Monday, March 16, 2009

Defensive Driving

Cars swerving between lanes, opening doors without looking, a rubber ball bouncing into traffic followed by a little child. In a quick internet search of “defensive driving” I found the following definition and an abundance of places prepared to teach me how to be a better driver.

“Defensive driving is more than just knowing how to drive. It is about taking a conscious effort every time you sit behind the wheels to take all the necessary precautions for a safer ride. Defensive driving actually goes beyond the basic skills of driving. It is even more than mastering the rules of the road. Defensive driving is actually a form of training or practice for motor vehicle drivers to drive in such a way that they consciously reduce the dangers associated with driving. They do this by anticipating dangerous scenarios, which could range from bad weather to erring motorists. A driver who practices defensive driving is ever watchful and careful. He is one who can quickly identify and predict potential road problems and then immediately decide and act appropriately to avoid dangers and accidents.”
But none of these sites cater to the Israeli driver. When I moved to Israel, several things got me to think about driving in a way I never had before. I’ll bet that none of the defensive driving schools on the internet have ever thought how to be a safe driver in Israel, or even considered factors that make driving here unique. Israel is known for many wonderful things, many special and even miraculous things. But Israel is also known for things that are incredibly maddening, frustrating, and sometimes third world. One of these is the number of traffic accidents, related of course to a culture of aggressive and sometimes haphazard driving. Every year, some 450 Israelis die on the road. Many are pedestrians hit by cars. Thousands more drivers, passengers and pedestrians are injured. And there’s the loss of property. It frustrates me that something often in our control, to drive safely and mindful of hazards, is something too often disregarded and even flaunted. I see whole families of kids bouncing around in back seats of cars, seat belts nowhere to be seen. People talking on cell phones. Each vehicular death and injury is particularly sad because it’s in our control to prevent them. But all of these things could be covered in a defensive driving class, or even just by listening to the laws. There are other aspects of driving in Israel the developers of defensive driving classes would find more astounding and have a harder time fitting in to their curriculum. Living in Gush Etzion, we have to be aware of the hidden stone thrower. Too frequently these are not reported, and when they are, they rarely make it to the media. But every turn can yield a potential new danger. Every hill next to the road a potential staging ground for a rock, or a barrage of them. Or there’s the road covered in rocks. Making a turn, you might find the road covered with stones. Not little ones, but the kind that will take out your transmission if you go over them. Once I made a wrong turn in a place that, though abandoned, was still littered with rocks as big as could be carried by little terrorists waiting to catch an unsuspecting Israeli car. I was lucky, nobody was there and I was able to turn around. But others I know have not been so lucky. And in a situation like this, you’re told to act in a way that is counter intuitive; in case of such a roadblock, you drive right through it. No matter how big the rocks are. No matter how damaging to your transmission. Don’t stop, just drive. There’s also the risk of letting cars pass you. Most roads are one lane in each direction, so passing is risky at best. But it’s still common. (OK, sometimes I am guilty too.) But the cars to be careful of have white license plates with green letters, or green ones with white letters. These Palestinian cars drive more or less freely on the vast majority of roads in Judaea and Samaria. One needs to be careful not to let them pass you because they have used this tactic as a way to kill people. They drive up next to you, spray the car with bullets, and drive off. A good friend lost her mother this way. A few years ago, during Sukkot, three Israelis were killed not far from my house when an Arab car drove by, opened fire, and fled. In order to prevent this, I always make it a point to keep close to the middle of the road and drive with an extra measure of care not to let cars pass me, especially if I can see that it is a Palestinian car. All these risks make driving challenging. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not the Wild West. These things don’t happen all the time. Once is too often, so these are things that we need to think about, just as driving in suburban NJ you worry about a child chasing his ball into the street in front of your car. We just need to be extra careful as few kids in NJ target oncoming cars for evil, and the balls that we need to be careful of can smash our windows, or worse.
Most of these things don’t take place throughout all of Israel anymore, but it used to be different. Ambushes were once a very regular occurrence. More “clever” terrorists devised a scheme to kill and maim by stretching a thin wire across a road so that passengers in unsuspecting cars, and especially army jeeps, would get stuck, hurt or even decapitated. Look at the front of a military jeep and notice the long pole mounted to catch and break these wires. Just in case. Last week there was the third incident in nine months of a terrorist using a tractor to try to maim and kill Israelis. This newest mode of terror not only terrorizes and harms Israelis, it harms the other Arabs who by in large just want to go to work building roads, buildings, train lines, etc. Every big yellow tractor is now suspect as a potential weapon. And big yellow tractors aren’t limited to the West Bank, but roam the cities and town throughout Israel. In Jerusalem, Modiin, Beit Shemesh, Afula… It gives me pause when driving down the road, anywhere in Israel, wondering if a tractor nearby is being piloted by a fanatic terrorist “with Allah as his co-pilot.” I have taken to driving extra slowly when they are spotted, to keeping extra distance between my car and others, just in case I need to escape. And I am mindful that if I am so unlucky to be stuck nearby when this happens again, to hope that there will be someone with a gun close by to end the terrorist’s road trip and give him a free pass to martyrdom, hopefully without taking anyone with him. There are many customs as to when one is supposed to say tefillat haderech, the travelers’ prayer. Most people say it upon returning from a trip to Israel, or arriving in Israel from a trip overseas. But there’s also a case to be made that we need to pray for our safe arrival even when we go to the grocery store, commute to work, or meet friends for dinner. Simple things not to be taken for granted.

1 comment:

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