Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz surprised everyone last week when he increased the speed limit on several highways around the country. The move was attributed to a report by experts in 2010.
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But last week's move doesn't entirely conform to the report's recommendations, and it's not entirely clear if the change was meant as a gift to voters before the January 22 election.
In his announcement, Katz cited a 25 percent decline in the number of traffic fatalities in 2012 to 281. So people in the industry were on board for the most part. The speed limit will be soon rise to 110 kph on several intercity highways including Highway 1 (between the Ben Shemen Interchange and Latrun ), Highway 2 (between Haifa and Caesarea ) and the Maccabit Road (Route 471 ).
On Highway 5 the speed limit will rise to 100 kph. On Highway 6 (the Trans-Israel Highway ) it will rise to 120 kph - pending the approval of the Knesset Finance Committee.
Surprisingly, the Transportation Ministry said the new limit is actually 120 kph on the privatized highways and 130 kph on Highway 6 because enforcement begins once the limit has been exceeded by 10 kph.
In the 2010 report, the committee divided Israel's highways into four types based on the number of lanes, separation barriers, and the presence of interchanges or intersections with traffic lights.
The committee recommended setting a limit of between 70 and 110 kph for each type of road. For Highway 6, the committee permitted 120 kph, but as the actual speed (the design speed ), not the officially permitted speed.
Meanwhile, the committee recommended limiting speeds on city roads to between 30 and 70 kph. But Katz chose not to implement this recommendation for now, despite the high percentage of fatal accidents in urban areas - 40 percent.
"The report did not discuss Highway 6, whose design speed is 130 kph," the ministry said. "Raising the speed limit on this highway is based on the opinion of the ministry's safety experts. The speed on urban roads has already been reduced in several communities, and this trend will continue in the future."
People close to the ministry say Katz's announcement was not preceded by the appropriate research; one said "it seems to have been made hastily." Still, many industry experts are on board.
"The minister's decision is correct because it conforms with the committee's recommendations regarding highways where the infrastructure makes high speeds possible, with the exception of the decision on Highway 6 - for which there is no place in our opinion," said the CEO of the nonprofit organization Or Yarok (Green Light ), Shmuel Abuav.
His words beg a question about the link between speed and traffic accidents.
"Speed affects safety in two ways: the probability of being involved in an accident and the seriousness of the injury in an accident - because the higher the speed, the greater the injury," says Dr. Shai Sofer, the chief scientist at the National Road Safety Authority.
"Driving 70 kph in an urban area is more dangerous than driving 130 kph on Highway 431, where there are fences, separation barriers and wide lanes. The speed limit is always examined relative to the road conditions and the circumstances," he says.
"We mustn't forget that speed is relative, because if we're all driving 130 kph in the same direction, the difference between speeds isn't great, which limits damage during an accident. In addition, on highways there are no vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists."
According to Sofer, "Speeding, depending on the circumstances of the incident, is another cause of accidents - but not the main one. The most lethal offenses such as lane deviation or going through a red light are related to speed - but they aren't caused by speed. They're caused by a lack of concentration or disregard for the law."
His comments are backed up by Prof. David Mehalel of the Technion technology institute in Haifa. "In Holland you can drive 130 kph and in Sweden 120 kph, while in England the speed limit will be raised this year to 130 kph," he says. "And the highways in Israel are as good as those in Europe."
But Mehalel says the Transportation Ministry should also adopt a less popular recommendation - to continue to reduce the speed limit in urban areas and to reduce the limit on highways that run through neighborhoods.
According to the committee's report, while the reduction in driving time is significant when speeds on intercity highways are increased, on urban highways there is no significant difference if the average speed increases from 30 to 50 kph. This is because of traffic lights, intersections and other aspects slowing traffic down.
In 2010 the speed limit was reduced on Tel Aviv's Namir Road, for example, from 80 to 70 kph, and on Basel Street speed it was limited at 30 kph. But on many city roads the recommendations were not implemented.
"The local authorities are the ones who have to decide and implement the recommendations," says Yeshayahu Ronen, a transportation engineer who coordinated the committee's work at the Transportation Ministry. He now serves as an independent consultant.
"The large local councils have someone who does that, and you can see areas where traffic is regulated on streets where there are both cars and pedestrians ... sometimes, for example, by using a traffic circle. The trigger for change must come from the local authority. The Transportation Ministry can't check every street in 250 urban authorities. According to police data, 50 percent of fatal accidents in Israel are caused by speed."
Modern cars are safer
Still, Katz's announcement received the tacit support of professionals; not only were there fewer fatalities in traffic accidents in 2012, there was a 12 percent decline in the overall number of casualties.
At a press conference this week, Katz boasted about the statistics, even though there was a 13 percent increase in the number of serious injuries. This figure may point to the real reason for the decline in the number of fatalities: more recent models protect their passengers better.
So what caused the decline in the number of casualties? The experts say the phenomenon stems from a series of long-term processes.
"Stronger enforcement, improved infrastructure, vehicle safety, the improvement of the evacuation and rescue services, and increasing public awareness have come together to reduce the damage from traffic accidents," says Abuav. Others mention the increasing traffic on highways, which slows cars down.
Compact cars such as the Peugeot 107 and Citroen C1 have received a disappointing grade of three stars out of five in European crash tests, due to a 68 percent grade for protecting adult passengers. The reason: These models, launched in 2005, are outdated.
When they were first tested that year, they received four stars, but European crash tests have become stricter since. A more recent model in the same category such as a Seat Mii or a Skoda Citigo received five stars this year and an 89 percent grade for protecting passengers.
"Today's Volkswagen Golf weighs as much as a minister's Volvo in the 1970s and it's far better designed," says the Transportation Ministry's chief scientist, Dr. Amir Ziv-Av.
"The modern car is less dangerous to passengers, and when hitting another car the areas of energy absorption soften the blow. There has also been an improvement in safety systems, designed to prevent the car from getting into dangerous situations. And today every new car is equipped with stability monitoring and a system to prevent the wheels from locking when braking."
At the same time, the quality of paving and highway equipment is improving, in part thanks to government projects implemented by private companies after meticulous instructions on separation between lanes and safety railings.
In the past year much attention has been paid to the new speed cameras, which catch speeders or anyone running a red light. A ticket is sent to the driver's home.
So far 36 camera poles have been installed (holding 12 cameras ), but according to Sofer, "the project has had a tremendous effect beyond the highways where the cameras have been installed. When people think that information on their driving is being collected, they drive better."
Sofer says there's another deterrence: the massive presence of police cars and the new legislation allowing zero tolerance of driving under the influence.