Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Jerk Tax

Israelis have an almost legendary disdain for restrictions or limitations. While this disdain has led to some of our most stunning achievements, it has also brought about a great deal of tragedy, specifically on our highways. News broadcasts regularly include the number of people killed in traffic accidents, and nearly every day a photograph of a crushed vehicle with a heartbreaking caption appears in our newspapers. Nevertheless, point out to many Israeli drivers that they are breaking the law and they may tell you—politeness optional—that the law doesn’t apply to them. “I’m a good driver,” they may say. “The law is only for people who don’t know what they’re doing. A road accident? Nah. That’ll never happen to me.”

The problem, of course, is that it happens all too often.

Israel has suffered from a high road accident rate for years. Only recently has the government formed its own organization to deal with the problem, while citizens’ groups like Metuna and Anashim ba-Adom (People in Red) have been around for at least a decade. Some years ago Metuna offered a course it called KEY, an acronym of the Hebrew phrase kol ehad yakhol (everyone is able). The goal of the course was to teach ordinary citizens how to report traffic violations legally and effectively, thus giving them the power to improve the situation on our roads.

It sounded like a good idea to me. I took the course, and I’ve been reporting traffic violations ever since.

(Now, before anyone starts thinking about using this method to get back at that noisy neighbor they can’t stand, I should clarify that according to the rules, you can’t report someone you know. There are quite a few other rules, too, which I won’t go into here. But just to make it clear: there are precise regulations about reporting traffic offenses. It’s not a free-for-all.)

I still remember our instructor telling us: “If another driver cuts you off or does something stupid, don’t get mad. Get even.” In this case,“getting even” didn’t mean taking the law into our own hands. Rather, it meant using the law to make sure that traffic rules are enforced and obeyed. It meant that finally, ordinary citizens could hold bad drivers accountable instead of merely fuming about their selfishness and stupidity. Also, if other drivers knew that the person they were about to cut off might report them (meaning that they would have to pay a hefty fine), they might think twice about doing it. And the more drivers who obey the law, even out of pure self-interest, the more lives are saved.

Have I been responsible for people being fined? Yes. In fact, I have a name for it. I call it the Jerk Tax.

Here’s how I came up with the name.

Several years ago I was riding in a sherut (a kind of shared taxi) to a town outside Jerusalem. The driver began talking on his cellphone without using a hands-free device, a dangerous and illegal act (and, actually, dangerous even with a hands-free device). His attention wandered, and the van in which we were riding began to weave in and out of its lane. The passengers started to feel uneasy.

Finally, a woman riding with several small children succeeded in getting the driver’s attention. “Please stop talking on your cellphone while you’re driving,” she begged him. “It’s not safe. I’m worried about my children.”

“Don’t tell me how to drive, lady,” the driver shot back, continuing to talk on his cellphone. “Shut up. I know what I’m doing.”

Ignoring the woman’s repeated pleas, the driver continued to berate and insult her as he talked on his cellphone and kept weaving in and out of his lane.

All right, I thought. That’s it. Not only is this driver endangering all of us, but he’s acting like he has a perfect right to do it. And look at how he’s treating that poor woman. He’s behaving like a total jerk, and he thinks he can get away with it. Well, not this time.

I reported him. Several weeks later, I received a letter from the police’s traffic-safety unit. They had followed up on the case and slapped the jerk—I mean, the driver—with a hefty fine.

Thus the concept of the Jerk Tax was born.

Recently, when I stayed at the home of some friends over Shabbat, we had a discussion about the situation on our highways. As my friends lamented the state of affairs, I told them that they can do something about the problem and illustrated my point with the story above. One of their other guests, a young woman from the United States, seemed disconcerted and asked me: “Aren’t you being just a little too happy about having gotten somebody in trouble?”

I answered, perhaps a bit more harshly than I intended: “What I’m happy about is that we can actually do something about bad drivers in this country. And as for ‘getting people in trouble,’ we’re not in grade school anymore, where it’s not nice to rat on people. Sometimes it’s necessary. That driver could have gotten us all killed!”

But yes, I have to admit it: in a world where the jerks seem to win so much of the time, it does feel good to make some of them pay the Jerk Tax now and then.

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