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September 23, 2002

How To Get Rid Of Bad Drivers

If you have a driver's license, you've more than likely witnessed what a Bad Driver can do. The abilities of Bad Drivers run a broad spectrum, from the simple Eternal Turn Signal up through to a case of The Monday Stupids all the way up to killing and/or maiming themselves and others. Bad Drivers are a nuisance, a threat, an inconvenience, and a pain in the wallet. Insurance companies thrive off of their existence, and automakers are continually trying to find technical solutions to preventing bad driving or the effects thereof. Bad Drivers suck.

The reason all this comes to mind is a recent trip I took into downtown Toronto. To my woe, my destination was not easily reached from the 401, or the Gardener Expressway, or any major highway route that runs in, around, or through Toronto. No, I had to go deep into the heart of the city: traffic lights, congestion, no free parking, construction, hordes of militant pedestrians, and Bad Drivers.

Traffic jams and lineups bring out the worst in Bad Drivers. At one point during my journey I was lined up 500m (that's half a kilometer in case you're not paying attention) from the traffic lights where I needed to turn left, and a line of vehicles in front of me wishing to do the same. Of course, queue jumpers sped up beside the line in the right-hand lane and simply merged in when it suited them. It's these kinds of events that stoke my urge to drive a vehicle that can inflict more sheetmetal damage than it can take. After finally making the light I then stumbled into road resurfacing and thereby lane reductions, which also do wonderful things to the driving abilities of the general populace. I won't say I'm better, because I know I had to be aggressive a few times just to get where I was going. Whether it was my right to be aggressive or not, I'll let someone else judge.

In any case, Bad Drivers are a real pain in the ass. Luckily, I believe that I have a sure-fire way of getting rid of, or at least significantly reducing, the number of Bad Drivers on the road. The solution is elegant, and would cost taxpayers nothing, but may impact vehicle prices, and would be a bitter pill for a lot of corporate entities to swallow.

The problem with Bad Drivers is that they don't always start out that way. A wide-eyed 16 year old with enthusiasm and respect for others can take the required tests and eventually end up with a driver's license that is valid for the rest of their lives. The problem is that a 16 year old doesn't stay that way, and can eventually turn into a snarky 20-something, a distracted 30-something, an angry 40-something, and might even make it to being a dangerously cautious septuagenarian, behind the wheel of whatever vehicle they can afford. Only when they reach the ripe old age of 80 do they have to start taking annual driving tests to ensure they're still capable of safely operating a motor vehicle. Meanwhile, the 16 year old knows they have well over 60 years of driving that they are unaccountable for.

So, the first change would be to make driver testing more frequent. Anything more than twice in your lifetime would be better, but a five-year period would be suitable. Every five years you must retake an in-vehicle driving test to make sure you haven't degraded to the point of being dangerous to yourself and others. If you fail, you don't get a renewal until you pass again. It's not so frequent as to inconvenience everybody (what, you can't find a couple hours every five years?) and not so long as to be functionally equivalent as never testing anybody between 16 and 80 years old.

The problem lies within the current testing mechanism. I have no idea what it's like nowadays, but back in my day booking a driving test was done many, many months in advance. I'm sure this varies highly by location and changes with the peaks and valleys of population growth, but suffice to say the current system is already at capacity, and would burst at the seams with twelve times the number of tests required on an annual basis. Even if the capacity were increased tenfold, that would mean a significant tax burden on people, which they would not see the benefit of. (One could tell them that it's directly making driving safer, but I don't think anyone would buy that. They would scream "tax grab!" faster than you can change lanes without signaling.)

Looking to other solutions, we could decide to privatize driver testing. Unfortunately, we all know that privatization doesn't necessarily mean we'd get the same quality, the same oversight, or the same regulatory effect as we would with a government body. We'd see discount driver testing, there would be illegal under-the-counter purchase-your-license operations in back alleys, and the number of Bad Drivers would probably increase, as the government wouldn't be involved to catch the few really horrible drivers that get weeded out with the current system.

Even if it was legislated that the private company that grants you a license is liable and must prove that you're a proper driver (through documentation, thorough testing, etc.) fly-by-night companies could be set up and disbanded so quickly as to make the system unworkable. So, we have to find a source of responsibility that is going to stick around, will take the onus of liability seriously, and is available everywhere in the country. My solution: let the automakers do it.

