Driving in Israel - Chutzpah Helps

Written by Steve Brynes

Last updated 2009-07-16 15:24:04

Perspiring profusely and mumbling obscenely, I inched my way through a mid-day traffic snarl in downtown Jerusalem.

'Dad, you need to turn left here onto Jaffa Road,' my son said. Instantly weighing my son's map-reading skills against my unerring sense of direction, I darted across two lanes of traffic and turned right instead.

Thirty feet later, an Israeli policewoman, machine gun slung over her shoulder, stepped off the sidewalk and motioned for me to pull over. Reasoning that a preemptive strike might work best, I lowered my window and pleaded, 'Help, I'm really, really lost.'

Hardly taken in, the officer responded, 'Of course you are. Why else would you drive that way?' But after determining my destination, and informing me that I should have made a left onto Jaffa Road, the officer sent me on my way with a sympathetic 'Shalom.' So ended my first day's driving adventure.

On day two, I opted for a relaxing drive to the mountaintop fortress of Masada and the nearby nature preserve at Ein Gedi, both destinations situated alongside the Dead Sea.

The two-lane road between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, a distance of about 18 miles, passes through a landscape of stark beauty. Gradually descending some 3800 feet along the way, the road is bordered by mountains and dry stream channels called wadis.

It's an altogether austere wilderness that evokes images of the Bible. On either side of the road, encampments of nomadic Bedouin and their herds frequently dot the otherwise barren hills. Keeping a sharp lookout, my son occasionally glimpsed ibex, wild goats native to the region.

But this road, I soon learned, is not well suited to casual sightseeing. Becoming increasingly steep and curvy, the highway is the site, of some automotive derring-do that would have done Buster Keaton proud.

Drivers will pass in situations that are strictly prohibited in drivers education manuals throughout the civilized world. When a head-on collision appears imminent, the passing car will often squeeze back into lane directly in front of you. Extreme caution is the order of the day along this stretch of highway.

I really should have been prepared. After all, I had read the 'Driving in Israel' section of every tour book I could find. And the warnings were clearly there: 'Israelis drive like maniacs,' 'Brashness on the road is the national sport,' 'Drivers in Israel are aggressive,' 'Israeli drivers make generous use of their horns,' And my personal, inspirational favorite: 'Tragedy and death on Israel's roads are way out of proportion to the number of cars in the country.'

But I had come to Israel with more than just relevant information about the locals' driving habits. I came with an arsenal of New Age visualization techniques that had me, in my visions, blissfully and confidently navigating the city streets and country highways of the Holy Land.

What happened, then? In a word, reality. In my pre-visit meditations, not once did I imagine the pervasiveness of the incessantly blaring horns of the cities, the audacity of the impatient daredevils, snow squalls in Jerusalem, and heavily armed sabras dressing me down. As it happened, I experienced each during my recent visit to Israel.

And though I?d been forewarned that Israeli drivers pass with abandon -- going uphill, on a blind curve, or when a monstrous truck is rumbling toward them -- I had to learn for myself that sometimes they seize the moment as all three conditions occur simultaneously, the triple-crown of suicidal motoring.

In fact, I loved driving in Israel. Allowing myself the first two days to overcome the culture shock, I quickly adapted to the local road practices.

Moreover, I soon decided that the harsh epithets I had read were somewhat exaggerated. I felt more comfortable with the kinder, if admittedly euphemistic, sobriquet that 'Israelis drive with Mediterranean creativity.'

In truth, driving is simply the best way to see Israel: the country has a fairly convenient and well-maintained network of roads; distances between destinations are relatively short; and the scenery is breath-taking and varies rapidly from mountain, to lush valley, to desert.

Moreover, in certain areas, such as the Golan and the Negev, where tour buses cover only limited ground, having a car permits multiple stops and detours for more complete exploration.

So don't get me wrong. Nothing I've said above should stop you from getting behind the wheel. Rather, I would simply have you take to the road with keener senses.

And given the beauty and history that awaits, sharpened awareness will do you well. If you have some trepidation, don't sweat it: after all, the appreciation of beauty is heightened by a touch of danger.

Having traveled through Israel from its northernmost town of Metulla, along the Lebanese border, to its southernmost city of Eilat adjacent to Egypt and Jordan, and from the Mediterranean to Dead Sea, I've distilled my impressions to this: Driving in the major cities is hectic, frustrating and best kept to a minimum, while driving in the countryside, where traffic is often light, is easy -- if one remembers to use caution where necessary.

Here are some specific pointers that should help ensure an enjoyable driving experience in Israel.

Understand the highway system. Major highways (4 lanes) link Tel Aviv with Jerusalem, Haifa and Beersheba. Other roads are usually one lane in each direction. Israel has no toll roads.

Although Israel is assigning numbers to their roads (North-South even, East-West odd), most people still refer to them by the towns they connect or their location. For example, ask how to get from Tiberias to Jerusalem and you'll be told to take the Jordan Valley, not Route 90.

Avoid city driving. Driving in the big three cities of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa should be kept to a minimum. Driving during rush hours (7:30 to 8:30 am. and 4 to 6 p.m.) should be avoided.

Also, parking in cities is a source of endless frustration. Consider booking a hotel that is located near major attractions and offers free parking. Then walk to your destinations or get around town by taxi.

Be familiar with parking regulations. Retrieving a towed car or waiting to have a boot removed is a sure-fire way to dampen vacation fun. Parking regulations are strictly enforced in town and city centers. Cars can be legally parked where curbs are striped blue and white; however, you'll need to display a parking card (obtainable from post offices and kiosks) on your dashboard between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. No parking is permitted where curbs are painted red and white. Park there and you'll likely be towed or have a wheel clamped.

Keep lights on for safety. I have read in at least one tour book that all vehicles driving on inter-urban roads must use their headlights (parking lights are not enough) at all times between November 1 and March 31.

I would go further, and suggest that lights be kept on whenever driving in the countryside. In certain areas, for example along the Jordan Valley or in the Negev, it is easy to lose concentration and lapse into a trance-like state. Approaching headlights will help you and on-coming traffic focus attention back onto the road.

Be prepared to stop. On some roads you will encounter roadblocks. These are chiefly military in nature and you will usually be waved on as you slowly pass the barricade. At other times, you may be the subject of spot Israeli police checks, especially during periods of heightened security concern. If the police stop you, they most likely will inspect your driver's license then send you on your way. To reduce the possibility of problems, always carry your passport as well as your license when driving.