License to kill

POSTED AT 12:00 AM ON Mar. 2, 2004 


After collecting years of unscientific anecdotal evidence, I have come to this conclusion: it is far too easy to obtain a motor vehicle operators license in this country.

One would think a sleepy college hamlet would be immune from the wild-eyed maneuvering of Manhattan, N.Y., Chicago, Los Angeles or Atlanta. Nay -- bad driving is an epidemic spreading from all corners of the country to plague our pavement.

Everyone makes mistakes on the road, and no one can honestly say they maintain white-knuckle focus every second in the driver's seat. But how many drivers hang out in other drivers' blind spots on the freeway? How many people pull out into oncoming traffic before looking both ways? How many people fly through red lights because "they just didn't see it?" How many pass or park with no understanding of how large their vehicle is? How many people handle Denalis or Navigators like they might as well be steering a space shuttle?

Everyone knows someone who is the butt of jokes about their bad driving. But how funny is it to know a friend, a family member or even you are a danger to yourself and others on the road? How many drivers are on the road who simply shouldn't be? Isn't there a more rigorous way to determine who is fit to hit the road? Driving a motor vehicle is a more specialized task than people are willing to admit, and there is no reason to expect every person should be able to perform it competently. My unscientific anecdotal evidence points to the fact that millions of people do not drive competently.

You might say, "Neal, you're being irrational, everyone has to obtain a learner's permit then pass written AND practical driving tests." But I'll concede that point and counter it. We all passed Geometry in high school -- prove the Pythagorean Theorem. Wait, you can't recall what that is or how to prove it? Then it might not be surprising to find that drivers who passed a written test five, 10, 30 years ago can't remember at night when a car at a four-way stop flashes its brights, they are giving you the right of way … or telling you to turn your lights on.

But I am not simply indicting a driver's education system for letting millions of numbskulls slide through with passing grades. I am questioning the criteria by which this system decides who is fit to be behind the wheel of a car or truck. Traffic is a physics exam in motion. You have a field of objects of varying size moving in multiple directions at different velocities. Decisions on the road require a reflexive understanding of that field and what role you play in it. You must know the size of the vehicle you're driving and navigate it in relation to all the others on the road. There are many people who couldn't pass a physics exam on paper but understand the relationship between objects in motion. Conversely, there are many bright people who drive like they are strapped to a comet hurtling through space, skirting injury and death by dumb luck alone.

I am calling on the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to raise the bar for prospective drivers. Private citizens, if you, or someone you know is an incompetent driver, intervene. Set the keys on the ground and slowly back away. Somehow, we need to get these people off the road.

God knows my middle finger needs a rest.


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