Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
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Constitution, Government and Politics

How Not to Approach
the Traffic Accident Problem

Daniel J. Elazar

Israel is once again undergoing a spasm of legislation and regulations designed to combat the dreadful road toll. Maybe that frenzy of activity will make those responsible for traffic safety feel that they have done something, but one thing is certain: it will not reduce the slaughter. Any good traffic expert can tell you that Israel's horrendous accident record stems from a combination of three factors: 1) its deficient road and street system; 2) the massive, even exponential, increase in the number of automobiles using those roads; 3) the inexperience and limited capability of so many of Israel's drivers, especially the newer ones. None of these are amenable to change by requiring seatbelts for people riding in the back seat or setting residential speed limits at 30 kilometers an hour, about the speed of a horse and buggy, or any of the other techniques which our legislators seek to impose upon us in the name of safety. Let us look at each in turn.

1) The road system. In one of the most amazing developmental failures in contemporary history, the Zionist halutzim built their cities as if they were building shtetls, this well after the automobile was being mass-produced in the United States and anybody with a little foresight could see that it would be accessible to almost everyone in the world within the century. Tel Aviv was founded in 1909 after Henry Ford had already begun to pay his workers enough money to buy the cars that he mass-produced. Yet the streets of Tel Aviv were not even designed for wagons but for donkeys and pedestrians. Indeed, the original plat of Tel Aviv provided for wider streets but collusion between the city fathers and the developers narrowed the streets even further. Or look at Rehavia, one of the lovliest neighborhoods in the country. It was inspired by the garden city movement, but whereas the garden city movement elsewhere took the automobile into account, or at least wagons, in Jerusalem we built a garden shtetl with the narrowest of lanes, once again, for donkeys and pedestrians, not even for horse-drawn vehicles, much less automobiles.

Intercity roads were almost nonexistent until after World War I. Under the Mandate even the British covered the country with one lane roads which Israel has slowly eliminated. Here our record is somewhat butter, but still far behind what is needed. Previous governments did build better connections between Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, and Beersheba in recent years and the present government seems to be making a major additional effort. With one or two exceptions, throughout the 1950s, the new towns were also built with streets far too narrow, and even today we do not make enough provision for automobile traffic when we build new neighborhoods. We can use all the excuses in the world: cost, limited space, or whatever, but if the roads do not offer the kind of room that automobiles need, automobiles are going to crash into one another. The records show this clearly. Most of the major fatal accidents occur where the road and street network is most inadequate.

2) Until rather recently, most Israelis did not have private automobiles. In the 1960s the streets and roads were still quiet. Even in the 1970s the increase in the number of automobiles was moderate, but that had to end. As Israelis became more affluent, naturally they turned to acquire automobiles like everyone else in the world. The extraordinary expansion in the number of private cars in the 1980s is well-known. Recently, to add to it, the system of providing benefits for the olim from the ex-Soviet Union provided them with incentives to use their benefits with their rights immediately to acquire private automobiles, thus radically increasing the traffic in one fell swoop. The street and road system cannot accommodate all of this increased traffic. It is physically too limited. But we now have the cars on the streets.

3) A drastic increase in the number of vehicles means a drastic increase in the number of new drivers, mostly people of middle age who did not learn to drive when they were young so that driving could become second nature, but who learned to drive after their habits were well-set. Studies have shown that while young people in the very first years of driving have a tendency to greater recklessness, if they learn to drive properly, driving becomes second nature to them and in the end they are much better drivers. People who learn at a more advanced age rarely acquire the necessary familiarity with their vehicles and a "feel" for them that is necessary to be a really good driver. If all of a sudden tens of thousands of new drivers are thrown onto a crowded, inefficient road system, the result is inevitable.

About the only people who can be influenced by government action are the new young drivers who can be taught to be less reckless by good law enforcement. That is why the IDF has had such a very good record in reducing accidents by IDF personnel in the past few years. Once they took the accident rate of soldier drivers seriously, they could bring their drivers to pay attention to the law. The people who are not comfortable behind the wheel cannot be influenced by such devices.

Israel has among the most drastic and costly systems of driver education in the world. The United States has one of the simplest and least costly. Compare the results. Israelis have to take a very large number of driving lessons (for which they pay privately) and go through rigorous written and driving tests but do not come out to be good drivers. They simply enable a lot of people to make a living from the process, just like much of the rest of the bureaucratic set-up in this country. It does not produce better results; it simply gives the illusion of doing something and enables the people who supply the services to profit from it. No pedestrian who was killed on the roads will be saved by forcing people in the back seat of the automobile to wear seatbelts. No street is going to become wider or straighter by legislation. What then can be done?

1) The intercity road network can be rebuilt and significantly improved. Even if this has to be done slowly because of cost, an intelligent plan for doing so can be adopted. Repaving the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem every year may be easy for road-builders who do not have to travel far from home to get to work, but it makes no sense while there are high accident roads in various other parts of the country that desperately need widening and straightening. Of course we do the former, not the latter.

2) All new urban construction in areas where it is possible must require wider streets as a major element. We can rarely rebuild old neighborhoods without wreaking havoc on our cities and towns. We can see to it that new ones do not perpetuate the problem. Look at Ramot, a very new area in Jerusalem the main streets are wide; beyond them the streets are a catastrophe. That must be allowed to happen.

3) We must undertake selective street-widening even in the old neighborhoods. We know from the experience of other countries that this will not reduce traffic. Indeed, one of the problems is that the better the roads, the more people who want to drive on them. Nevertheless, it can reduce automobile accidents by removing proximate causes.

4) We must make an effort to give our young people driver training at the ages of 16 and 17, not wait until they are 30 or 35. Unlike other countries which provide driver training in the schools, this country probably cannot afford to introduce that very sensible step in the same way. What we can do, however, is to plan a proper system of driver education. Perhaps it can be done through the schools on a cost-sharing basis with parents contributing their share. Perhaps it should be done through the IDF. Perhaps it can be done through the private driving programs that presently exist. But the system must be revamped so that employment of driving instructors and testers is not its first goal but the training of good drivers is its only purpose.

If we begin to do some of these things, perhaps over the years we will begin to remedy the worst of our situation. Public pronouncements, laws and regulations will not bring about the desired results. Indeed, they rapidly become part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

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