Israel to test immigrants as auto mishaps rise 144%

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

January 04, 1994|By Doug Struck and Danna Bethlehem | Doug Struck and Danna Bethlehem,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- The newest warning in this county accustomed to danger: Beware of Russians driving cars.

Israeli police recently concluded that the wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union has brought a high tide of automobile accidents.

The police said they found a 144 percent increase in the number of accidents involving new immigrants last year compared to 1991.

So as of Feb. 1, to get an Israeli license all immigrants will have to take a driving test rather than simply showing proof they held a driver's license in the country they left.

"We have respect for the immigrants," said Ora Salomon, spokeswoman for the Transport Ministry. But "this is a matter of life and death."

According to Penina Meron, director of the licensing branch of the Transport Ministry, it is the little things the immigrants neglect -- such as going through stop signs, driving in the wrong lane, turning from the wrong side of the road, ignoring street signs, speeding.

"We get people who come to Israel with driving licenses but don't know how to drive," said Dudu Sayag, 47, a driving instructor for 18 years.

"In Russia, the cars are very old and decrepit, and people think they have to use force in order to drive. So, what happens is, they come here and think they're driving cars like in Russia. A little touch on the accelerator is enough to send the car speeding."

The former Soviets here, who feel besmirched by Israelis as the culprits for everything from prostitution to organized crime, say this latest allegation is another slander.

"We dispute the figures," said Sergei Makarov, who came from Moscow in 1990. "The new immigrants drive better than Israelis.

"In big cities like Moscow and Leningrad, people were very observant of the traffic rules," he said. There was a reason: "Compared to here, the police were very ruthless."

The Israeli government adds to the problem by giving new arrivals the right to buy a car without taxes, cutting the price by 35 to 40 percent. A car is often the first purchase of a newcomer, regardless of driving skill.

"You can't compare Russian drivers to other drivers. They drive very badly," contended Yigal Simhoni, a driving teacher for 30 years. "They have no control, no coordination. Their arms and their legs are clumsy." Russians aren't the only problem group, he noted: "Immigrants from the United States have a problem with manual [transmission] cars."

But the blame cannot rest only on immigrants. Israeli roads are notoriously dangerous places. In 1992, there were 507 traffic fatalities. That was 17 times the number of soldiers and civilians killed that year in the Palestinian conflict.

Israel generally does not have a problem of alcohol-related accidents. But Israelis are astoundingly aggressive drivers. Caution is not a recognizable concept on the road.

"They cut you off whenever they want to get somewhere very fast, and they always want to get somewhere very fast," said Mr. Makarov. "Sometimes I'm amazed why they don't value their life more."

These habits are a particular wonder because Israeli driving schools have a lucrative racket: They generally require 30 to 35 lessons before a student may take the driving test. At $20 for each 40-minute lesson, a driver's license is an expensive acquisition.

For many years, the cost of cars and licenses was out of reach for most. But the country's more recent affluence has led to more cars. The half-million immigrants who have come here since the collapse of the Soviet Union have only added to the problem.

One man who watched the consequences with growing appreciation is Gaby Medina, owner of one of the largest auto-body repair shops in Jerusalem.

"It's really been good for me. We've had a significant increase of work because of the new immigrants," he said. "There are some that don't know how to drive at all. I had one new immigrant who didn't even know where first or second gear was.

"One time, it took the owner of a car we had fixed a half-hour to back his car out of the garage," Mr. Medina recalled fondly. "He came back a half-hour later with the car on a tow truck."

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