MAXWELL:  Israel, the land of driving adventure

5/9/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



Regardless of the possibility of war or terrorist attack, there is no doubt what the single most dangerous part of living in Israel is: driving.

_ Dick Winter, In Culture Shock! Israel

NAZARETH, Israel _ New York cabbies are sissies.

Of course, everything is relative. En route to Israel last week, I had a 10-hour layover at John F. Kennedy International and decided to visit two friends. Trust me when I tell you that the lane-changing sprint from JFK to Greenwich Village was a beard-whitening experience. The return trip to the airport, just after rush hour, was more frightening.

But a few seconds after renting a car at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion International, I learned that the Big Apple’s infamous hacks are sweethearts when compared to Israeli drivers.

Nothing, not reading, not watching documentaries, not talking to those who have driven there, prepares your mind and nerves for driving in Israel. Even the most sobering statistic _ that 450 people die on Israeli roads each year, 2{ times the rate of northern Europe _ fails to convince the bold adventurer like me.

Make no mistake, though, after a week of executing life-and-death maneuvers on the highways of the Holy Land, I am beginning to question my sanity. Am I a bold journalist or a damned fool? Yes, I have been to Israel before, but I was someone else’s passenger each time. I had never been behind the wheel.

I had not driven my Avis Subaru more than 20 yards when the parking attendant, giving me the are-you-a-foreign-fool hand gesture, hurled another rental toward me _ the wrong way. My stomach tightened and I swerved. Suddenly, I recalled the book, The Travelers’ Guide to Middle Eastern and North African Customs & Manners, and these words: “If at all possible, don’t drive in Israel. The country has more cars per kilometer than any other in the world. And it’s the leader in number of automobile accidents.”

Too late to turn back now, I said to myself as I pulled into the rush-hour traffic on Highway 1, a modern, multilaned thoroughfare to Jaffa and Tel Aviv. Because I had to read the road signs, which are in Hebrew, Arab and English, I drove in the right lane as often as possible to let speeders have their way. No matter. They honked and glared, many tailgating me so closely that I wanted to park and swim back to St. Petersburg. I am convinced that more than a few Israelis and Palestinians delight in tormenting rental car drivers.

Anyway, after about 6 miles on Highway 2 through downtown Tel Aviv, I had gained composure and was determined to complete the two-hour drive north to the Marriott Hotel in Nazareth. Wanting to arrive before sunset, I picked up speed, all the while trying to watch traffic and read the road signs at the same time.

During the 115-mile trip to the hotel, I saw the aftermath of at least five wrecks, one of them serious, and countless close calls as cars, buses and huge trucks played chicken between the lines. In Nazareth itself, where crowded, narrow, dusty streets snake around the mountainsides, drivers cut off one another, run lights and yield signs, execute illegal U-turns, turn without signaling, honk incessantly, wave their arms and generally display an arrogance unmatched anywhere _ including New York.

After arriving at the Marriott, I deposited my luggage and went straight to the cafe for a bottle of Carmel Merlot.

Even though the drive from Ben-Gurion had been harrowing, I was not prepared the next morning for the trip to Tiberius and the Upper Galilee. The scenery of Galilee is breathtaking, with mountains challenging the highest clouds, valleys burrowing toward the Jordanian border and outcroppings of limestone settlements and towns defining the distant landscape.

The urge is to lose oneself here, to let go and drink in all of its beauty and majesty. You know better, however, because death is a constant companion on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

When I was about a mile from the Church of the First Feeding of the Multitude at Tabgha, for example, I thought that I was about to see more than 100 people die. A loaded tour bus zoomed downhill past me, traveling at more than 60 miles per hour. I could not believe that the driver went around me. After all, a sharp curve was just ahead. Surely, I thought, if I can see that other oncoming bus rounding the curve, this driver, with his height advantage, must.

Even if he saw the other bus, the driver gunned the engine and moved farther out into the passing lane _ in a no-passing zone. I hit my brakes to put space between my Subaru and what I assumed would be a deadly crash that would send debris, fuel and human flesh into the air.

Perhaps because we were in this place _ where Christ is said to have prayed with his disciples and walked on water _ the bus that had passed me pulled hard to the right, avoiding a collision with the other loaded vehicle by only a few yards. As soon as I came to a designated “panoramic view” area, I parked and stared down to the shimmering sea. A replica of a boat from the days of Jesus sailed along the northern shore.

Are average Israelis trying to kill themselves, I thought, remembering a quote that travel researcher Dick Winter, a former Israeli soldier, attributes to famous Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kolleck, when he was asked to explain Israelis’ suicidal driving habits: “When you have to fight a war once every 10 years, safe driving becomes the farthest thing from your mind.”

Fine. If Israelis want to commit suicide in their cars, that is their business. They should remember, though, that some of their visitors do not want to go down with them. Frankly, I am more afraid of being killed by a reckless Israeli than I am by a terrorist’s bomb.