Muslim clergy in Arab villages in southern Israel are adding safe-driving messages to their sermons after taking a course in the town of Rahat that highlights the dangers of careless driving and rough local roads.

“We have a very special role to play in passing this message to the community,” said Rahat imam Ager Al-Atrash in a telephone interview. He said the topic of driving safety was of special importance to him because his son was seriously injured in a driving accident. “Life is a gift from God and we should not play with it or take it away from someone else. Especially in our society we have to think about how people drive and how we can avoid car accidents,” he said.

The two-month course in the fall of 2011 at Rahat’s community center included driving workshops and classroom lectures that emphasized such safety principles as using seat belts and child car seats.

Religious leaders need to serve as role models in their own driving habits, At-Atrash said. Since the completion of the course, people have been listening to what they say, he said. “The question is how deep the ideas are now sinking into their conscience,” he added.

The course was organized by the Israeli Ministry of Interior, the Israel Police, the National Center for Child Safety and Health and the Road Safety Authority, and coordinated by Salman al-Karnawi, who directs Rahat’s road safety bureau.

Al-Karnawi said that through their sermons, which are also broadcast via loudspeakers outside the mosques every Friday, imams are able to reach large portions of the community, not only those inside the mosque.

“The Arab population represents just 20 percent of Israel’s total population, yet 58 percent of road accidents involve Israeli Arabs and Bedouin,” said al-Karnawi. He said that he had also brought some religious leaders into high schools to speak about road safety.

Rahat is the largest Bedouin town in Israel with 50,000 residents. The total Arab population in the South, scattered among about a dozen villages, is 180,000. According to Israeli police, six Bedouin children were killed over the past year, run over by vehicles in their own yards and driveways. In Rahat alone there were 14 deaths from road accidents from 2006 to 2011.