Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Engine on. Lights on. Seat belt on. Brain off.

Now why are so many killed on the roads in Israel? Last year there were 394 fatalities, and many more injured, slightly up on the 370 killed in 2009. That's more than one person dying on our roads every day.
Our record has improved, though at 4.1 fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants, we're still behind the likes of Sweden (2.9) or the UK (3.6). Maybe an international comparison is inappropriate, and we should simply be aiming for 0 fatalities a year.
So what can be done?
First let's have a dig at the Ministry of Transportation. Though there are definitely some professionals there, there are also plenty of middling, bumbling clerks, overstretching their capabilities, imposing their small-minded practices on the rest of the country. For example, for the planned new mass transit systems of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the Ministry of Transportation issued a thick, detailed design manual. Well that's very useful. The manual was based on the Ministry's umpteen years of experience of building light rail systems, I suppose. (For those of you outside of Israel, you should know that, up until this month, there was no light rail system anywhere in the country).
But I really take umbrage (you should try taking it tooJ) at the Ministry's philosophy of mollycoddling Israeli drivers.
For example, have you noticed that traffic lights are placed both before and after junctions? Take a look next time you're sitting at the lights. Abroad, the traffic lights might appear only before the junction. But if you place them only there, then drivers would have to come to a halt actually at the stop line. The Israeli practice of having another light on the far side of the junction allows drivers to overshoot the mark, and stop actually on the crossing, creating inconveniences for the pedestrians. (The who? Yes, those people that get in the way of drivers).
The Israeli driver is a fool and a menace, thinks the Ministry, so we must treat him as such. He is incapable of making reasonable judgments. Therefore, when you come to a junction – now pay attention next time – and it's your turn to turn left, you don't have to worry about crashing into any oncoming cars because, in contrast to elsewhere, the lights in Israel will stop the oncoming traffic. The powers-that-be have decided that you, the Israeli driver, are incapable of judging the speed and distance of other road-users.

Or sometimes you get two roads, both one-way, roughly coming from the same direction, that merge to form a larger road. Abroad, the lights would allow everyone to enter the "joint" road at the same time. No, too difficult for the Israeli driver, decides the Ministry and so you'll find that the two merging roads have their own traffic light phase.

So Israeli drivers are rarely called upon to think, or judge, or hone their driving skills.

But are they inherently bad drivers? I don't believe so. Just the other day, the traffic lights at a busy Tel Aviv junction (Shaul Hamelech, Namir and Begin roads) temporarily failed during the afternoon rush hour. This is where four major roads meet, in a flattened X shape, with at least four lanes coming from each direction. So what happened when the lights failed? You could imagine a dreadful pile-up, but that wasn't the case. I stopped and watched. The speed of the traffic slowed, but everyone managed to get across, somehow. It was noisier, admittedly, with a cacophony of klaxons, but the intersection actually worked.

So why not permanently take away the traffic lights? And while you're at it, all road markings, white lines, signposts? Maybe the roads would be safer. That's not such a crazy idea. (As Polonius said "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't.") Treating drivers more responsibly may actually make them better, safer drivers.
Some traffic designers (a fascinating bunch of people, you should try and crash one of their parties) argue exactly that. Several cities have taken such a step, in selected places, such as Exhibition Road or Seven Dials in London, or the town of Makkinga in the Netherlands. One traffic junction there where traffic lights were removed [see picture above] saw accidents plummet from 36 in the four years before the change in policy, to only two in the two years following it.

I'm not arguing we should change all roads like so, but we could start by treating Israeli drivers as responsible adults, and not children that need spoon-feeding with wide lanes, one-way streets, and traffic lights on even the quietest residential roads. And then maybe our roads would become safer for all. 

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