TEL AVIV — Israeli drivers have a reputation for having bad road manners: They’re aggressive and needlessly competitive; they won’t let anyone pass them; they’re on the phone constantly. Google “Israeli drivers are” and you get: “crazy,” “a danger” and even “the worst.” “The most dangerous thing in Israel is the Israeli driver,” one tour guide warns his potential clients.
Yet Israel today is one of the 10 safest countries to drive in. Recent statistics from the official National Road Safety Authority [pdf] put the number of deaths caused by car accidents in 2012 at about 290. That’s the lowest number in 50 years [pdf]. “I am still rubbing my ears,” Yaakov Sheinin, director of the National Road Safety Authority, said upon getting the good news.
In 2004, for the fifth year in a row, about 500 Israelis were killed on the road — that’s 12.7 fatalities per billion kilometers traveled, about 2.5 times as many as in Britain at that time. Distressed by the trend, in 2005, the government formed a committee on road safety, with Sheinin as its head. The year after that the independent road safety authority was created [pdf], and immediately it began implementing plans to identify the common causes of accidents, fix roads and shorten ambulances’ response times, among other things.
That worked. By 2012, 5.6 Israelis were killed for every billion kilometers traveled. That’s a 56 percent decline since 2004, explains Sheinin, if you consider that in the meantime the number of cars in Israel grew by 35 percent and the number of kilometers traveled by Israeli drivers increased by more than 30 percent.
But if Israel is riding a safety tide, it is riding it high, with even better results than most other countries.
Israel is not exactly exceptional in this: The number of fatal car accidents has been dropping across developed countries. In 30 of 33 countries studied by the International Transport Forum there was a “dramatic drop in road deaths” between 2000 and 2009 [pdf].
But if Israel is riding a safety tide, it is riding it high, with even better results than most other countries. Australia, Canada, the United States, France and Japan were all ahead of it 10 years ago; now, they are all behind.
As to be expected, many groups in Israel are claiming credit for this success. Most deserve it, including the government agencies that heavily invested in infrastructure and road improvements; nongovernmental organizations like Or Yarok (Green Light), which shamed the government into action; the police, for devising smarter policies to curtail the most dangerous driving; the hospitals that improved their trauma units; car manufacturers worldwide, which have made cars increasingly safe; and the Israeli public, for changing its ways.
Wait. Why exactly have angry, chatty, reckless Israelis calmed down at the wheel? I asked the sociologist Shlomo Fischer and he speculated that Israelis may be less aggressive as economic, political and racial tensions within Israel abate (the current election campaign certainly has been comparatively civil). Fischer also said that as economic disparities lessen, the middle class increasingly concerns itself with everyday matters like personal safety.
When I asked Sheinin the same question, he was dismissive: He thought it was based on the faulty premise that Israelis have a specific “mentality” that supposedly explains their supposedly wild behavior. As a counterargument, he offered this nugget of data: Did you know that more people who ride in the front of cars wear their seatbelts in Israel than anywhere else in the world?
This, for Sheinin, is evidence that there was never anything intrinsically Israeli about careless driving — and so with education and policing, Israelis’ driving habits could improve. The Israeli driver of old didn’t just vanish; he drove away, wearing a seatbelt.
Shmuel Rosner, an editor and columnist based in Tel Aviv, is senior political editor for The Jewish Journal.