The number of people killed in road accidents in Israel in 2012 is the lowest annual figure in 50 years, despite the huge increase in the number of cars in the country, Transportation and Road Safety Minister Yisrael Katz announced on Sunday.

Defying Israelis’ widespread reputation for fairly poor driving, Katz claimed the figures now placed Israel in the world’s top 10 safest countries to drive in.

Since January 1, 2012, he said, 287 people have died in road accidents, 25 percent fewer than the previous year. This marked the first time the annual figure has dropped below 300 in half a century, Katz said, noting that this was despite the enormous increase in Israeli automobiles, from 100,000 cars 40 years ago to 2.8 million today.

Confusingly, statistics published by the National Road Safety Authority at the end of October had indicated that 290 Israelis were killed in road accidents in the first 10 months of 2012.

Katz’s statements were made the same day that two Israelis, a mother and son, died in a car crash in southern Israel.

“In addition to this year’s achievement, we’ve seen a decline in accidents over the past 10 years. The number of accidents has fallen, the number of injured has fallen, and the number of fatalities has fallen,” Katz continued.

Safety experts have warned against focusing on the number of fatalities as an indicator of overall road safety, according to a Ynet report published last week. A Central Bureau of Statistics brief stated that “examination of the number of fatalities alone shows a partial picture of the extent and consequences of accidents, and is likely to reflect a biased picture of safety trends.” Fatalities at the expense of more serious injured car crash victims skews the statistics, the report added.

Overall, there has been a downward trend in the number of fatalities since 2004, Katz said. He elaborated that over the past four years there were 20% fewer deaths from road accidents than during the previous four years.

The minister said that, in recent years, there has been an increase in fines and a greater focus on cracking down on life-threatening traffic violations.

National Road Safety Authority director, Professor Yaakov Sheinin, said that improved infrastructure, better vehicles and driver awareness have contributed to the improvement.

As a consequence of the drop in road fatalities, Israel has risen in the ranks of safest countries to drive in. The scale refers to the ratio of fatalities to travel, measured in deaths per billion kilometers of travel on the road for the country as a whole. Ten years ago, Israel ranked 20th in the world, whereas today it’s 10th, the minister said Sunday.

(According to the Road Safety Authority’s 2010 statistics, Israel was ranked 11th worldwide in terms of fatalities per billion kilometers traveled with an average of 7.1. Sweden, Britain, Holland, Norway, Finland, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, Australia, and the United States outranked Israel in those year’s statistics. Various other surveys over the years have rated San Marino, The Netherlands, Denmark, Japan and New Zealand as being among the world’s safest countries to drive in.)

Transport Minister Yisrael Katz. (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90.)

Transport Minister Yisrael Katz. (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

Katz declared that he wants to push the country even further up the list.

“I have set a goal that in four years’ time we will be in the top five countries for road safety,” he boasted.

Katz also took the opportunity to defend his recent decision to allow raising the speed limit to 120 kilometers an hour on Route 6, the trans-Israel highway, from the current 110-kph national speed limit. According to Katz, raising the speed limit in the past did not result in a higher number of fatalities, and in some cases the numbers even dropped.