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Driver's Re-Ed

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On: Tue, Jun 1, 2010 at 1:22PM | By: Lou Ruggieri

Driver's Re-Ed

The list of standard safety features on today’s even most basic car models would have sounded like a spaceship from a science fiction story only a generation or two ago.  Adaptive cruise control?  Check.  Anti-lock braking system?  Blind spot detection?  Check.  Side curtain airbags?  Check.  Lane-departure warning?  Yes.  Rearview camera?  Go.  Accident avoidance system?  Roger.  

Car companies have done an amazing job at making automobiles much safer, but despite their best efforts they have not yet been able to solve the biggest threat to driving safety:  The driver.  There is a flawed inference almost everyone is a victim of.  Although cars are the safest they have ever been, driving is not safer, and in fact, has never been more dangerous.  Road speeds are higher, population and road congestion have increased exponentially, and people are more distracted than ever with the need for immediate responses to phone calls, emails, and text messages.  

With that thought, I’d like to suggest two ideas.  One that has been talked about, or at least thought about by almost anyone that has ever been slowly cut off by a senior citizen drifting listlessly into their lane on the interstate.  The second is quite a bit more radical.  Both of these occurred to me a moment or two after I was nearly killed the other day by a very inattentive driver on Route One in my home state of New Jersey.  As I slammed on my brakes and swerved out of the way of an Audi whose driver did not feel it was necessary to check for oncoming traffic before he blew through a stop sign, I realized a few things.  The first is that I want to live.  The second was that had my car been made several decades earlier, I probably wouldn’t have been alive to have a third thought.

Idea number one is simple: A driver’s retest every ten or 15 years, both the written and the road test. This idea is based on the simple observation that we need to renew just about everything in society already: Passports, subscriptions services, CPR certifications, friendships, vows, insurance policies, registrations, and even our driver’s license. But sending in a form to indicate you are still alive and still want the privilege of driving does not prove you are still worthy of that privilege. Why do we or the government for that matter allow such an easy renewal to something that is literally life or death? Because driving a car is the automotive equivalent to riding a bike? Because once you learn it, it is assumed you won’t forget? Maybe is it because it’s just too inconvenient to head off to the dreaded DMV more than we do now? I would argue that it is decidedly more inconvenient to get careened into by a speeding New Yorker jabbering away on his Bluetooth and had no idea what a safe following distance is.

Think that’s not you? Well here are a few refresher questions*:

1. You may drive off of the paved roadway to pass another vehicle:

If the shoulder is wide enough to accommodate your vehicle

If the vehicle ahead of you is turning left.

Under no circumstances

2. You are approaching a railroad crossing with no warning devices and are unable to see 400 feet down the tracks in one direction. The speed limit is:

15 mph

20 mph

25 mph

3. When parking your vehicle parallel to the curb on a level street.

Your front wheels must be turned toward the street.

Your wheels must be within 18 inches of the curb.

One of your rear wheels must touch the curb.

4. When you are merging onto the freeway, you should be driving:

At or near the same speed as the traffic on the freeway.

5 to 10 MPH slower than the traffic on the freeway.

The posted speed limit for traffic on the freeway.

5. When driving in fog, you should use your:

Fog lights only.

High beams.

Low beams.

The next idea I’d like to submit for your approval will almost definitely never come to pass. Many will dismiss it as crazy or silly, but hear me out. A federal judge once told me that driving is a privilege, not a right. Although he later he upped my car insurance significantly despite my protesting, I did agree with the first statement he made. Privileges need to be respected. Privileges need to be cherished. When that respect and sense of value turn to abuse and a sense of entitlement, accidents happen.

As a young 20 year old driver, I did not respect my privilege to drive, or the laws of physics for that matter. I learned the hard way that Issac Newton was right about a few things. My 2001 TransAm Ws6 that I had worked tirelessly for was in motion one night on a slippery highway, until it spun out of control and was ‘acted upon’ by a guard rail at about 60mph. Thankfully I was not hurt, and it only took about $7,000 to fix my mistake. After that night I began to drive a lot slower, and a lot safer. I had a newfound respect for my driving privilege, my car, and my life.

So what am I suggesting by telling you that story? I’m suggesting that getting into an accident should become PART of getting your driver’s license. Is this a crazy idea? Maybe. Will this ever actually become part of the actual driving test? No. Is there some logic in this seeming lunacy? Absolutely.

It’s been said that, “It takes a genius to learn from someone else’s mistakes”. I’d like to add to this that it probably takes a genius to foresee potential consequences of those mistakes as well. Case in point, I did not know how easy it was to lose control of my car at speed on the highway, nor did I know how much it costs to actually repair a car, nor did I know how much higher insuring that car would be until after I got into an accident.

It is probably safe to say most of us are not geniuses, so how do we learn? We learn by making our own mistakes, of course. Until that car starts to actually slide along that slick pavement, people always think that accidents happen to everyone else. It is naïve and dangerous to assume and hope that 18 year old kid just won’t make a mistake … He will. Instead of putting our collective heads in the sand, why not meet the problem head on (quite literally). A driving test should not only show you how to parallel park, brake and turn, but it should also teach you just how much responsibility is involved in operating a 4000 pound piece of machinery at speed.

I can already hear the complaints that safety and legal issues will prevent this from happening. Perhaps, perhaps not, but my vision is very simple. The ‘test’ should have a student get behind the wheel of a car that has been reinforced to some extent to prevent any serious harm. The student should be allowed behind the wheel on an open lot and told to make a sharp turn to induce oversteer and eventually a spin out. This example will show just how easy it is to lose control of a car. The next phase of the test should be a series of obstacles set up in the road and the student should be instructed to do a series of distracting tasks (changing the radio station, reaching behind the seat, make a phone call) while random objects are thrown into the way of the vehicle. They don’t have to be large items, dummies, shopping carts, or even tires can be flung into the car students path to prove just how costly losing focus can be. Finally, the test should finish with another car riding in front of the test car. The front car will have no brake lights and should be instructed to stop abruptly, causing the student to rear end he lead car. Again, focus and following distance are addressed in a very real manner.

After the test is finished, an appraisal of the car should be made and the student should be told how much repairing those damages would cost, as well as potential insurance premium increases. Will it work for everyone? No. But could it help reduce the fatality rate among motorists? I believe so.

Before you think that all of this might be too much of a chore to implement and you don’t want to be bothered with the hassle, just remember in the words of Flannery O'Connor, “The next life that gets saved might just be your own”. Cars will continue to get safer, that much we can be certain of. Isn’t it about time drivers started to catch up?

*Answers (Questions and answers provided by www.dmv.ca.gov/

1. You may drive off of the paved roadway to pass another vehicle:
Under no circumstances.

2. You are approaching a railroad crossing with no warning devices and are unable to see 400 feet down the tracks in one direction. The speed limit is:
15 mph

3. When parking your vehicle parallel to the curb on a level street:
Your wheels must be within 18 inches of the curb.

4. When merging onto the freeway you should be driving:
At or near the same speed as the traffic on the freeway.

5. When driving in fog you should use your:
Low beams.



Lindee3 | 8:33PM (Wed, Jun 2, 2010)

Lou, your article and suggestions make sense to me! Allowing people, young and old, to somehow experience the repercussions of bad driving before an accident occurs...what a concept! Would certainly give drivers "food for thought!"

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