Dead People Don't Vote

All three deadly accidents in the last two weeks have one thing in common: They stem from the combination of fast, dangerous driving with an underdeveloped highway system that extracts a bloody, steep price for every human error.

Last Saturday night, not far from Yokneam, Alexander Stefanov lost control his vehicle, which ran off the road and slammed into a Mekorot water pipe. He and three family members were killed at the scene. Last Thursday, three people were traveling in a van heading west on Route 805. Two hundred meters before the Dir Hanna intersection, the driver, Mohammed Darwish Khatib, swerved slightly and ran head-on into the extra-wide heavy truck in the opposite lane. All three people were killed.

A few days before, a 45-year-old man and his 5-year-old daughter were killed in an accident on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway when the truck following them was unable to slow down when they braked for a turn, and crushed their small passenger car. The man's wife and son were badly injured.

All three accidents have one thing in common: They stem from the combination of fast, dangerous driving with an underdeveloped highway system that extracts a bloody, steep price for every human error.

Politicians tend to emphasize the "human factor" in accidents because it exempts them of responsibility. Traffic Police and National Road Safety Authority (NRSA) officials also tend to blame drivers, claiming that they are nervous and haphazard, and that they speed and are contemptuous of the law. It is true that not all Israelis drive carefully, responsibly and "in keeping with road conditions." Do they deserve the death penalty?

Israel's road system is decades behind accepted European standards. The traffic density is among the highest in the world. Roads are too narrow, and are not well-lit or marked. There are too few full intersections, the shoulders fall short of standards and the pavement is of poor quality.

Many traffic studies have shown that a central divider can halve (!) the number of fatal accidents, because it prevents head-on collisions. Had there been, for example, a central divider along the Arava road, the accident there last week, in which two French tourists died in a head-on collision with a truck, would not have been fatal. The accident near Dir Hanna would not have occurred at all.

Even Highway 2, the Tel Aviv-Haifa road, is an old and dangerous road. The section between Netanya and Haifa does not meet international standards. Highway 1, the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway, is dangerous as well, and has a number of serious safety issues.

Despite this, Israeli drivers pay far more than their European counterparts, because taxation is higher here. Tax money is used for everything - except roads and intersections.

Even the cabinet failed to remain indifferent this week to the fatal accidents. On Sunday it held a special session on the issue. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced with a festive air that there would be no cuts to the budget for the war against traffic accidents, while Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz presented a program (yet another one) for the war.

Mofaz promised a 6-percent reduction in accidents every year - "if all the necessary means are received." In the meantime, however, all the necessary means are being diverted to the West Bank. Currently, six roads and road segments are being built in the West Bank for a very small number of drivers. For that, there is always money. But at the very same time, the cabinet is cutting the NRSA's budget.

In economic terms, however, reducing accidents pays off. The direct damage to the economy as a result of traffic accidents amounts to about NIS 6 billion a year, with indirect damages adding another NIS 4 billion. In other words, it is worth investing billions in infrastructure in order to reduce the number of accidents, but this is not being done.

The reasons for this are political. The public does not blame the cabinet for the accidents and deaths; it sees them as part of natural law, a sort of sacrifice to Moloch of the highways. The public does not punish the prime minister and the transportation minister on election day, so the politicians don't really care. After all, traffic victims don't vote.