OWhen Islamic Jihad, the second-largest militant group in the Gaza Strip, fired around 1,000 rockets into Israel in an unexpected outbreak of violence earlier this month, most were intercepted by the Iron air defense system Dome, and no Israelis were seriously injured or killed.
On country roads, however, it was a different story. In the same week, 19 people were killed in traffic incidents during a wave of particularly serious accidents.
Among those killed were a 14-year-old girl in Sderot, who died after a driver failed to stop at a red light, and two bus drivers from Ofakim who were killed crossing the street to help on the scene of a previous accident. A woman and her two young daughters also died when a bus traveled several meters before hitting a bus stop in Jerusalem.
In much of the world, the increasing use of vehicles has led to more accidents, but fewer serious injuries and fatalities, as car and road safety continually improves. In Israel, however, according to a recent report by the European Transport Safety Council, there has been only a 4.7% drop in fatalities over the past decade, compared to an average of 31%.
The last time the Israeli government launched a road safety program was in 2005. According to Avi Naor, chairman of Israel’s National Road Safety Authority, the resources pledged for the initiative have not materialized. and the matter was neglected.
“Compared to Europe, or other developed countries, we are in a very bad position. What we’ve seen this week isn’t just bad luck, it’s a systemic issue,” he said.
Despite making up only 20% of Israel’s population, the country’s Arab minority is disproportionately affected: according to Israeli police statistics, Israeli Arabs are involved in 52% of fatal accidents.
Ghassan Abofaneh, from Kafr Qara in Israel’s Arab-majority Workers’ Towns and Villages group, lost his 22-year-old cousin, Moneeb Mohammed, after his motorbike collided with a car on Wednesday. He also lost two nephews, both in their early twenties, in an accident last June.
“It’s not just the poor infrastructure of Arab communities compared to Jewish communities. The problem goes much deeper than that,” said Abofaneh, 58.
“Anyway, young people drive fast. Here, without outlets to evacuate stress, economic problems… Arab youth do not ride motorbikes to get around, but for adventure. All they care about is speed.
“These young men have no place in society. We are 20% of the population, but we are the ones dying in accidents because the government doesn’t care.
Naor, who founded the road safety association Greenlight in 1996 after his 20-year-old son was killed in a collision, is determined to change the status quo. He accepted the government post of chairman of the National Road Safety Authority earlier this year and has since worked on a program to reduce the number of casualties by 50% over the next five years.
Even though Israel is currently between two governments and cannot pass budgets, funding for a pilot program targeting an initial geographic area will be approved by an interim Finance Ministry committee next week.
Measures will include addressing the specific needs of urban and rural areas, including making street crossings safer for pedestrians, installing 4,000 new surveillance cameras to monitor driver speed and behavior, and initiatives aimed at targeting young drivers, drivers from the Arab community and those who drive heavy goods vehicles, buses and motorbikes.
The situation in the occupied Palestinian territories is more complicated. A Knesset report released in May found that data on traffic incidents involving Palestinian drivers was not shared by police with Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, raising concerns that stretches of roads particularly dangerous under Israeli control are overlooked.
In the West Bank, while the number of accidents has increased over the past decade, the number of fatalities has remained about the same at five fatalities per 100,000 population. In the overcrowded Gaza Strip, where data collection is not as transparent, there seem to be at least 100 incidents per month.
Dr. Khaled al-Sahili, a transport engineer and planning expert at An-Najah National University in Nablus, notes that the statistics compiled by the Palestinian Authority are not comprehensive: the limited transport network in the West Bank, in which Palestinians are not allowed to use certain constructed roads, makes it difficult to measure the mobility of individuals and vehicles per kilometer travelled.
“The number of accidents does not say everything. That the death toll appears to be stabilizing does not mean road safety is good here,” he said.
“Roads and sidewalks in urban areas are in particularly poor condition, putting pedestrians at higher risk, and these types of incidents almost always result in serious injury.
“Ultimately, we need a national road safety program and better enforcement to change road user behavior. Many of these measures are not expensive, but even if they were, it is worth it to save lives.