ to pass others. It is estimated that about 50% of Israeli drivers drive over speed limits, something which is closely associated with road unsafety and occurrence of accidents. Driving over speed limits is estimated to contribute to about 30% of road fatalities, being associated not just with an increased risk of accident but as well with more serious injuries after. Source.

       Especially on roads such as the Highway 4, where there is relatively little space for errors to be made, this speeding and other reckless driving much too often leads to tragedies. I see it on a daily base: not the accidents, but many many close calls. Speeding, crash breaking, tailgating. All characterized by an unexplainable urge to get somewhere and lack of foresight on what’s happening further ahead in traffic.

Highway 4 at Furadis, source: Google Streetview

       Of course, road accidents are not limited to this section of the Israel road network. Government reports from 2018 show that during the prior decade over 700,000 road accidents with casualties took place, including almost 4,000 fatalities. Source. Also 2019 showed to be lethal year, with a total of 349 fatalities on the Israeli roads. This averages out with a pedestrian being killed every 4 days, and a cyclist every 20 days. Source. Unfortunately, the vast majority (99%) of these accidents were caused by human error: mainly because of traffic violations, improper driving (including speeding) and driving under influence of alcohol.

       Driving the highways shouldn’t feel like playing Russian roulette

       One may argue that it’s certain drivers, and that it’s an almost impossible task to change people’s ways. But is it really? There is a lot the government or other road safety organizations may improve on the Israeli infrastructure. More speed signs, more traffic lights, actual strict enforcement of traffic laws. There are beautiful initiatives and campaigns rolled out to make drivers more aware. But where are the billboards and advertisements to promote these? Shouldn’t they literally be everywhere, until even children may recite their slogans?

       It is well-known that traffic accidents can be reduced significantly by either adding additional paved shoulders to the sides or adding physical dividers between the lanes. And we’re talking really significant, with a reduction of accidents of about 30%. Source. So really, why hasn’t this been done to Highway 4 and similar roads?

       The prevention of road traffic accidents, injuries and fatalities is a public health issues that should be high on the agenda. Traffic accidents are a major cause of disability and loss of life, which consequently creates a high burden on the health care system and economy. As opposite to safe and secure transport, which promote the economic as well as social development of society. As the National Road Safety Authority argues: without government commitment (and funding) no real change in lowering road accident fatalities can be achieved. Municipalities as well as the Israeli government should step up and do anything they can to educate drivers, improve infrastructure and increase safety measures. Because, when it comes to it: too many lives are lost in traffic.