On Israel's roads, a constant state of war Fatal school bus accident prompts new call for action

February 22, 1996|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- A rash of fatal road accidents in Israel has officials wondering once again how to make Israelis drive more safely.

Sixty-eight fatalities in seven weeks -- including a collision xTC between a truck and a school bus Monday that killed three children -- have produced calls for tougher laws, more driver education and stricter licensing requirements.

Similar proposals are heard periodically after spectacular accidents, with few results. Israelis remain notorious hazards on the road -- even though police handed out 1 million tickets last year in this country of 2.4 million drivers.

"There is too much talk about the accidents and too little done," Israel's president, Ezer Weizman, complained this week. "The Israeli driver believes he is driving a tank or a plane to war.

"He sees a car or a bus in front of him and just has to pass. It's not the roads that are to blame. Drivers are responsible for 90 percent of the accidents."

Aggressive driving seems almost an accepted fact in Israeli society, Mr. Weizman and others say. While the threat of attacks from Palestinians dominates Israeli politics and news, 57 Israelis were killed in such violence during a particularly bloody 1995. There was much less outcry about the nearly 10 times as many Israelis killed last year in traffic accidents.

But the school bus accident has stirred protests, aimed this time at truck and bus drivers. In the past week, the vehicles have been involved in three fatal accidents.

A tractor-trailer swung into the school bus in Galilee, killing two 10-year-olds and an 8-year-old, and injuring 36. The truck driver had a string of tickets on his record, and the crash prompted stories about poorly trained drivers and overloaded trucks. Israel's largest daily newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, blared the accusation: "Heavyweight Murderers."

Truck drivers were blamed Tuesday when a truck veered into an oncoming lane near Jerusalem and hit a minibus, killing a Romanian worker. Last week, on the same road, a skidding truck killed a 21-year-old Israeli settler.

"The Israeli driver is not courteous, doesn't see anyone else, and is wild on the road," Yisrael Schtub, an instructor at the National Transportation School in Ashdod told Yediot. "Truck and bus drivers are even wilder. They fear no god."

The huge, red-and-white Egged buses that crisscross Israel are universally feared by those in more-crushable cars. To move quickly through busy city streets, bus drivers steer their heavy vehicles to force traffic out of the way and often do not pause if the maneuver results in a fender-bender.

A bus full of elderly American B'nai B'rith volunteers overturned Sunday, when a speeding driver missed a turn. No one was seriously hurt.

"We believe there's a big link between people's behavior off the road and their driving," said Cmdr. Udi Efrat, head of the traffic division of the national police. After the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November, traffic accidents dropped sharply for the month, he noted.

"We think people just moved a lot more slowly, a lot more carefully," he said.

With 543 traffic fatalities last year in Israel, Mr. Weizman has called for more tickets. "I would like to see another 500 traffic policemen on the roads," he said.

Police are installing cameras on key highways in Israel and have begun sending tickets automatically to cars recorded going through red lights, speeding and tailgating, said Commander Efrat.

But many fatal accidents occur off the major highways, on narrow, twisting roads. Despite a massive road-building effort, highway construction has not kept up with the surge in private cars in Israel, which now number 1.3 million.

"We're becoming more affluent, and affluent people buy cars," said Eric Bar-Chen, a police spokesman.

Ironically, the road construction may be contributing to the problems. Construction companies are using more and heavier trucks for the work, and are hiring drivers who receive much less training than their counterparts in Europe, Israeli officials say. Trucks were involved in 121 fatal accidents last year, three times their proportion on the roads.

But offensive driving habits remain the chief culprit.

"We are not a calm people. We are by nature nervous," said a police official, who requested anonymity. "Everybody is under pressure, there is traffic jams, agitation. The temperature of the country rises on the roads."

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