JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir called it an "agonizing bloodletting," while Israeli newspapers condemned the "days of carnage."
Readers could be forgiven if the newspaper headlines were mistaken for a new Middle East war or terrorist outrage. Instead, in unusually grim terms, the people of Israel were being scolded for an abundance of bad driving.
Although traffic accidents are far from a novelty in the highly urbanized Israeli society, the problem came to a head after 21 people were killed on the roadways during a one-week period recently. The dead included seven Israeli soldiers, a revelation that produced the kind of brooding introspection Israelis are usually accustomed to only after heavy losses on the battlefield.
Fatal Accidents Up 11%
"Road deaths in the first seven months of this year are some 11% higher than their rate in the first seven months of 1986," Moshe Katz, a Transportation Ministry official, said. "Some 14,400 Israelis have died on the roads since independence, more than in all of Israel's wars, including the war of independence."
The surge in highway fatalities spurred the government to announce some new measures aimed at reducing traffic deaths. It also gave rise to a spirited debate among government officials, newspapers and motorists about the underlying causes of the problem, which suggested to a number of commentators that bad driving is only a symptom of larger concerns--such as culture clash and lack of discipline--afflicting the Israeli nation as a whole.
"We're very, very offensive drivers," said Eitan Ben-Yehoshua, the head of Israel's Road Safety Authority. "Israelis have no patience. There are hardly any manners. In most cases, drivers have picked up reprehensible habits."
Israeli CHP Urged
Ben-Yehoshua, who was himself injured in a traffic accident (not his fault) while driving to the country's Parliament to report on car injuries, has just returned from a trip to Los Angeles with a plea to establish a traffic police force similar to the California Highway Patrol as part of an overall effort to combat bad driving. But the idea is opposed by Police Minister Chaim Bar-Lev.
As the toll on the highways caught public attention--one accident killed two pregnant women--the Israeli Cabinet was called into session to deal with the problem. Prime Minister Shamir called on the courts to mete out stiffer penalties to careless drivers, but the Cabinet's action was widely criticized as being insufficient.
Within days, the government announced that police had been authorized to suspend a driver's license on the spot for one month if the motorist had violated the law in a traffic accident.
It also approved a 26% rise in the rates for compulsory third-party insurance, which protects other drivers. But only 2% of the increase was set aside for road safety projects, while the remainder was earmarked for the insurance companies.
On Sept. 27, Transportation Minister Chaim Corfu also proposed regulations requiring all drivers and their passengers to wear seat belts while driving in cities and towns for a six-month trial period beginning Nov. 1. Government regulations had required seat belts only on intercity roads.
The uproar over accidents comes at a time when many Israelis are becoming swept up in the romance of driving. Cars are almost as frequently a topic of conversation here as in Los Angeles, and despite their staggering cost--more than double that in the United States--there were an estimated 80,000 new cars on the road last year.
Experts on motor safety acknowledge that Israel has neglected its road network in the past 20 years, frequently failing to carry out necessary maintenance and not matching the expansion of registered vehicles with new highways.
But the factor most often mentioned as a cause of traffic accidents is the uneven quality of driving habits.
"People drive like crazies," said Udi Danenberg, a Jerusalem auto insurance agent. "The roads don't help, but the main reason for traffic accidents is people's behavior."
Journalist Tom Segev, a well-known observer of the Israeli scene, says: "They usually say Israeli drivers express their aggressiveness through driving, that everybody is fighting a private war. But I'm not sure that Israelis are worse than anyone else. Is the driving any better in Cairo or even Athens?"
In fact, according to Moshe Becker, a researcher at Haifa's Transportation Research Institute, statistically there are about 70% fewer traffic fatalities in Israel than in Greece per 100,000 population.
But Becker noted that a driver in Israel, where the traffic density is the highest in the world, is twice as likely to have an accident as a driver in the United States.
According to Becker's statistics, half of all Israelis will be injured to some extent in a traffic accident during their lifetimes.