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The dramatic figures and the picture they paint is clear: The involvement of Arabs in traffic accidents - as victims and as drivers - is disproportionate to their ratio within the general population. The reasons vary, but can be identified mainly as poor roads and infrastructure, a problematic driving culture and, according to experts, also a lack of enforcement. Those involved in fighting this phenomenon may display good will, and the government is channeling funding, but there are still no real solutions on the horizon.

According to the figures published by the Central Bureau for Statistics (CBS) at the beginning of this year, Arabs account for some 19 percent of the population in Israel - but 23 percent of those hurt in traffic accidents and 26 percent of the fatalities are Arabs.

The figures are even higher where children are concerned: 26 Arab children (up to age 14) were killed in accidents last year - 54 percent of all children who died in such instances, and twice the proportion of Arabs in the country's population of children. Many of the accidents occured in front of the children's homes. Experts in the transportation field estimate that 10-15 Bedouin children are killed annually, run over near their homes, mainly by relatives.

Alongside the high rate of Arab victims, there are also an exceptionally high number of Arab drivers involved in traffic accidents. According to the CBS, in 1999-2000 Arabs accounted for 12 percent of all drivers in Israel, but were involved in 16 percent of the accidents and in 30 percent of all fatal accidents. Thirty-seven percent of Arab drivers were involved in accidents, as compared to 23 percent of Jewish drivers.

The high level of involvement of Arabs in accidents is most pronounced among young drivers, says Dr. Moshe Becker, a road safety and transportation expert. In general, young drivers, aged 19-24, were involved in 22 percent of all accidents in the country; young Arab drivers were involved in some 30 percent of accidents.

The statistics are also exceptionally high regarding accidents in the cities. Becker collated the 2003 accident figures for the big Arab and Bedouin towns: Umm al-Fahm, Baka al-Garbiyeh, Jedida, Taibeh, Tira, Tamra, Maghar, Nazareth, Sakhnin, Arabeh, Rahat and Shfaram. The total population of these towns is 326,000, but they were the scene of 10.7 percent of all urban accidents last year. The figures are high, both "qualitatively" and quantitatively: 21.1 percent of the accidents in these towns were severe (fatal or resulting in serious injuries), compared to a 10.7 percent figure for such accidents among all traffic accidents that took place in the country. While the number of vehicles involved in serious accidents in Jewish towns and cities stands at 0.87 per 1,000 vehicles, in Arab towns this figure is 1.13.

Who is to blame?

Experts give various reasons, both technical and human, for the greater frequency of traffic accidents in the Arab sector, making it harder to deal with the phenomenon:

Education: Becker claims that the Arab education system does not put enough stress on the importance of obeying laws concerning proper behavior on the roads and this results in a lack of respect for traffic lights, signs and regulations. Dr. Dan Link, head of the infrastructure and traffic department at the National Road Safety Authority, disagrees, contending that the training in the Arab towns is identical to that provided in other places, and includes significant emphasis on road-safety education.

Car maintenance: Becker says that a large proportion of the cars driven by Arabs are quite rundown and are not sufficiently maintained.

Driving as a profession: Many Arab drivers are professional drivers, mainly truck drivers whose involvement in accidents is higher than that of others. Becker notes the parking of heavy vehicles in villages is a traffic hazard that leads to accidents. He suggests that this phenomenon could be reduced if a bylaw were passed requiring the construction of a parking lot for heavy vehicles on the outskirts of villages.

n Long distances and too many passengers: Link adds that a high percentage of Arab drivers travel relatively long distances to their work places, thus increasing the risk of being involved in an accident. Arab drivers likewise frequently carry more passengers than permitted, which increases the number of victims when an accident occurs.

n Lack of enforcement: Becker claims that the traffic division of the Israel Police does not oversee the situation in Arab locales at all. On the other hand, the traffic division maintains that its offices throughout the country deal with accidents in Arab communities and oversee the traffic there the same as in other places. Still, the police admit that it is almost impossible for them to fight accidents in which children are run over by family members and say the solution lies in increasing awareness and improving infrastructure.

n Infrastructure: Indeed, of all the contributing factors, there is a consensus that the poor road infrastructure in the Arab towns and villages is one of the main causes of accidents. The main routes through the towns were built on old paths and do not afford the necessary field of vision or allow for the construction of proper intersections. The quality of the roads is poor, there are lots of potholes, and in many places there are no sidewalks. Link views the lack of sidewalks as a major cause of accidents, particularly in these involving children. With the current infrastructure situation, he notes, no amount of education in safe driving will be sufficient.

Changing a village

The deficient infrastructure has an economic and historical background that makes dealing with the consequent problems difficult. The Transportation Ministry finances 70 percent of the cost of improving infrastructure in various locales and requires the local authorities to pay the remainder of the costs. In light of the economic distress prevailing in some of these authorities, however, they cannot invest the required sums - and therefore they did not get government financing.

Yitzhak Zuchman of the Transportation Ministry's infrastructure department says that since 1993, the ministry has invested close to NIS 1 billion in improving infrastructure in the Arab sector, with NIS 300 million of that allocated in the past two years. Zuchman explains, however, that "it is very difficult to fundamentally improve the infrastructure in the villages, because the overall urban or rural infrastructure is constructed such that it is very difficult to build safe roads. We work mostly on main arteries and fix localized weak spots."

Zuchman hastens to clarify this last point. "There are no [particular] weak points in the Arab villages. It is a kind of an absurd situation - there are lots of accidents, but not at specific spots. This means that to solve the problem, there has to be much broader and comprehensive treatment, but not of weak spots."

He mentions a government decision to allocate budgets to this area in 2003-2008 and promises that the ministry will continue to invest. Still, he claims that in light of the poor condition of the infrastructure, much broader investments are needed to reach the proper level of safety in the villages, and he himself is not sure of the effectiveness of the improvements that have already been made.

"We are investing quite a lot," he says. "I'm not sure if it has already been effective, but we intend to continue at this rate." n