After more than five years working on a programme to improve driving standards in Israel, the Transportation Ministry has shelved it.
Israelis have a reputation for being bad drivers, and last month this assumption became enshrined in official information for visitors put out by the American State Department.
“Aggressive driving is a serious problem and many drivers fail to maintain safe following distances or signal before changing lanes or making turns,” says the State Department guide. “Drivers are also prone to stop suddenly on roads without warning, especially in the right lane.”
Back in 2004 the cabinet and a Knesset committee decided that within five years, all Israeli drivers should be taking a once-a-decade refresher course to improve road safety. Special off-road tracks were to be established so that icy and wet conditions could be simulated even at the height of the Israeli summer.
However, the Transportation Ministry admits that it has dropped the plan. Uzi Yitzhaki, head of the ministry’s traffic department, said that the project was proving too expensive.
Each of the six off-road tracks would have needed 72 dunam (18 acres) of land and cost $3 million (£1.9 million). Even though they were to be built and operated by private companies, with the high set-up costs and overheads the companies would have wanted to charge drivers a high course fee — more than the NIS 200 (£35) the ministry had originally estimated.
Mr Yitzhaki said that another reason for dropping the programme was that Israel “wants to be like other countries in Europe”, and does not want to subject Israeli drivers to requirements that drivers elsewhere do not face.
Some politicians responded angrily. Riel Shamir-Balat, spokesman for Kadima MK Israel Hasson who was pressuring the ministry to establish the programme, said that it would have been “the chief way to reduce road accidents”.
The decision to scrap it was “illogical” and, he said, made Israel look like Chelm, the Polish town that according to Jewish legend was inhabited by fools.
There was, however, some support for the decision from Israel’s road safety lobby. Tsippy Lotan, chief scientist at Or Yarok, a non-governmental organisation that wants to bring about a “culture change in Israeli driving”, said that if the courses were introduced they would have backfired and given drivers “false confidence” about driving in wet and icy conditions.
“They would finish such courses and think wrongly that they can cope with slippery surfaces and avoid obstacles,” she said.