Sunday 14 December 2008

Sending our Children to War

The inevitable has finally happened to me. This is a time that I have been dreading, and it is coming true. After years of being there to protect my son, the time has come for me to let go and allow him to go it alone. This has nothing to do with his call-up to the IDF (although this is also in the pipeline). The time has come for him to begin learning to drive.

Those of you who have had the misfortune to be on the road in Israel will understand why the notion of our children driving here conjures fear in every parent's heart. It is on the Israeli roads that the very worst characteristics of Israelis seem to be on display. Notorious lack of patience, inherent in every native-born Israeli and drip-fed into immigrants, is not a good character trait to take to the roads with. And yet, this is predominant on the roads, to the point that it ends up taking valuable lives.

One of the most frequently quote statistics about Israel is that more people have been killed on the roads in Israel since independence than in its wars. Given that the number of victims of war and terror attacks number over 22,000 (or almost 400 each year) in the 60 years of its history, it is clearly not something to be proud of that there are more victims of traffic accidents.

In addition to the lack of patience which is part of Israeli culture, there is another Israeli cultural trait that is detrimental on the roads. This is the Israeli notion that everything can be negotiated. This is even inherent in schools where pupils feel that adhering to the school rules is only a recommendation. In the event that they are caught out, they enter into a protracted negotiation to justify their transgression. Frequently, their position is accepted and their negotiating stance vindicated. This attitude that "rules are there to be negotiated around" works well in the hi-tech environment where Israelis prove to be very successful as a result of not being willing to conform to conventions. Whilst this attitude has its advantages, it proves to be disastrous on the roads where people feel that they can take the law into their own hands when they believe it is justified.

A great deal of effort has been made by the road safety authorities to address the road casualty statistic. Fines for transgression of road traffic rules have been considerably strengthened. Cameras have been erected in numerous places to record drivers that disobey rules, and prosecution of these drivers has been streamlined. Many drivers are barred from driving or are invited to defensive driving refresher courses in the event that they accumulate too many penalty points. This seems to have had the desired effect on the death toll as the number of road deaths dropped to 398 in 2007 as opposed to 414 in 2006, 448 in 2005 and 480 in 2004. This same period also showed a 15% drop in those seriously injured on the roads and an 11% drop in those who were lightly injured.

When taken in isolation and compared to other countries, the road death statistic does not turn out to be as bad is it initially appears. In 2006, the 414 road deaths equated to approximately 64 per million inhabitants. This is better than most countries in Europe for the same period according to the European Commission road safety statistics. In fact, only 8 countries included in these statistics can boast road deaths less than 64 per million inhabitants. Lithuania has the misfortune of the worst road record in Europe with no less than 223 deaths per million inhabitants in 2006. Germany is very similar to Israel with 62 deaths per million.

For some reason, I have an instinct that smaller countries should have lower road death statistics. This is not based on anything other than a gut inclination. Maybe, it seems logical that a smaller country has less roads and shorter roads therefore lower speed and less casualties. Referring back to the European Commission statistics does not really bear this out. The smaller countries represented in these statistics together with their 2006 road casualties per million inhabitants in brackets are as follows: Malta (25), Cyprus (112), Luxembourg (78) , Slovenia (131) and Belgium (102). Just to prove the point that size does not matter where these statistics are concerned, France's road casualties for the same period numbered 75 per million.

So, it is clear that Israel's road casualties are not so terrible when compared with the countries covered by the European Commission. And yet, this does not allay my fears nor my feeling that even 400 deaths in a year seems far too many. It is all the more worrying when the war on our borders is considered in addition the road warfare. There seems to be a great deal for a parent to be concerned about.

My fear of sending my son out onto the road does not stem from him being irresponsible, nor my feeling that he won't be able to handle the car. It stems entirely from my fear that he will not have sufficient experience to ward off the other kamikaze drivers that are likely to test his driving skills to the limit. I have told him that I do not wish for him to drive alone until he is 18 years old, even though the law permits him to do so. He hates me for this but, somehow, it feels as though my presence can be of some assistance to him as builds up the necessary experience to take on the perils of Israeli driving.

But ultimately, I will need to let go and he will have to go out on his own. I dread the thought.

Postscript added on 18th December 2008
My blog appears to have tempted fate. Since writing it, one of Israel's worst road accidents in terms of loss of life occurred. A tourist bus carrying Russian tour guides and their families fell down an embankment near Eilat, and overturned killing 24 Russian tourists and injuring many others. This loss of life, particularly of visitors to our country, is tragic. It will almost certainly ensure the reversal of the positive recent trend of decreasing victims of road acccidents, and is a blow to the hard work done by road safety campaigners. What is particularly disturbing are the differing reports about how the accident came about. It is reported that two tourist buses were travelling together, and the drivers may have been playing a game with each other. The driver of the bus involved in the accident claims that somebody fell onto him causing him to lose control of the vehicle.

Whatever the real cause of this terrible tragedy, it is increasingly clear to me that we require a significant national change to the behaviour of drivers on our roads, and to the culture of driving in this country.

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