You can tell a lot about people in a certain locale by the way they drive. In Japan, drivers are super-controlled and maintain a façade of calm almost at all times. In Central America, the general attitude of drivers is like, “Whatever….” In both cases, this parallels with the respective cultures. In LA (the worst possible example in the US that I can think of) you’d better have your last will and testament in order before you get behind the wheel. You know the second Matrix movie—the one where they get on the freeway? That’s LA. Basically, California drivers are known for being “free spirits” (a.k.a. people who disregard rules) on the road. That corresponds well with the whole vibe of California in general.
If you apply my theory to how people drive in Israel, there seems to be a general frustration and desire to be in control among the populace. A typical example was the tiny car I saw recently on the narrow highway into Jerusalem that played chicken with an enormous semi-truck full of hay. The semi tried to switch into the car’s lane, but the little car refused to budge. It was fascinating to watch, because it seemed impossible that any driver could be that outright crazy. But the really crazy part was that the itty-bitty car won.
Another time I saw a woman leave her car in the middle of the road to go yell at the driver in the vehicle behind her. Their only crime seemed to be that they had yelled some criticisms out their window. And more than once I’ve had other cars that do not have the right of way drive straight at me, honking like maniacs.
Roundabouts in Israel are a special problem. They seem to suffer from being treated merely as suggestions. Using them according to the universal rules by which they operate is optional. The option is: If you’re not in the mood to do things according to the rules, no problem.
One day not long ago, I came upon backed-up traffic at a roundabout because of a police car block. The presence of the police car (which I assume contained at least one police officer) was not enough to inspire drivers to be on their best behavior. Instead, everyone got riled up and it turned into a free-for-all. The one lane for cars to merge into the circle became three. Cars managed to wedge themselves into all kinds of odd positions that were generally not facing in the direction that traffic flows. I ended up in the “middle” lane, with a militant-looking bald guy on my right yelling at me as he inched his way past with his right tires on the sidewalk. It was all of about three minutes before the cars started moving again, but it was enough to make mortal enemies out of the drivers.
Pedestrians are not innocent, either. People on foot use crosswalks when they are available, but they also freely jaywalk—with some serious attitude. Jaywalking isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it’s generally a good idea to look and see if there are any cars coming, and then wait. In Jerusalem, where the streets are old and many were built when horses and donkeys were the main mode of transportation, sometimes pedestrians don’t even have a sidewalk to walk on.
But the blatant, amateur jaywalking that abounds here is enough to make your blood pressure shoot up 20 points when you’re behind the wheel. Usually, you feel pretty good after you’ve swerved and just missed hitting some lady with seven kids who jumped out from behind a row of parked cars. But when you come upon the random guy walking lazily in the street, parallel to the sidewalk, pedestrians start to seem like part of the problem.
Not everything about driving in Israel is bad, though. Personally, I love the thing they do with traffic lights going from red to yellow to green. That way, you can have your foot on the gas and start moving before the light actually changes. I’m pretty sure Israeli engineers stole the concept for their traffic lights from those Japanese video games I used to play as a kid at the pizza parlor. It’s exactly the same—all that’s missing is a lady standing on the side waving a checkered flag.
So between people inventing driving rules, lights that change backwards, and pedestrians who seem to think they have more right to the roads than cars, everyone in this country who walks or drives is in danger and under pressure at every second. That brings us to my (unqualified) theory about how to achieve peace in the Middle East: have a society-wide campaign to improve road etiquette. Maybe more civil behavior on the road will lead to more civil behavior between the parties trying to achieve peace. It’s worth a try.