Two calendars run side-by-side in Israel; one religious, one civil. It means that we celebrate New Year twice a year, just to confuse everyone, including ourselves. The change of year on the civil calendar is still marked, celebrated by many just as it is in many parts of the world, although according to a press release issued by Magen David Adom, the national ambulance service, they were called to only fifty (yes, you read that right) alcohol related incidents on New Year's Eve nationwide. The Israeli population roughly numbers around the same as London, so this is a figure that the LAS could only ever dream of; they were averaging some 400 calls per hour for the first few hours of 2013. Admittedly, not all of them were alcohol related, but I can be fairly certain that a large proportion were.
The end of the civil year also brings with it various annually-published reports, one of which being the traffic fatality report. The headline is nothing less than staggering: 2012 saw the lowest road-traffic fatality rate in half a century and on top of that, the rate is down 25% on the previous year's figures and some 40% lower than 2005. The UK could only hope for such a drastic change. In fact, the figures from 2010 to 2011 actually climbed by 3%, rather than reduced. It is a truly astonishing figure, but the question has to be raised as to how this has happened.
As a driver on Israel's roads, I still see the shocking driving for which Israel is infamous. Drivers see keeping a distance from the vehicle in front as a mere nicety, perhaps a minor recommendation, rather than a safety measure; lane discipline is non-existent; indicators appear to be optional extras on most vehicles and road-rage is commonplace. We live in a high-paced, high-energy, live-for-the-moment country, where allowing another driver to overtake is seen as weakness and where allowing another car to slot into your lane makes you appear like a pushover.
Other figures released today show that police have issued 40% fewer tickets for driving violations in the past year, down to 600,000 from over one million. They have concentrated less on minor offences (although the report does not specify what those are) and more on notorious roads, as well as "life-threatening misdemeanors", including dangerous overtaking, running red lights or stop signs, ignoring pedestrian crossings and, in particular, drink-driving. The police can, and do, when dealing with a driver who breaks one of these so-called "life-threatening" laws, revoke a driver's licence on the spot for up to 30 days. They can also impound their vehicle for the same length of time.
It all sounds like a plan is coming together.
However, what the reports barely mention is the number of seriously injured. These numbers still seem to be high, and depending on which report one reads, the numbers may still be climbing. The ambulance services here are becoming increasingly skilled at managing severe trauma patients. The times taken to get to definitive care in hospital is decreasing and the treatment options increasing. Tranexamic acid, a drug commonly used in hospital for surgery associated with a high risk of bleeding, has recently been introduced to front-line crews as a pre-hospital treatment and is having, at least according to initial reports, a serious impact on survival figures.
All these facts and figures are optimistic, but also leave a little confusion in their wake. Clearly, better infrastructure, more intelligent and robust policing, better skilled pre-hospital providers and the obvious ever-improving safety features of the vehicles themselves are helping to save lives. This is a trend that we can only hope will continue to improve. But the fact that the accident rate is still high, that there are still so many seriously injured, is still a cause for concern.
The human element is one of the toughest to regulate. Emotion will always play a part in a driving, particularly in light of the descriptions of the Israeli driver that I have already mentioned. Actual attitudes need changing too, but that is hard to do when confronted with a seasoned driver who has years of driving experience and picking up of bad habits. Change needs to begin from the ground up, even before a 17-year-old is allowed to start to hold a steering wheel in their hand. It needs to start with the basics, for example teaching that riding a motorbike whilst wearing almost no protective gear is a path to almost certain disaster.
Attitudes to alcohol need to change. No more the thought process of one drink will be ok. You want to drive? Don't drink.
Attitudes to other drivers need to change. Understanding that allowing one driver in ahead of you will not only benefit them, but will help the roads run smoother and reduce the aggression on the roads.
Attitudes to seat belts and appropriate child restraints must change too. Particularly in certain sectors of society.
It may take another generation, perhaps less, perhaps more, but if we want to reduce fatalities even further, we need the drivers themselves to cooperate. To understand that sometimes there really is a greater, even if unseen, good.
Years ago, there was an advertising campaign here that promoted the following philosophy:
"Don't just be right, be smart."
A combination of the two would be even better.