Wednesday, 6 June 2012

But Dougal, it's not really magic, said Florence

When the traffic lights are green, what does this mean to an Israeli driver?
"Step on the gas", of course.
At least, that's the answer I got when I asked a hall full of engineering students when I recently gave a lecture on Road Design: Thinking Outside the Box.
That was quite an experience I can tell you. When I recall the lectures I attended in England way back in the previous century, I think of hundreds of students sitting in tiered lecture theatres (lovely term) hanging on to every word, as some lecturer espouses a theorem, defines a school of thought, or attempts a joke, while imparting his or her pearls of wisdom. Noticeably, other than the lecturer, the room is silent. Not one student speaks.
Now shift the camera to Israel, and zoom in on some lecture theatre, here. You'll find a very different picture. The more appropriate word that springs to mind is Interaction. Noise. Audience participation.
A new experience certainly.
So I delighted the crowd with some pearls of wisdom. On roads, and how they could be safer.

Roads are notoriously dangerous in Israel. Though now I've said it, I should qualify that.
It's all relative. Very possibly it's more dangerous crossing the road in Delhi, having to maneuver between 15 lanes of trucks, cars, buses (all belching out lethal fumes) bicycles, rickshaws, scooters, motorbikes (often carrying an entire family) and a cow or two.

When I first arrived in Israel many years ago, in my innocent stage, when everything seemed achievable, accessible, agreeable and at the same time unintelligible, I approached the Road Safety Authority. I met with the chairman and suggested, in my childish innocence, some ways of improving the design of roads in Israel. At one point, I made some comparison to England, to which he immediately bristled. He poohpoohed my suggestions. (Now, when was the last time you had a good "poohpooh"?)."Well of course," he dismissed, "England's at the top of the league in safety", as if it was ridiculous I should even mention it in the same sentence as road safety in Israel, as if the two worlds had nothing in common, and he showed me the door. But let's not be put off by his appalling attitude. (He was also little concerned over the dreadful rates of pedestrians injured or killed on the roads, and I quote him here, "Yes, but many of them are foreigners."!! This was years ago, and I'm sure his replacement has more feeling. Possibly he was replaced by a biro. Actually, the government clearly thought something was amiss as the National Road Safety has seen its budget shrink over the years)

Now back to the lecture.
You don't see many roundabouts in Israel. Certainly not on major roads, though they are popping up here and there in smaller urban intersections. Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, even Modi'in-Not-By-The-Sea has hopped on the bandwagon. This is encouraging.
Roundabouts are safer than regular junctions with traffic lights. And they're more efficient too.
How so?
Well they're more efficient in one simple way: you don't have to necessarily stop when you come to one. Slow down, certainly, but if there's no traffic around, off you go. Particularly at quieter times, traffic flows more smoothly over roundabouts. And having no traffic lights saves electricity. (Which would delight the Israel Electric Corporation, but I'm not even going to mention them this week).
And why are roundabouts safer?
Studies abroad showed that when a regular junction was replaced with a roundabout, accidents dropped by 40%, injuries fell by 80% and fatalities plummeted by over 90%.
First of all, serious accidents and injuries (including fatalities) are the result of side-on or head-on collisions. But at a roundabout, cars are never facing each other, or at right angles to each other. They merge, roughly moving off in the same direction (hopefully anti-clockwise).
But the other reason I and my enlightened Israeli students concluded was this: At a roundabout, the driver has to slow down, THINK and USE HIS/HER JUDGEMENT. So whilst the brain is in active mode, the driver is a safer driver.
At a traffic light, in contrast, the driver – in automatic mode – just watches the lights, and steps on the gas, as the students eloquently put it.

There are plenty of things in Israel that could drive you round the bend. But let's hope there'll be more reasons that will have us driving, safely, round a roundabout.

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