The nut that holds the wheel

WASHINGTON, DC, September 10 -- That's the most dangerous part of any car, or so the saying goes.  But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), political lobbyists, and the auto industry itself fail to understand this.  They keep introducing technologically-advanced (and expensive) safety devices for cars, and issuing reports and regulations on the sorry state of highway safety, but they never do the one thing that would really reduce the carnage on our roads: require people to learn some driving skills before being licensed.

Driver Ed -- that's sort of like Mr. Ed, right?

Like most people, I'm basically a self-taught driver.  I took a perfunctory driver-ed class when I was 16.  This consisted of a few soporific sessions sitting in the back seat watching someone else drive, followed by a few sessions at the controls, driving around suburbia under ideal conditions, under the watchful eye of an instructor named Mr. Rufo.  Mr. Rufo was a nice guy, and he taught me a few survival skills -- I remember he caught me going through a green light without checking to make sure no one was running the red light from either side of the road we were crossing -- but for the most part, he just showed us the "go" and "stop" pedals and the steering wheel, and sent us on our way.

My driving test, administered by a dour-faced examiner at the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles in Marlborough, was similarly lacking in rigorousness.  The guy had me drive around Marlborough for a few minutes, and -- when I'd negotiated a few left and right turns, started and stopped on a hill, and successfully parked the car by the side of the road -- gave me my license.  A few years later, when I took a test for a motorcycle license, it was even easier; I did some circles and figure-8's in a side street, then rode around the block without falling over, and was thereby certified a competent rider.

That's not good enough -- not by a long shot.  Anyone who's spent time fighting traffic in a busy area like suburban Chicago understands that most people have absolutely no idea how to handle a car in any but the most ordinary situations.  When anything unusual happens -- or even anything usual, like a snowstorm -- people start crashing into each other and into telephone poles and other stationary objects.  Around here, there have been at least half a dozen major incidents involving cars and trucks crashing into buildings over the past few months.  Why does this happen?  Because people simply do not know how to drive.

NHTSA matta you?

A brief perusal of NHTSA's Web site reveals that the agency loves to extol the virtues of air bags, seat belts, child safety seats, crash tests, automotive safety recalls, drug/alcohol prevention, "intelligent" transportation systems, and no end of other "safety" measures.  However, you won't find anything suggesting that people learn and demonstrate the ability to handle a car.  There's a section on "Driver Performance," but this is just a set of technological ways to prevent people from crashing into things.  Nowhere, in the entire Web site, is there any mention that it might be a good idea to teach people how to make an emergency stop, swerve to avoid a deer, or -- Heaven forbid -- turn a fast lap on a racetrack.

NHTSA seems to feel that technology is the answer -- the padded-cell, lowest-common-denominator approach.  They think if you put enough air bags, crumple zones, passive restraints, and pillows into every car, you can minimize the number of people who get killed in collisions.

There's certainly some merit to the idea that a car should protect the driver in a crash.  It's amazing how safe you can make a car, as anyone who's ever seen a NASCAR race can attest.  Those guys walk away from some pretty scary crashes on a regular basis.  But crash protection is expensive -- much more expensive than preventing collisions from happening in the first place.

There oughta be a law!

Joan Claybrook, former head of NHTSA and now the rather long-winded Consumer Co-Chair of the Program Committee of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety (Advocates), loves to argue that the way to achieve highway safety is to write regulations.  I'm serious -- her organization states that it is "a coalition of consumer, health, safety, law enforcement and insurance companies, organizations, and agents working together to support the adoption of laws and programs to reduce deaths and injuries on our highways."

In a statement to a House Commerce subcommittee on October 29, 1997, Claybrook argued that traffic-safety Nirvana could be achieved if only we'd implement the following: lower speed limits; motorcycle helmet laws; regulations to "protect improperly restrained and out-of-position occupants"; "out-of-position barrier crash testing with an array of test dummies"; tougher head impact and side impact standards, roof crush standards, and requirements for window glazing strength (still with me?); regulations to protect children in certain child restraints from fire; and "international harmonization of motor vehicle safety standards."

Nowhere -- in this or any other of her statements (you can find them with any Web search engine) -- does Claybrook advocate teaching people how to drive.  Safety devices and safety regulations, she feels, are more important than operator competence.

If you're starting to notice a pattern here, it's, shall we say, no accident.  Government bureaucrats and political lobbyists share a common blind spot -- they think the route to highway safety is one of air bags and law books.  It hasn't occurred to them that a much better solution is to upgrade the skills of the driving public.

They train motorcyclists, don't they?

Those of us who ride motorcycles have to learn some skills -- if you don't take riding seriously, you won't survive long on two wheels.  Self-taught riders who don't bother to go beyond the basics of starting and stopping tend to get weeded out pretty quickly -- either they crash or they come close, and they get scared away from riding.  That's why you see a lot of classified ads for late-model motorcycles with 300 miles on the odometer.

The Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF), funded by bike manufacturers, offers a couple of courses that teach beginning and experienced riders the basics of braking, swerving, and cornering -- the three skills most essential to survival out on the road.  The classes involve going through a series of exercises, in a controlled, parking-lot setting, that teach riders how to control their machines in a reliable, repeatable way.

Here in Illinois, MSF classes are free -- subsidized by a portion of the fees paid by motorcycle licensees.  Would it be too much to ask for the state to provide funds for similar classes for car drivers?  MSF training, unlike driver-ed, teaches the student how to operate the machine and handle the road.  Driver-ed just showed us where the pedals, knobs, and levers were.  An MSF-like class, taken periodically, would help drivers keep their skills sharp.

One reason I'm advocating driver training, instead of technology and regulation, is that the biggest hazard facing motorcyclists is that posed by people driving cars.  More motorcyclists are killed by car drivers making oncoming left turns than by any other single hazard.  An air bag in every car won't have any effect on this -- but driver training will.

Why not require everyone to take a class every four years, at license renewal time?  I'm not saying you'd have to pass a test every four years -- you'd just have to take a refresher driving class teaching braking, swerving, and cornering.  I'll wager this would save more lives than every seat belt, air bag, crumple zone, anti-lock brake system, traction-control system, rear collision sensor, and passive restraint that ever inflated the price of a motor vehicle.

Make things foolproof, and they'll make a better fool

You can slap all the safety equipment you like on cars; you can put up all the stop signs, speed bumps, and traffic lights you want (that's a subject for another column -- I'll get to it eventually); and you can set speed limits as low as you want -- but why doesn't any "safety advocate" ever take to the podium and recommend collision avoidance through improved driving skills?  That costs much less and would save a lot more lives than all these technological and regulatory fixes.

Politicians and lobbyists think that the road to safety is to keep dumbing cars down, so less and less skill and attention is required of the operator.  This is the wrong approach.  Instead of dumbing down the car, we should smarten up the driver!

Copyright © 1998 John J. Kafalas

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