Road Rave
Tue, 05/14/2013
Assistant Managing Editor
Palm trees line the road alongside the Ayalon highway from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Photo by Adam Dickter
Palm trees line the road alongside the Ayalon highway from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Photo by Adam Dickter

If you asked friends to complete the sentence “Driving in Israel is …,” chances are a few would come up with “taking your life in your hands.”

Israeli drivers have a reputation for recklessness that is bolstered by statistics. It’s believed that more Israelis have died in road accidents in 65 years than have been killed in war. Events such as a 2008 crash in the Negev, which killed 25 people when one bus driver tried to overtake another and sent his vehicle tumbling down a ravine don’t help. Never mind talking on cell phones or speeding. It’s not unusual to see Israelis doing that while also smoking and munching sunflower seeds. And in bad weather.

But don’t let that reputation keep you from taking to the roads in Israel, since there are many benefits. The short geography — roughly 260 miles by 70 miles (at its widest point), with 10,000 miles of highway — puts just about everything within a day’s driving distance (though Haifa to Eilat would be daunting for most). And when you factor in the convenience of driving and the cost of public transportation for a family on an extended visit, it becomes easier to justify the price.

Most of the top tourist attractions (Jerusalem’s Old City excluded) have ample parking, and all road signs include English. In addition to GPS units or cellular-equipped iPads available from rental agencies, you can avail yourself of live traffic updates and directions via the smartphone app Waze in the land of its startup-nation creators. There's aso the fact that for most of the year rain or snow conditions are rare, and the panoramic views along many roads can be breathtaking (for passengers.)

Better yet, Eldan, the largest rental agency in Israel, has signed a deal with Better Place, the electric car company, to provide battery-powered vehicles that can save you gas money, though you’ll pay a slight premium over standard car rates. (EDITOR"S NOTE: Better Place has filed for bankruptcy and is ceasing operations in Israel -5/28)

And as for those troubling accident rates, you’ll be pleased to know that 2012 saw a record decline in fatalities among Israelis to the lowest point in 50 years. According to the Times of Israel, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics counted 263 deaths on the road last year, down 23 percent from 2011.

As Shmuel Rosner noted in a recent New York Times blog post, increased attention to the problem has reduced road fatalities in many developed nations, but Israel seems to have reaped particularly high dividends from its campaigns, reaching a milestone of 5.6 people killed for every billion kilometers traveled. 

In some of my earlier trips to Israel as a licensed driver, I resisted the temptation to rent a car out of fear that there would be signs I couldn’t understand, or that I’d make a wrong turn and wind up in Ramallah or Gaza. Is alternate side parking in effect? Can you turn right on red? Not worth taking chances, I figured as I hailed a cab.

Earlier this year, I found myself in Tel Aviv following an evening event. It was cold and raining and I had bags to shlep and a room waiting in Jerusalem. The options were a single costly cab ride; the multi-legged trip of a taxi, a bus to Jerusalem, followed by a cab from the bus station; or a comfortable, dry, door-to-door ride in a rented Mazda, the most attractive option.

Things started off badly when I opted to use a debit card at Eldan and needed to fax my passport to my U.S. bank to confirm my identity before the transaction could be approved. I was told this scrutiny was necessary because, sadly, Israel is a high-risk country for credit card fraud.

Finally on my way, without a GPS, I used an old-fashioned map to navigate from downtown Tel Aviv to the Ayalon Highway to Jerusalem. After a few panicked minutes worrying if I was headed in the right direction — Jerusalem is south of Tel Aviv — I began to relax, trying not to take the first song that came on the radio, "Suicide Is Painless" (from "M*A*S*H") as an omen.

It’s a direct, though not necessarily straight trip to Jerusalem, bringing you right into the center of town. However, you’ll soon find that navigation through the capital’s busiest areas is complicated by the new light rail system. Jaffa Road, which stretches from the central bus station to the Old City, is now off limits to cars. Studying a modern map before traveling through town won’t be a waste of time.

I won't say my trip around Jerusalem was incident-free. I found the symbol for no parking to be very similar to the one used in America for "Do Not Enter," which made for some spontaneous turns until I realized the mistake, and at one point I made an ill-advised turn down a narrow street filled with yeshiva kids from which it was extremely difficult to extricate myself.

'Israelis drive on the right side of the highway

(or, at least, are legally supposed to.)'

I also ended up in a bus lane on a few occasions and later worried when a patrol car appeared in the rear-view. But for the most part I found traffic to be manageable and Israeli drivers much like those in New York City: most are courteous and safe, and a few are nuts. (To be honest, though, other parts of the country may have more aggressive drivers.)

Israelis drive on the right side of the highway (or, at least, are legally supposed to), and street signs are in English, Hebrew and Arabic. According to driving tips on the site TourPLanIsrael, the speed limit in kilometers works out to be 31 miles per hour in the city and 56 on highways, lower than many U.S. highways that allow 65. Seatbelts, as they are throughout most of the U.S., are mandatory, as are baby and child seats until age 4, and hands-on cell phone use is illegal. So is turning right on red unless there is a separate turn light. Parking regulations are not always in English, so double check that spot.

If you take Highway 6, known as the Israel Turnpike or Yitzchak Rabin Highway, stretching from Beer Sheva in the south to Haifa in the North, you’ll be charged tolls based on how far you have driven, which are collected by photographing license plates . If you are planning to cross the Green Line, check with the rental agency about its policies.

You can check such sites as Autoeurope, Tripadvisor and, especially useful, Israel-car-rental.co.il, for more tips on driving and comparing rental agencies. Suffice it to say that my experience with Eldan, particularly the patience of the clerk (past closing time) in completing my transaction, was a positive one. (The bill for two days of gas — about $40 — not so much.)

Israel doesn't really have motel chains or motor lodges. But Gideon Har Hermon, a veteran tour guide who chaperoned the American Jewish Press Association's mission to Israel in January, says moderately priced kibbutz guest houses will leave the light on for you. "There are more than 100 of them around the country," he told me in an email. Ostensibly, they'll leave the light for you.

When I crowdsourced some Facebook friends about experiences driving in Israel, the feedback was mostly negative; it included one story of a wrong turn into Ramallah that could have turned deadly. But that’s an unlikely scenario (you have to go through checkpoints in many such areas). Because much of the terrain in Israel involves steep hills with some sharp turns you will want to proceed with caution, refrain from letting new drivers get behind the wheel and plot your trip before departure.

But Israelis didn’t build their country into the modern marvel it is by being wimps. So, when visiting, why not take a page from their book, and take some chances by putting yourself in the driver’s seat? ◆

adam@jewishweek.org