It has to be a strange experience for a young student when a man jumps out of nowhere and bangs on the driver’s window of her car. When the man is a policeman, and his first question is “Are you a dati-ya (religious)?” the whole scenario becomes surreal. But this is what happened to my daughter almost two years ago, on a quiet corner in the sleepy northern town of Kiryat Shmona, where she is studying.
To her shocked response, the officer elaborated: in his opinion she should go to synagogue on Saturday and recite the Birchat Gomel prayer, as she had not only nearly killed someone but had almost smashed herself into oblivion as well.
My daughter knows when she is right, and not even a flying policeman with spiritual leanings can change her mind. She refused to accept blame for an incident she claimed never occurred; she knew for surer than the most certain sure that her driving had been irreproachable. He stuck to his ground, she to hers: he said he’d see her in court. So, last week, I accompanied my baby for her trial, to the venerable Traffic Court in Safed. We arrived 45 minutes before her scheduled appearance, found her name on the list, and waited patiently outside the door: our first mistake. After almost two hours we cracked the system: defendants should sneak into the courtroom when the door opens, sit on the sidelines and spring up at the end of each hearing, waving arms and saying: “Just a quick question, your Honor; please listen to me.” Our second mistake was to heed the very decisive notice on the door: “Strictly no cell phones.” We turned ours off, obediently. We were the only ones in the room not texting. The lawyers, the defendants, the State Prosecutor – all were furiously sending messages throughout the proceedings.
And what proceedings! One by one, black-trousered, white-shirted lawyers with black ties rose and shoved their way into the judge’s consideration. And the stories were all similar – a hapless client who had been driving on a revoked license at 145 km/hr in an 80 km zone, for example. Then came a litany of woes: his mother is ill, his wife doesn’t work, he is blessed with many children and relies upon his van for his daily bread. One by one the defendants stood up and looked contrite; one by one the judge considered his verdict and lowered the fine. Three months of no driving became one month of driving under caution, 1000 shekels melted into 500 and a warning. It was awesome to behold. No one produced proof of ill mothers or many kids – it was simply stand-up-and-whine and your sentence is slashed. For driving on revoked licenses, I’ll just repeat in case you missed that – at almost double the permitted speed.
My daughter had her Erin Brockovich moment. She won a resounding victory. She stood up in that courtroom looking like a million dollars and expressed her horror at the things she had heard. “I am a law-abiding citizen,” she proclaimed, “without a point to my name. I have never driven above the speed limit, and I never would. All I want is justice.” She then produced photographs that proved her point; she had done nothing even vaguely dangerous. The policeman who had accosted her is well-known in the area. He did not bother to turn up for the trial. The judgment chastised him for wasting the valuable time of already overloaded courts, and urged him to use more discretion before issuing unwarranted tickets in the future. Tal walked out with her driving record unsullied.
But we were left wondering, my daughter and I, who would obey traffic rules? Why not drive at any speed at all, and who cares about a license, if all that is required is to moan in court, (years after the infraction), and get off with a light and meaningless fine? How can we reduce the carnage on our roads if this is how the system works?
A slimy lawyer in a brown and white pin-striped suit came out of the chambers to congratulate Tal. She broadsided him. “How can you defend those sleaze-balls?” she asked, her eyes wide with accusation. “They should be put in jail for 20 years.”
“I see you don’t believe in democracy,” was his astonishing answer. “You believe in a totalitarian state. You should have lived in the USSR.”
It’s not a tyrannical regime we’re after though, it’s just a country where law is law and the people uphold it because God help them if they don’t. “Education,” suggested our democratic lawyer, “that’s the only thing that can instill respect into drivers. Parents must teach their children well.”
That, of course, is rubbish. Yes, the good, sweet kids will drive well, like their good, sweet parents – but we are not the problem here. We have to FORCE the ones who drive like maniacs to get their acts together – and if they don’t they will suffer the consequences, not pay some loser lawyer to defend them. I remember doing a cover article on road safety many decades ago, and the mantra then was that money spent on promoting good driving was money wasted. Take each shekel that pays for promos on TV, pay an extra cop to police red lights and dangerous roads, and FINE THE HELL out of drivers who err. Confiscate cars of people who drive on revoked licenses and never give them back – not the car and not the license. The sale of those vehicles can subsidize more speed cameras – blanket the country with cameras and get the crazy drivers to slow down or pay up big-time.
Drunk drivers, hit-and-run drivers, drivers who run red lights – the list is long and scary – get them off the roads forever. Take their cars away for a kick-off; no questions asked. And if they are driving their parents’ cars or their friends’ cars or cars from work – so much more fool the father or friend or employer who aided and abetted a potential murderer. If a gunman borrows your weapon to commit a crime, are you not an accomplice? You’ll think twice before you hand over the keys to someone irresponsible if you know you might not have a car tomorrow.
And when some chronic offender with 53 previous violations pleads for clemency because he has broken the law yet again, let the judges of the land double his sentence. I give it two months before we see a dramatic, wonderful decline in our traffic infractions; and we’ll be able to get behind our own wheels without bracing for a fight. Draconian measures are called for here – let’s make Israel the safest country in the world. At least on the roads.