For the first time in five years there has been a reduction in the annual number of road deaths in Israel, with 315 people killed in 2018, a drop of 13% compared to the year before, according to figures published by the Transportation Ministry on Monday.
In 2017, there were 364 deaths, the ministry said, citing figures from the National Road Safety Authority. It was the first time road deaths have gone down since 2012, when 263 people were killed.
Of the fatalities over the past 12 months, 135 happened on urban roads and 180 were on intercity highways.
There was also a reduction in road deaths among the Arab population, which consistently suffers nearly twice as many fatalities relative to its size in the general population. Arabs make up 20% of the Israeli population, but nearly a third of those who died in road accidents in 2018 — 95 — were from the Arab community. In 2017, the figure was 116.
However, bucking the positive numbers were deaths among those riding electric bikes, a form of transportation which has rapidly gained popularity. In 2017, seven electric bike riders were killed on the roads, but last year the number jumped to 19. Non-electric bike deaths also rose, from 12 last year to 16 in 2018.
Overall, the number of deaths per 100,000 residents in 2018 was 3.5, compared to 4.1 last year, the ministry said. According to the 2018 World Health Organization report on road accidents around the world the figure for the US is 12.4, the average for high-income countries is 8.3 and the global average is 27.5.
Road safety activists and officials, though welcoming the statistics for 2018, said it is too early to know if there is a downward trend in road deaths.
“The numbers are good and encouraging. But we need to look at another year at least or another after that,” said Yaniv Jacob, deputy director-general of Or Yarok, a non-government road safety lobby group. “We need to check that it is not a one-off, but a trend.”
Speaking to The Times of Israel last week, before the final figures for the year were concluded, National Road Safety Authority spokesperson Moriah Malka said it would take another year of falling numbers to be sure that the situation is improving.
“If the drop continues next year it will definitely be a welcome trend,” Malka said.
A key reason why road deaths went up from 2012 has been the increased use of cellphones by drivers while behind the wheel, she explained.
“Smartphones have had a big influence,” Malka said. “It increases the chance of a deadly accident tenfold.”
Traffic Police Spokesman Superintendent Shahar Gamzo backed up her assessment.
“Use of cellphones is the main cause of accidents today, without a doubt,” he said, noting that over the past two years police have significantly increased law enforcement efforts on the roads.
In 2016, the total number of road accidents involving any kind of injury, including death, was 12,300 across the country, according to traffic police figures. That year police pulled over 74,500 drivers for cellphone offenses. In 2017, there were 13,000 accidents, and over 100,000 citations written. During 2018, although the number of accidents dipped to 11,600, cops wrote over 110,000 tickets for cellphone offenses.
Looking ahead, the real challenge will be electric bicycles, the NRSA’s Malka predicted.
Gamzo said police were already focusing on electric bicycles and other forms of electric-powered devices such as small scooters.
“It is one of the most of biggest metropolitan methods of transportation,” he said. “In the last three years there has a been a massive increase in enforcement on electric bikes.”
In 2016, police handed out 8,000 fines to electric bicycle users. By 2017, the number was 14,300, and last year it leaped to 24,000.
Although legislative efforts to regulate electric bikes were advancing, last week the Knesset dissolved parliament in preparation for April elections, a development which will delay progress.
In the meantime there is still much that can be done, and a lot of it is down to the public, Malka noted.
“Traffic accidents is one of the hardest areas that the state has to deal with,” she said. “The human factor is the most important factor. When it comes to road safety we can all do more, that is the truth.”