There are still a few places in Israel where, when two drivers get into an accident, they politely exchange insurance information and go on their way. There are also a number of places where a driver who steals the light at an intersection is stopped by a cop, who quietly writes up a ticket. And there are even roads where a driver will comment on another driver's dangerous behavior and receive an appology, or an angry response.
All of these, it would seem, are rare sights. As the National Road Safety Authority (NRSA) would have it, Israel's roads are a battleground that must be traversed using violence in order to defend oneself again the terrorists and murderers lurking around every bend.
The NRSA is running a campaign whose messages are easy to comprehend: "The driver who runs a red light is terrorizing others"; "You don't need a car bomb in order to turn wives into widows"; "You don't have to be a suicide terrorist in order to create orphans." According to the perspective underlying this brainwashing, all Israeli drivers are potential criminals whose behavior on the roads is likely to lead to murder at best and a mass terror attack at worst. In other words, the Israeli driver is the same as a suicide terrorist.
The fundamental assumption of the people behind these slogans is that there is no point in addressing the Israeli driver using level-headed language, in appealing to his or her intellect, in treating him or her with respect. The correct approach is to frighten, threaten and warn them about their fellow drivers. The advertisers do not say to them (as in the slogan from a few years ago), "It is better to lose a moment of your life than to lose your life in a moment." Instead, they advise drivers to protect themselves against the enemy who awaits them along every stretch of road. If, in the past, the authorities told drivers, "It's a good idea to reduce your driving speed in order to guarantee a long life to yourself and to others," today they say: "You are traveling in hostile territory." The obvious conclusion to be drawn: Drive according to the precept, "If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him (first)."
The result is expected: In the past, drivers who were involved in an accident or a near-miss cast aspersions on each other's driving skills or just traded curses. From now on, courtesy of the Transportation Ministry, the vocabulary of these dialogues will be drawn from the world of serious crime. Drivers will abandon the usual litany of name-calling in favor of "murderer," "terrorist," "suicide bomber."
One may opine that the verbal escalation will not change anything, but that is an irresponsible assumption: The public debate reflects the emotional and culture milieu of society and its mood. Prior to November 1995, the country was filled with the most extreme verbal invective and incitement against Yitzhak Rabin, which ultimately led to his murder. People have taken to the barricades on the force of words and slogans. It is thus wrong to dismiss as unimportant the language chosen by the ministry for the messages it hopes will inculcate proper driving behavior.
The ministry's choice of words demonstrates that it has despaired of educating the Israeli driver and would rather use the threat of the ultimate punishment. The intentions are good but the results are destructive. The ministry is fulfilling its own prophecies. The NRSA assumes that Israeli society has reached such a high level of violence that it is past the point of absorbing logic-based messages, that only an appeal to the emotions of fear and revenge stand a chance of changing behavior. The ministry and its advertisers do not realize that this approach only heightens the instinctual, unrestrained character of the public that it hopes to reign in.
There is support for this mistaken approach: The NRSA's campaign is backed up with research showing that Israelis view driving as travel in no-man's land, if not an actual battleground. One can aim to make the roads a means for travel only, or one can resign oneself to their being a military arena forever. The Transportation Ministry has made its choice clear.
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