JERUSALEM -- Bus 963 set out from the central bus station here early one recent morning on its way to the northern Galilee, but did not get very far. A few blocks from the station on a curving and narrow city street, it skidded on a puddle of soapy water and slammed into a parked flatbed truck.
It hit the truck so hard that 20 passengers sitting in the rear were mangled by crushed steel and flying glass. It took an hour to cut some of them out of the bloody tangle and by then two of them, a 5-year-old girl and a 20-year-old soldier, were dead.
A day later two policemen were killed and two injured in Petah Tikva after their jeep collided with a private car and flipped over. Police who went to investigate were surprised to find no stop signs or other right-of-way markings at the newly opened intersection.
The casualties were among 21 dead and 103 injured in Israel -- a country of 4.5 million people -- during one bloody week in September. It was the worst week of road carnage in recent history, according to officials, and for many Israelis it was symbolic of just how dangerous this country's highways have become. Among the dead during a 10-day stretch that month were eight soldiers, more than had been killed in Lebanon since the beginning of the year.
The numbers were no fluke. Analysts say road fatalities this year will be about 15 percent higher than last, in what Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has called "the agonizing bloodletting on our highways."
"In terms of carnage, Israel's worst problem these days is not terrorism and it's not Lebanon -- it's the roads," said Harry Wall, local representative of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith and a regular commuter on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway.
The possible reasons behind the increase are many, and the experts disagree. Some blame the poor state of Israel's road system, which generally takes a back seat to defense needs in an already tight budget; others cite an explosion in the number of automobiles over the past decade or a shortage of police. Some even blame the hot weather, which supposedly makes motorists irritable and impatient.
But almost everyone agrees that Israel's drivers are dangerous and getting worse. A quick trip down any of this nation's roads suggests that the tensions and aggressions that bubble just below the surface of national life in this besieged and overcrowded state are on highly visible display on its highways.
Speeding and tailgating are national pastimes, as is a blithe refusal to yield the right-of-way to other drivers. Horns are in constant use, while brake pedals are shunned. Pedestrians are fair game and the few crosswalks whose faded white zebra stripes are still visible are generally ignored.
Of the 14 people killed in traffic accidents one recent week, according to Transportation Minister Haim Corfu, nine were pedestrians and four of those were children. "If you don't like the way I drive," reads one popular bumper sticker, "get off the sidewalk."
"It's very hard to be nice on the road when nobody else is," said Hebrew University psychologist Gary Bornstein. "No one wants to be a sucker. You quickly realize that the only way you can deal with driving here is to be like everyone else. Otherwise you end up at the end of the line."
Among the worst offenders are bus and truck drivers, who can often be seen in the passing lanes on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road moving at speeds far above the 55-mile limit.
The Bus 963 accident was a classic example of the combination of negligence and bad planning that lead to fatal accidents here, according to Jerusalem Post columnist Yosef Goell.
It took place on Yirmiyahu Street, once a sleepy dead end that became a major thoroughfare after the city was reunified in 1967 even though it remains narrow and curving. The bus, which an Egged Bus Co. spokesman denied was speeding, skidded on a patch of soapy water sloshed out of a roadside restaurant -- "another expression of the way in which many of us treat the public domain as private property or as a no man's land where anything goes," wrote Goell.
The bus slammed into a truck that was parked illegally on the street because of an overflow from a nearby garage that repairs dump trucks. City officials should have long ago demanded that the garage move off the site or build more parking, Goell said.
"The problem is not that the experts and the authorities do not know the cause of accidents," he concluded. "It is that a sense of urgency and the political will have been lacking to bang heads together and tread on sensitive toes in a determination to force us to change our driving habits and behavior."
Government officials have begun to take notice, although some insist their hands are tied by the sheer size of Israel's traffic problem.
Housing and Construction Minister David Levy, who has been criticized for the poor state of the roads, says the number of vehicles has quadrupled in recent years and the current "traffic load factor" is 235 vehicles per mile of highway, three times greater than that in most western countries. Israel also holds the world record for the amount of freight hauled on its roads, according to Levy, since it has virtually no railway system.
A proposal to invest about $450 million in road improvements over the next five years was rejected by the Cabinet on the grounds that the money simply was unavailable. Nonetheless, some steps have been taken.
Israel's mandatory seat-belt law, which had applied only to highway driving, was broadened by Transportation Minister Corfu as of Nov. 1 to city roads as well. Judges have begun imprisoning drivers in traffic death cases and police have issued 147 one-month license suspensions to drivers at the scene of accidents.
Joseph Bodenheimer of the Center for Driving Safety and Injury Prevention of the Jerusalem College of Technology said all these measures will help more than road improvements, which he believes would have minimal impact. Bodenheimer's institute is working on a computerized infrared monitor that would detect speeders and tailgaters more effectively than radar.
In a speech last month, High Court Justice Dov Levin, chairman of the Council for the Prevention of Accidents, said the steps taken by the government so far were "far from what is needed."
Noting the number of soldiers killed in recent accidents, Levin said, "No one declared a state of emergency. If these soldiers had been killed in military action you can be sure that such an emergency would have been announced."