Monday, November 29, 2004

Great scenery, shame about the drivers

Next week will be my sixth visit to Israel in less than eighteen months. It's always a hectic trip as I try and see my relatives and visit friends who are dotted all over the country. If you don't have much time, there's notbetter way to get around then by car.

You must think I’m mad. After all, its well known that in the last 56 years of the State’s existence, there have been more casualties caused by motor accidents than by War. How could I have enjoyed driving on roads crowded with kamikaze taxi drivers, speeding buses and short tempered motorists who hoot if one hasn’t moved off, notwithstanding traffic lights that are still amber and not yet green?

I admit the last time I drove in Israel, it took me a week to adjust to local habits, but after that, I began to understand what everyone was doing. For example, when someone hoots in England, it’s to warn that there could be danger. When someone hoots in Israel, they want to communicate! I think that rather than have their licences revoked, Israeli motorists who break the law should have their horn disconnected. It would be the ultimate deterrent, like having ones tongue ripped out!

Apart from horns, there were other “customs” that took a little time to get used to. I was driving on a bright sunny day in March, yet to my amazement, everyone drove with their headlights on. I soon found out that by law, one must keep ones headlights on at all times between November 1st and March 31st . Visibility is often poor in the winter, but because Israeli motorists can’t distinguish between darkness and light, headlights must be on at all times. (Many Israelis keep their headlights on all year)!

The next thing to surprise me was being followed by a police car on the motorway, with its emergency lights flashing. “Oh hell, what have I done!”, I thought, but the car followed me for the next twenty miles without doing anything, and then turned off at the next exit. He didn’t seem in much of a hurry either. It turns out that the police have to keep their emergency lights on too, and all the year round. Maybe in Israel, everything is an emergency! “Zeh Dachuf”, Hebrew for: “it’s urgent”, is the phrase most commonly heard there.

Police cars with flashing lights are very useful for motorists who break the law. A friend of mine took a group of us out for a night on the town. There were more people in his car than seats. With points already on his licence, and worried about being stopped, my friend pulled over and hid each time he saw flashing lights. A case of : “it’s legal as long as you don’t get caught”, Israelis feel they should have an advance warning!

So what was so pleasurable about driving in Israel? Well, in the space of a few short hours, one can pass through such varied and beautiful landscapes. Snow capped mountains, coastal plains, hills covered in conifer forests and a descent through desert dunes, all in half a day. And if one drives in the winter, one can pass literally from one season to another. Though the centre of the country is crowded, there are vast areas in the north and in the south, where one can drive through winding country roads without experiencing any traffic.

Was driving there stressful? On the contrary, I found myself laughing out loud at some of the things I noticed, like motorists overtaking me on the approach to a bend, or in a “no overtaking” zone and without even signalling. On Israeli Motorways there are no “inside” and “overtaking” lanes. You use whichever lane suits you! Just leapfrog round anyone who is blocking your path! I was also amused by the gadgets and upholstery that Israelis put in and on their cars to make driving more pleasurable and to give their vehicles more “street cred”. The most popular gimmicks are Playboy Bunny and “turbo” seat covers, curtains for the passenger windows, flashing stop lights, and “John Player Special” stickers.

Laughter aside, there’s a more serious side to this article:

Around five hundred motorists are killed every year on Israeli roads. With every major accident, people cry out: “something has to be done”. For years, the authorities have been tearing their hair out, trying to work out some way of reducing the casualties:

All sorts of schemes have been devised, One, has been to put up signs at accident blackspots, telling people how many have been killed there over the past year. Crackdowns on speeding have also been tried, but the Authorities have been overlooking one critical factor, the Israeli attitude to life, which says: “I’m never wrong!”.

We are all infuriated by other people’s inconsiderate or dangerous driving , but it’s much harder to find fault with our own. Most motorists I have met in Israel, consider themselves to be better than average drivers, but they can’t all be right. As any advanced driving instructor will tell you: the first step towards becoming safer is to own up to mistakes. Something Israelis find difficult to do!

Israelis have argued that the Governments’ number one priority after security, should be road safety. But one can only legislate for road safety up to a point, and one can’t legislate against national arrogance. After all, its the “I’m always right” attitude that has caused such a gulf between the religious and secular, and the political left and right. Road safety is the one and only issue that unites all Israelis, and if they can’t solve a problem they actually agree upon, what hope do they have of solving all the others?

Nearly twenty years ago when the Aids epidemic hit the UK, the Government devised an advertising campaign with the slogan: “ Don’t die of ignorance”. It won’t be long till the Israeli Government launches yet another road safety campaign. Maybe they should use the slogan: “Don’t die of Arrogance” .