Safety Second

Forty-six people have been killed there in seven years - but the most lethal section of Highway 65 has been left out of plans to improve it.

Social justice, declared Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week, "means a transport solution that allows rapid entry into and exit from outlying settlements.

"The high-speed highway from the center of the country to the Galilee will enable economic and cultural development and the creation of new horizons for Israel," he added.

Katz and Netanyahu - Abdullah Shema - September 2011
Abdullah Shema

Israeli flags and the flags of the Israel National Roads Company could be seen fluttering behind him, while Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, standing by his side, solemnly promised a future of quick access, with no long waits at traffic lights, from the country's center to the Galilee panhandle.

The event was the dedication ceremony of Hamovil interchange - a central part of a transport plan whose objective is to expand and improve the "eastern arm" leading from the Trans-Israel Highway to Kiryat Shmona.

Four days earlier, on September 2, three people were killed in a traffic accident not far away. Hussein Hassan Hamidi, 55, his wife Fit'hiya Mohammed Saoub, 51, and a 27-year-old relative, Atar Ali Saoub, all from the Galilee village of Shibli, were killed on Highway 65 when a car coming from the other direction strayed from its lane and hit them, between Eilabun junction and Bueina-Nujidat junction.

In light of the high incidence of road accidents in Israel this would not have been considered exceptional - had these not been the 44th, 45th, and 46th victims of this highway section in seven years. The road in question was defined by a senior police officer this week as "the most dangerous highway section in the country."

34 accidents

Haaretz has been following developments on this lethal part of Highway 65 for a number of years. The highway begins at the Caesarea interchange, branching off from the coastal highway; it continues east through Wadi Ara, passes through Meggido junction, continues on to what is known as the "ruler highway," passes through Afula and Kfar Tavor, continues north to Golani junction and terminates at Kadarim junction.

From the coastal highway to the exit to Afula the road has two lanes in each direction. But from Afula northwards it narrows to one lane in each direction.

"This is a relatively short, crowded, two-way road," explained the senior officer, who has studied numerous accidents that took place on the highway in recent years. "It's like a hose with a wide diameter that grows narrow in the middle, so the water can't flow through. That's what happens on this highway. The volume of traffic on it is greater than it can contain."

According to a Haaretz survey focusing on the highway section leading from Afula northwards to Nahal Zalmon junction, 46 people have been killed here over the past seven years, in 34 accidents. This stretch of road is only 33 kilometers long. Most of the lethal accidents were the result of head-on collisions, due to drivers straying from their lanes. Such collisions were responsible for 39 out of the 46 victims. Following reports in the press, the authorities promised that infrastructures in the area would be upgraded.

Improvement on part of Highway 65 will begin soon, when works start on widening the section between Golani junction northwards to Kadarim junction, and from there, on Highway 85, to Amiad junction. This section will become a four-lane highway with a median divider and interchanges at junctions on the way. The work will be part of the "Netivei Israel" ("Israel Routes" ) national project.

In order to shorten the journey, and connect the center of the country to outlying areas, central junctions will become interchanges. Roadworks on Golani interchange, which will replace Golani junction in the country's north, have already begun. The cost of constructing the interchange is estimated at NIS 350 million.

Criticism has been voiced regarding the priorities of the decision makers. Moti Dotan, head of the Lower Galilee Regional Council - the area containing most of the dangerous road section - said: "The highway section from Afula to Golani desperately needs to be widened, they can't have forgotten it. NIS 350 million for Golani junction is important, but if there isn't enough money to carry out all the tasks, it is more important to widen the highway from Afula to Golani.

"People get killed on the way to and from the junction and not at the junction itself. If the question is, which is more important: for people to wait in traffic for two minutes at the junction or to be killed on the way to it? The answer is clear. In this state of affairs, speeches about driving without traffic lights are populism, saving lives is more important."

An examination of the data confirms that only one of the 46 victims on the road in recent years was killed at the junction that is now receiving such massive upgrading. The other 45 were killed on the problematic road leading up to it.

A more detailed examination reveals another fact: 26 of the victims were killed in accidents that took place south of the junction, on the section between Afula and Golani junction, compared to 19 on the section north of the junction. In other words, it is precisely the most problematic and lethal part of the highway that has been left out of the national plan for widening and improving the road.

According to Dr. Moshe Becker, an expert on transportation and road safety, 29 thousand vehicles pass daily through the highway section leading from Afula to Kfar Tavor, "a number that is triple the amount at which two lanes should be paved in each direction." As mentioned above, the section in question has only one lane in each direction. This number is slightly higher than the number of vehicles passing daily on the road section to be upgraded - from Golani junction northwards.

Becker, like Dotan, believes that "the present agenda is focused not on safety but on connecting outlying areas to the center, whereas the order of priorities should put safety first." Nevertheless, Becker emphasized that building an interchange at Golani junction is justified, claiming that "the government has enough money for both projects. The state collects NIS 20 billion from drivers, and another NIS 10 billion from insurance companies. Saying that there isn't enough money is not true."

Surprisingly, officials at the National Roads Company also think the overlooked road section must be upgraded. "According to relevant criteria, plans for upgrading this highway should have been implemented yesterday, not tomorrow," said NRC chairman Micha Goldman. "There is no reason why this highway should not be urgently upgraded."

Waiting list

Yet the order of priorities regarding work on the highway does not look promising. The roadworks on the sections that will be improved - as expected when Haaretz began its survey three years ago - started later than promised, and some of them have been postponed indefinitely.

The NRC says that works on widening Highway 65 from Golani junction northwards will begin in mid-2012, with their completion planned by 2015. "Three years ago the National Roads Company declared it would advance a plan for widening the highway, and it stood by its promise. The plans were put on an NIC [National Infrastructure Committee] track, which is the fast track for approving programs in Israel. Works for developing Highway 65 south of Golani junction did not receive budgetary approval.

"Nevertheless, plans for developing this highway section are included on a waiting list for implementation as part of the NRC program for 2011-2016."

Officials at the Transportation Ministry also said this week that plans for widening the highway were handled over the past three years through the National Infrastructure Committee and that "this is considered a short period of time in relation to plans of this kind."

Yet these self-congratulatory expressions are not encouraging for those closely watching the situation. According to prognoses of the Or Yarok Association for Safer Driving, over the next five years the highway will claim another 22 deaths and some 1,100 injuries.

"This is what we call a 'red highway,'" said Or Yarok's CEO Shmuel Aboav. "It has no barriers between the lanes, it is twisted, and night vision on it is low. It has no proper edges paved for safety, and no rumble strips. Its upgrading should be first in the order of priorities, before work on other highways."