Photo Credit: Moshe Shai / Flash 5
Highway 5 (file photo)

I haven’t been in Israel long. Like many visitors and immigrants, I marvel at the driving. I live in Modiin, a very laid-back town, driving wise. In Modiin, the roads are laid out reasonable well. The traffic patterns are predictable. People even stop for pedestrians in cross-walks – they aren’t trying to be inconsiderate. Nonetheless, I witness an incredible amount of bad driving – and potentially fatal bad driving.

In my short time here, my daughters – standing a good four feet from the curb, were almost flattened in an idiotic collision. I’ve had vehicles try to merge into me on my bicycle – before they decide that I’m really not fair game and back off. And I’ve seen and heard multiple collisions. I’ve almost been (as a passenger) party to several of my own collisions. While there are lots of good drivers, there are also: lots of aggressive drivers (but not that many in the city); legions of stupid drivers who just don’t seem to understand the road rules; and multitudes of totally careless drivers.

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They all add up in a noxious and dangerous brew.

Like many people before me, I’ve wondered what could be done. Is the solution more penalties? Is it more education? Advertising? A polite driving day? Maybe even the counter-intuitive reduction in rules?

The fact is; driving is cultural. I came from a place with incredibly polite and safe drivers. And Israel doesn’t have those drivers. It has a different group of people – and a different culture. And few things are harder to change than culture.

So what can be done?

The answer simple: Separate the driving from the culture.

It would really be very easy. Israel could pass a simple law limiting tort rewards against the developers and manufacturers of autonomous driving systems for collisions caused by autonomous vehicles. And with that law, they could make our roads safer, faster and smarter.

How would it work?

Many major manufacturers are already working very hard on autonomous driving systems. They are already quite good and getting better quickly. Tesla just announced a system they are launching in 2015 that will drive their cars on freeways – hands-free. But even though they may soon be safer than human drivers, the companies designing them can’t actually release them onto the market.

Why? Because if a car company’s software runs into somebody there is a terrible combination – the car company has lots of money and there are lots of potential incidents. A flaw could destroy the company. So, they have to hold back the technology – even if regulators allowed them to move forward and even if the technology was safer than relying on human drivers.

But if we could set a liability cap that is high enough that frequently faulty designs will destroy companies, but low enough that occasional faults won’t hurt much at all, then the creative juices of the world and Israelis themselves will be released.

Something like 500,000 NIS/incident might be good.

Because ours is a little country and because few technologically advanced and relatively wealthy countries have drivers as bad as our, we are an obvious first-adopter.

With this law, we’ll see all-new designs from GM, Tesla, Daimler, BMW and others. But we’ll also see Israeli-built systems that can be retrofitted onto existing cars. How will we verify basic levels of quality? The solution is simple – insurance companies will refuse to write policies for systems they don’t trust.

If the systems proves far safer than human drivers (and there is good evidence they will), then rates will fall and fall dramatically. Even if there is a collision, the recorded evidence would be extensive and the car itself would have an excellent driving record. It would be far easier to assign penalties to the non-automated party. The cars could even be smart enough to verify who the passengers are before they drive anywhere, reducing thefts and the associated insurance costs.

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