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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Conditional Permission? What's that?

Having lived here in Israel for more than eight years, I am proud to report that in most ways, I have become acclimated to the local culture.

It's hard to say whether I have actually become culturally Israeli, or if I am simply less sensitive to the cultural differences between my actions and the actions of those who were born and raised here.

But of all the little cultural differences that I used to notice (and write about here) there remains one defining act which, for me, embodies the essence of true 'Israeli-ness': The curb-to-curb turn.

Anyone who has ever driven a car knows what a curb-to-curb, or three-point, turn is. With the proliferation of European-style 'round-abouts' here in Israel, one would think that curb-to-curb turns would become an artifact as anachronistic as throwing soiled toilet tissue in the trash bin next to the toilet instead of flushing it down the drain.

But one would be wrong.

What startles me anew each time I see someone making a curb-to-curb turn is not that they are doing it… but rather how they are doing it. The how of this simple driving maneuver remains a yawning chasm between the mindset of native born Israelis and those who learned to drive abroad.

Allow me to explain:

A typical immigrant who learned to drive in, say, Canada or the US, knows that while a curb-to curb turn may be required in order to reverse the direction of travel in places such as a parking lot or residential street, it may only be performed under the following circumstances:

1. No oncoming vehicles are approaching from the opposite direction
2. No vehicles are following or approaching from behind
3. There is ample room to be able to perform the curb-to-curb in a quick, three-point maneuver

Once these three criteria have been met, the immigrant driver quickly turns the car into the first point of the three point run. Before the car has even come to a complete stop, the transmission is put in reverse, and the car is quickly backed to achieve the second point of the turn. Again, before the car has fully stopped, the transmission is put into 'Drive' (or first gear) and the car is propelled quickly into the new direction of travel... hopefully causing inconveneience to no one.

However, if the curb-to-curb is not performed quickly enough, and/or a car suddenly appears from either direction, a typical immigrant driver will suddenly feel pressure, and will likely break out in a sweat…. while trying to complete the curb-to-curb even quicker than had previously been planned. Once completed, an apologetic wave and shrug are required to be offered in the direction of the oncoming (or following) driver who has been inconvenienced by your poorly planned/timed curb-to-curb.

Native born Israelis, on the other hand, see curb-curb-to-curb turns the way they see everything else on the road. In fact every single action of a native Israeli, on or off the road, falls into one of two clearly defined categories: Permitted or Forbidden. There are no grey area of 'conditionally forbidden' or 'conditionally permitted'.

This is why stop signs never made any inroads here, and had to be replaced by 'round-abouts'. Israelis couldn't grasp the idea of 'you have to stop, and then only proceed if the intersection is clear… and then only in order of preference, starting with the vehicle to your right'. That kind of rule based on multiple levels of conditional permissions blew all the circuits in the Israeli driver's mind.

That's also why as soon as a solid center line gives way to a broken center line, Israelis feel free – compelled even - to pull out and pass the car in front of them without regard to whether any cars are approaching in the oncoming lane.

The broken line allows passing. Therefore, it is incumbent upon oncoming traffic to somehow adjust to the sudden appearance of the Israeli's vehicle in their lane. Otherwise, it would be forbidden. Right?

I can already hear you starting to quote your high school Driver's Ed. Teacher, ""You may pass on a broken line, but only after checking to make sure you have enough time to complete the pass without interfering with oncoming traffic. If the oncoming lane isn’t clear, you are not allowed to pass".

Silly immigrant! What you have just described is an example of 'conditional permission'. Remember, there is no such thing here in Israel. Rules here are binary: Permitted or Forbidden.

So when an Israeli executes a curb-to-curb turn, in their mind they are performing a 100% legally permitted act. Therefore, traffic approaching from either direction must make allowances and wait patiently.

An Israeli will execute the first leg of the three point turn quickly. Not out of any sense of urgency, mind you. But rather to announce unambiguously to everyone else on the road that the maneuver has begun.

You see, in a society where everything is either permitted or forbidden, ambiguity is the enemy. If anyone can reasonably tell a policeman or insurance investigator that your intentions were not clear, you are to blame. But if you act boldly, in such a way as to remove all doubt in the minds of those around you as to what you were trying to do... you are 100% in the right (or so goes the Israeli way of thinking).

So once that first leg of the curb-to-curb has been accomplished (effectively blocking both lanes of travel), the Israeli driver feels no pressure to proceed precipitously. Radio stations can be adjusted...coffee can be sipped... cigarettes can be lit...make-up can be checked (or even applied)... all without regard to anyone who might be waiting.

Because permitted is permitted. Having to complete the turn within a given period of time would suggest conditional permission. And such a concept is alien to the culturally Israeli way of doing things.

Which is why, at least in this regard, I will always be considered an immigrant.

Posted by David Bogner on January 11, 2012 | Permalink


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In general, the Israeli has the right of way. I mean always has the right of way.

There are a few other places in the world in which this rule applies, for example, in Naples, Italy. And denizens of certain parts of NY (mostly places in Brooklyn such as Boro Park and Flatbush) have taken the assertion of constant right of way to an art form on par or greater than that of Israel.

Posted by: Mark | Jan 11, 2012 5:12:22 PM

Come on, Trepp... I don't believe you.

I watched yesterday's video (in fact, I've watched it 3 times -- twice yesterday and again this morning) so I know there's physically no way for an auto to make a 3 point turn on those tight Jerusalem streets (in America, you might recall, we call those sidewalks!).

I need visual proof please. How about you strap on the scooter helmet cam again and show us these steets wide enough for said turns? And, please, turn off the cam later -- I don't need visual proof of the pioneer's effluence!

Posted by: ProphetJoe | Jan 11, 2012 5:36:11 PM

For those who might want to do this turn properly, here is expert guidance:


Posted by: Bob Miller | Jan 11, 2012 6:52:22 PM

But you're always allowed do blow the horn. This at least releases some stress while watching a 3 to 6 point turn. For me it is no stress at all - I'm watching the strange activities on Israels roads in awe.


Posted by: Kurt | Jan 12, 2012 12:19:55 AM

I find it annoying here in Israel, that when I try to do a proper 3-point turn, a car suddenly coming in the opposite direction will attempt to squeeze through the space behind my car instead of stopping (and waiting patiently for a few seconds) to let me complete my turn. You need to keep 7 eyes on the road in Israel!

Posted by: Fungo | Jan 12, 2012 7:52:29 AM

So, so true. This is a great explanation of Israeli life. Should be required reading for all olim :)

Posted by: SaraK | Jan 12, 2012 12:47:27 PM

This is why, to this day, I am deathly afraid to drive in Israel, even though I drove when I lived there 30 years ago. There is no such thing in Israel as "defensive driving." It's all offensive (in every sense of the word ;-)
We're coming for another visit, next week, actually. And my husband is gonna drive!

Posted by: Lady-Light | Jan 16, 2012 5:18:12 AM

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