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The way to make our roads safer: produce better drivers SCOTT WASSER WHEELS OPINION While driving in rural Georgia a few years ago with one of Ford’s European executives as a passenger, I suddenly found myself at the tail end of a traffic jam that appeared to stretch a mile or more. Until that point, it had been a great drive covering about 70 miles of meandering two-lane tarmac. Except for those few times when the road bisected a small town, the prevailing speed was around 50 miles an hour. That was fast enough to enjoy the sporty vehicle I was driving. The traffic jam put our enjoyment on hold. After crawling for what was about 15 minutes but seemed like 15 hours, we discovered what was causing the tie-up: A guy on the opposite side of the road changing a flat tire. The shoulder was nearly wide enough for two cars, and the guy was well clear of the road. The tire he was changing was on the far side of the car. Nevertheless, I could understand people slowing down to 30 mph or so out of courtesy or caution. But I couldn’t figure out why nearly every car rolled past at the pace of a turtle with three broken legs. … until I watched the drivers of the first and second cars in front of me. Their heads were on swivels as they passed the car on the side of the road. They apparently had never before seen anyone changing a flat tire and were mesmerized by it. The way they slowed and stared, you’d swear they were watching a Cirque du Soleil production. My British passenger turned to me and mused, “Only in America.” I couldn’t argue. Not because I’ve spent a lot of times on European roads but because I’ve seen countless and constant examples of stupidity, carelessness and just plain incompetence on our own. There are signs we may be coming to our senses… at least a little bit. Although I still see plenty of folks focused on their smart phones instead of the road, I’m encouraged that we seem to at least have acknowledged that that’s a problem. But the sad fact is that the laws we enact to prevent it wouldn’t be necessary

Good samaritans help a woman change a flat tire on the side of a busy highway. Well over 30,000 Americans are killed or seriously inured in traffic accidents each and every year.

if we as a nation truly learned what it means to safely operate a vehicle in the first place. My British passenger told me some things that helped me understand why we don’t. “In most of Europe,” he said, “it is very difficult to get a driver’s license. Where I grew up in England, you expected to fail your driver’s test when you took it. And the second time. And maybe even the third. “Almost nobody passed the first time because the test is tough and makes you prove you can safely operate a vehicle under all the conditions you’re likely to encounter on the road. “In Europe, we consider it a privilege to have a driver’s license,” he continued. “But here in America, teenagers seem to consider it a birthright.” I couldn’t argue with him. I’ve taken and witnessed the driving portions of motorcycle and car licensing tests in several states. Most of those tests were administered in parking lots. Those that

did require at least a minimal time on real roads were generally conducted on roads so free of other traffic they felt like closed courses. I never took or knew anyone who took a driving test at night… on snow… or even in a heavy downpour. But earn your license by satisfying an examiner in a parking lot on dry surfaces in daylight and you’re legally qualified to drive in a blizzard or an ice storm. Not that you’re necessarily even barely competent to do so. But society doesn’t seem to care. Moms and dads worry about teenagers speeding, drinking and driving, and clowning around with friends in the car. But how many really appreciate that they’re freely handing over the keys to an incredibly deadly 3,500-pound weapon of mass destruction without requiring them to know how to handle that weapon? I’d bet most don’t because they got their driver’s license under the same system. They don’t know themselves what it takes to be a skilled and proficient driver

as opposed to a scarcely capable one. I may not, either, but I’ve tried to understand what it takes to be able to control a vehicle. I’ve attended several basic and high-performance driving schools on public roads and closed tracks. I’ve taken the national Motorcycle Safety Foundation beginners and advanced classes several times. And I had a father and uncle who cared enough to demand that I develop a skill level in a car and on a motorcycle that satisfied them, not just the laughable basic competency test administered by most DMVs. I did the same when my daughters were learning to drive. I made them drive at night. I set up cones in empty parking lots and made them perform emergency braking and steering and prove they could control a vehicle, not just start and operate it. I took them out on the same parking lots that were wet from rain and covered by snow and ice. I wanted them to know how a vehicle

would feel when it encountered those conditions and learn how to control it. I wanted them to experience an uncontrollable skid in a place where the vehicle would eventually slide harmlessly to a stop instead of crashing into another vehicle or a building or – heaven help us – a pedestrian. It’s a shame that our DMVs don’t demand the same. No, it’s not a shame; it’s an injustice. It’s easier to get a driver’s license than to win a prize at a carnival game. And once you get it, you’re a winner for life! I know an 85-year-old who hasn’t driven regularly in at least 15 years and can probably count on one hand her times behind the wheel during that span. Yet it’s perfectly legal for her to hop in the car this afternoon and drive from Boston to Los Angeles. Maybe that’s why our roads often resemble a demolition derby. Drivers wander between lanes, don’t signal turns, and clog the left, passing lane on the highway while driving slower than the speed limit. They also cause accidents by changing lanes without signaling, passing on blind curves and slamming on their brakes to watch the guy changing a flat on the other side of the road. It’s time to raise the bar. It’s time to enact tougher licensing procedures that require people to prove they should be entrusted with your life and my life when they operate a vehicle. This is not a call for lower speed limits, fewer passing zones, more traffic lights or any of the other things we typically do to try to make our roads safer. Those moves attack the effect rather than the cause. The way to make our roads safer is really simple: Produce better drivers. That’s not really all that difficult, although it will require a new attitude and a whole new acceptance that safely operating a vehicle isn’t as easy as we’ve been pretending it is. Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death among American teens 15-20. Between 3,000 and 4,000 of us are killed on the road and well over 30,000 are killed or seriously injured just about every single year. It’s time we did something about that by getting to the cause of the problem, not reacting to the effect. Not doing so isn’t just dumb, it’s criminally negligent. SCOTT WASSER is the Times Leader’s Auto Reviewer. His column appears Saturdays. To contact him, e-m mail:

Times Leader 07-30-2011