Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Friar on the Road: A December Rant

Jerusalem – Last night, on my way home from a Bat Mitzvah in Haifa, I was almost run off the road, three times. That isn’t bad. It is a two-hour trip each way and one potential incident every hour and twenty minutes is much better than what I face every morning on my 2.5 mile, 20 - 30 minute commute to work.

The driving here is awful.

According to Israel’s National Road Safety Authority, there were 428 fatal crashes leading to 480 deaths inside the Green Line in 2004 (most recent stats). There were also 3,091 drivers involved in “serious crashes.” That might not seem like a lot by American standards, but by Israeli standards, that is a ton. By comparison, 471 Israeli civilians, inside the Green Line, were killed by Palestinians between the start of the second Intifada (9/29/2000) and the end of last week.

I only realized the extent of my developing road rage a few weeks ago when I took a cab home from the Pittsburgh airport. The experience was nothing short of lovely. The driver and I talked about the Steelers for a solid half hour – the success of Mike Tomlin, Ben Rothlisberger’s comeback, and our distaste for the newly created mascot, Steely McBeam. As we spoke about the prospects for the Steelers’ post-season and cruised past yellow and red leaves on a wide-open three-lane road at a steady 55 mph, I realized that I was relaxed in a car for the first time in months.

Traffic was moving, there was no one bearing down on us from the right or left lane, and the traffic that did pass us (on the left no less!) used turn signals when changing lanes. When the road was empty, my fellow Steeler fan didn’t gun the engine and go 85 mph. We had a connection not just to our destination but also to other cars on the road.

What do I mean by that?

In Israel, the only thing that matters is your destination. There are speed limits and other cars, but for too many Israeli drivers, everything is about getting there (wherever it may be), as fast as you can. There is no driving etiquette – zero, zilch, bagel. Honk, cut off, honk, swerve, honk, make a u-turn, and honk some more. Just do whatever it takes to get to your destination three minutes earlier.

The worst thing that you can be in Israel is a “friar,” Hebrew for sucker. Little guardian angels fly around here, sit on people’s shoulder and scream, “al taytseh friar!” or don’t be a sucker! I’m convinced that the “al taytseh friar” factor affects how people drive.

If you let someone in ahead of you, you’re a friar.

If you wait in the turn lane to make the turn, you’re a friar.

If you don’t block the intersection at rush hour, you’re a friar.

Every morning on my way to work, I wait in a designated left hand turn lane to cross a major street. The lane usually has 10 to 15 cars in it and it takes two to three light changes to make the turn. Without fail each morning, per every light-change, at least one car drives all the way to the front of the line and shoots into the intersection before the first car and cuts it off. Actually, usually two cars do this per light, with the first one going fully perpendicular to the line of waiting cars. What are you going to do, T-Bone him? A couple of weeks ago, a van carrying kids pulled this move right in front of me. That’s great. They must have been late to homeroom.

The swerving and passing is just as bad. It is all a game of chicken with drivers thrusting between lanes and lurching into intersections. They put the onus on you to slam on the brakes or your car will be in an accident. Mopeds are the worst. They fly in and out of traffic, brushing between side mirrors and weaving back and forth between lanes.

I have a good friend in Pittsburgh who used to own a VW Jetta with a broken driver side window. Anytime he’d want to roll down his window and yell at a driver who’d irked him, he’d have to fumble around in the ashtray, grab the handle, attach it, and then roll down the window. Frequently, the driver would get away before the window had made it down and my friend would be left shaking his Jetta window handle at the windshield.

I wish I had a window handle to shake.

Instead, I pound the horn; long honks, double honks, and the rapid-fire repeater with a long blast of “I hate you” at the end. I swear, I point my finger, and then I grip the steering wheel until my knuckles turn white. I yell at the radio and the fingernail-on-the-chalkboard morning show DJs from RAM-FM (the only English language music station and the subject of a different diatribe).

And then, when I’m done, after a 30-minute, 2.5-mile drive full of fluster, I arrive at work to start my day.


Anonymous said...

Wow, Israel has not changed much since I was there over 20 years ago. I mean people's attitude.

I am from Japan but now live in Canada. It was tough to travel in the middle east. I am now cautious. I am surely get covered by travel insurance before I leave Canada.

Good luck to your travel in Israel.

Ben said...

Thanks, Kanji.

It really is a trade-off. When you are talking about travel to the Middle East, there is almost no violent crime threat. There is, though, a real road accident threat. Cairo is at least ten times worse than Israel in this regard. A lot of drivers don't use their lights at night. They think they are saving the battery. Crossing the street there is a skill.

Ben said...
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exeter said...

So, you don't agree that being socially controlled by a demeaning term is acceptable.

It worries me a little. I first heard the term while learning Hebrew and have wondered what the meaning was. I see that it is a term used for social control and manipulation of behaviors.

I think I would rather do what I thought was right and let other people worry about whether they or I are/am being a "friar".