How Living in Israel Changed My Approach to Driving

Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
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Stuck in traffic, in Tel Aviv's Jabotinsky Street. Credit: Nir Keidar
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

In Tom Vanderbilt’s fascinating 2008 book “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do,” David Shinar, an expert in the psychology of traffic, from Ben-Gurion University, makes a point your correspondent fully recognizes: “If you transport someone from the American Midwest to Tel Aviv,” he notes, “within days he will be driving like an Israeli – because if he doesn’t, he’ll get nowhere.”

I’ve been driving in this country for six years now (a restroom break is probably a good idea soon), and was shocked to discover recently that, statistically speaking, I’m far less likely to die in a car crash here than in almost any other country in the world.

According to the World Health Organization, about four people in every 100,000 died on Israel’s roads in 2011 – just one-third of the number dying in the United States, and one-10th of the fatalities of the worst offender, Namibia. Additionally, Israel Transport Ministry figures show that the total number of fatalities on the roads in 2012 was the lowest in 50 years (although there was a 5 percent, year-on-year rise in 2013).

So, given these data, why do our roads still feel like they’re full of people auditioning for the Sandra Bullock part in a remake of “Speed”?

Shinar’s quote came to mind during a recent trip “home” to England, when I suddenly recognized how much living here has changed my approach to driving. Here are but three examples:

1. I rent a car at London Luton Airport. The first question I ask the assistant when checking the car over is, “Where’s the horn?”

2. I am sitting at a traffic light in provincial England. It turns green but we don’t move; the guy at the front hasn’t noticed the lights changing. One second passes, then two, maybe even three, and … nothing. No road rage, no drivers creating their own horn concertos. And how did your correspondent react? Reader, I harried him.

3. Still in provincial England, I arrive at an intersection, about to turn left. The car in front, going straight ahead, blocks my way slightly as we wait at the light. I partially mount the sidewalk and proceed to make the turn, much to the surprise of passersby. I drive on, having shaved 2.3 seconds off my eventual journey time.

Forgive the sweeping generalizations here, but you know all those negative character traits people are happy to associate with Israelis – hotheadedness, impatience, recklessness, etc.? Well, the only place I’ve ever encountered those is on the road. To paraphrase the T-shirt, it’s “Instant jerk: Just add gasoline.”

The honking horn is, of course, the attendant soundtrack to driving in Israel. I always imagine demonstrators with signs aimed at passing motorists saying “Don’t honk if you support us!”

A lot of research has been done into use of the car horn. One study, for example, showed that in most countries, drivers were more likely to honk at an old, beaten-up car stalling at traffic lights than a new, expensive one. In Israel, though, everyone is fair game – even student drivers. It really is the driving school of hard knocks out on these mean streets.

I have long argued that scientists should change the name of the shortest measurement of time to the ramzor”(Hebrew for traffic light), in honor of the time it takes a horn to honk after a light turns from red to yellow (that’s yellow, note, not green). It’s taken me six years, but I’ve finally figured out why green lights here flash three times before changing to yellow and red: That’s the average number of cars speeding through the intersection once they’re instructed to stop.

All isn’t lost for me, though, as there’s one line I have yet to cross – one that would convey instant “Israeliness” on me. Picture the scene: An impatient driver tries to cut in from the right as you and other cars wait in line to turn left. That’s annoying, but it’s how you respond that truly defines your Israeliness. Are you willing to lay your (car) bodywork on the line and refuse to cede ground to the intruder, speeding up to prevent the driver’s access? If so, please feel free to make your own bumper sticker reading “What am I – a freier [sucker]?” (because it’s this, the fear of being seen as a freier, that defines Israel’s roads more than anything else).

We have to assume, given the statistics, that the slightly anarchic style of driving here – where the sight of a traffic cop is even rarer than that of an unscratched car – somehow works for Israelis.

As a driver with an unblemished driving record for nigh-on 30 years (let’s just chalk up that time I crashed an ambulance while DUI to youthful indiscretion), please allow me to offer a few observations that could make driving in this country less stressful – and, yes, more enjoyable.

1. Those people you see waiting by faded white lines are called ped-es-tri-ans. That odor you can smell on them? Fear. You can stop for these “pedestrians,” occasionally. Research suggests it might even make you feel better about yourself. Incidentally, have you ever wondered how different the history of pop music would have been if the Beatles had tried to take the cover photo for “Abbey Road” at a crossing in Israel? (Still, at least it would have spared us Paul McCartney’s “Frog Song.”)

2. Starting to perform a U-turn on a busy road does not give you the right of way over oncoming traffic, even if you are repositioning your people-carrier in the direction of north Tel Aviv.

3. Israel has enough trouble with accusations of land grabbing without your parking adding to it. Those white lines in parking lots? The aim is to park between them, not over or across them. Funnily enough, the only place I’ve seen perfect parking here is at a lot at the Tel Aviv Port with a crazy pattern drawn on it, which make it virtually impossible to see the lines. Israelis like a challenge, clearly.

4. “Guinness World Records” does not recognize land-speed records set on Route 2 or other public highways. Give up now.

5. Reversing the wrong way down a one-way street does not mean you are complying with the laws of the land, no matter how fast you do it.

6. Statistics show that the weakest sectors of society are most at risk on Israel’s roads – the ultra-Orthodox, the elderly (especially on sidewalks), Arabs … pizza-delivery boys. Give them a break and a particularly wide berth.

7. Anonymity does not bring out the best in people; just look at the keyboard warriors doing battle online. It’s the same on our roads. There is one thing you can do, though: Take off those sunglasses and start making eye contact with other drivers. Research shows you’re more likely to help other drivers when you recognize that it’s a person behind the wheel, not a machine. Maybe that way you’ll acknowledge me when I give you the right of way at that busy intersection. Go on, it won’t kill you.

8. Make a sitcom set in an office where people man those “How am I driving?” hotlines. (I assume the automated menu offers choices such as “For octogenarian driving wrong way on Ayalon, press 1; for Haredi man entrusting G-d with steering wheel, press 2; for truck driver blocking road in belief that Bamba delivery qualifies as emergency service, press 3…”).

We’ve already got the perfect title for the TV show: “The Fast and the Really Furious.”