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The number of road accident deaths in 2003 fell by 13.5 percent compared to the previous year and was the lowest annual figure in 21 years, according to statistics released by the Israel Police's Traffic Department yesterday.

Last year, 482 people die in 441 accidents, a 13.5 percent drop compared to 547 road fatalities in 2002. In 2001, 568 people were killed on the country's roads.

Transportation Minister Avigdor Lieberman said yesterday that upon taking his post last year, one of his goals was to reduce the number of road accident fatalities by 20 percent within three years. The reduction in 2003 proved that his objective is attainable, but requires cooperation from all relevant parties.

Lieberman set up a task force comprising representatives from the Public Works Department, Traffic Department, National Road Safety Authority, Transportation Ministry and Education Ministry. While there is no database to explain the reasons for the drop in road fatalities, the minister credited the decrease on several factors - law enforcement, education, publicity campaigns and infrastructure-related operations.

The head of the Traffic Department, Major General Yaakov Raz, said last year the police focused on specifically designated operations, such as increased efforts to reduce the number of pedestrian fatalities and a campaign to combat the involvement of heavy-duty vehicles in road accidents.

The director-general of the PWD, Alex Viznitzer, said that in March, the department initiated an operation to pinpoint road-accident troublespots across an inter-urban network. Till now, the PWD has identified some 1,000 locations based on parameters such as the severity of accidents, the number of accidents, and the economic damage caused. The operation is to be completed in May.

The PWD, in conjunction with the Traffic Police, also began last year to enhance safety measures on 16 selected road segments, including the Glilot-Nof Yam stretch of Road 2 and the Somekh-Ahihud stretch of Road 70. Viznitzer said these operations will be completed in September.

Lieberman harshly criticized the penal system, charging that it adopted an overly lenient approach with traffic offenders. He cited the example of a driver who was placed under house arrest after being caught driving drunk and providing false information to the arresting traffic officer. Some two months later, the man was apprehended behind the wheel of a stolen car and again placed under house arrest. The same driver was cited for a traffic offense five months later, and again was released by the court. Only when the man was booked for a fourth time did the court remand him in custody until the completion of legal proceedings against him.

Lieberman also mentioned the case of a man caught driving at 187 kilometers per hour on a road with a 90-kph restriction. Despite his record of 98 prior traffic offenses, the man got off lightly - a NIS 850 fine, the loss of his license for five months, and a five-month suspended revocation of his driving permit.

Lieberman said the current situation was intolerable. He noted that a team from the National Road Safety Authority had been set up to monitor court verdicts and sentences handed down against traffic offenders. "If we want to combat road accidents, the government must help to increase the penalties," he said. "Without sufficient punishment, it will be impossible to achieve the results expected."

Lieberman said that one of the important objectives this year was to reduce the number of pedestrians killed as a result of road accidents. Although pedestrians are involved in only 7 percent of road accidents, they constitute around one-third of road fatalities.

Additional aims in 2004 include reducing the number of buses, trucks and young drivers involved in road accidents.