It's a near-perfect solution. Rolled into the cost of the car you're purchasing is maybe $200 to cover the cost of your driver testing. That's hardly anything compared to auto prices, especially when you can shop around for a better financing or loan rate. Auto companies are pretty much here to stay as well, meaning they'll be around within 5 years to make sure you're still up to snuff, and correct things if you're not. Admittedly, there have been a few instances where automakers have made a go of Canada and pulled out or just haven't bothered with us yet. It's a simple enough proposition to ensure that if any carmaker does pull out of the Canadian market that the licenses' records and liability could be sold off to another maker.

Problems with this solution lies in the fact that it's still a market economy and you're allowed to change your mind and/or loyalties from one car maker to another. If you initially sign a 3-year lease with one automaker but then decide to switch brands once those 3 years are up, will you have to renew your license early? Or, will the companies co-operate enough and produce a de-facto standard test that all will follow? That would be the ideal solution, but it's not something I would hold my breath for to see happen.

No matter which way you cut it, this solution is going to rile a lot of people. Consumers won't want to pay the extra $200 in the cost of their vehicles to be tested. Nor will they want to undergo driving tests, let alone thorough ones, every five years. The automakers are going to have an absolute fit when the government legislates driving tests off of their collective shoulders and onto the vast empires that the automakers are. You think the current legal tangle that the California Air Resources Board is in with automakers is messy? Just wait until this comes down the pipes.

Will this ever happen? Yeah, about the same time Stephen Hawking breaks the 4-minute mile and my hair spontaneously grows back again. First, there is a snowball's chance in hell that anybody on the planet would have the gall or ability to somehow loop driving tests and liability for a tested driver's abilities together. That will simply never happen in this corporate market culture - ever. Secondly, the government would probably spend more money trying to get the automakers to accept the responsibility of testing and licensing drivers than they ever would increasing the capacity of the current driver testing system ten times. The fact of the matter is that although suddenly shoveling 20% of the driving population through the government's doors every year will be hard, it would be the easiest method should the 5 year testing cycle ever be embraced. Oh yeah - and I'm not going to hold my breath for that, either. It shouldn't be hard to get that one through, and I don't know why anybody hasn't thought of it sooner or tried passing it, but here I sit, knowing my next driving test will be on my 80th birthday.

I guess I'll just have to accept the fact that Bad Drivers exist, and always will. Whose fault is it? Unconditionally, it's the government's fault. After all, nobody else is responsible for driver licensing. Other entities do driver training, but the government is the last line of defense, so to speak, and should be testing drivers to ensure that their training has been both correct and thorough. In the meantime, I'm just going to avoid Toronto, and maybe purchase some nice thick, strong safari bars for my truck.


Bonus Article: Why Young Drivers Is Wrong

Way back too many years to mention, I was getting ready for my eventual entrance into the world of driving. Back then, there were no graduated licenses, you either had your "356" (Learner's permit, valid for 365 days) or you had your permanent license. I attended CAA driving school and practiced my driving in a banana yellow Dodge Shadow with Roger, my one-on-one in-car banana-eating driving educator. My wife, well before I met her or even knew she existed, had been enrolled in Young Drivers.

After we started dating we went on a few car trips together, driving to see either her family or mine. One thing I noticed off the top was that she tends to stay in the middle lane of a 3-lane highway. Of course, based on my driver's education I consider this wrong. Slower traffic is in the right lane, and the two leftmost lanes are for passing. I asked her about her lane preference and apparently this is what she was taught in Young Drivers. Having given it much thought over a few years, I'd finally like to say exactly why Young Drivers is dead wrong.

I'll explain what she told me to begin with. According to her, Young Drivers recommends that you stay in the middle lane ("the lane of least resistance", oh-la-la) of a 3-lane highway in case you need to change lanes quickly to avoid something. In their view, having a lane on either side of you gives you two choices of direction to go to avoid an incident. Apparently, the shoulder is not considered a good option because it is not always paved, and thereby can be more dangerous than an actual traffic lane. There is also a much longer explanation involving defensive driving. It sounds good in theory, but I still believe it fails in application, and does not consider the actions of others around you.

First, staying in the middle lane is probably contrary to the Highway Act, and at the very least is discourteous to other faster traffic around you. Slow traffic should remain in the right-hand lane, allowing passing vehicle to safely go by you on the left. Staying in the middle lane (like so many people and trucks do) simply invites undertaking on the right-hand-side where you aren't going to expect it. Not to mention the fact that most highways are pretty much at capacity nowadays, and can't afford to have people lollygagging about in the middle lane.

Secondly, having two lanes of traffic really isn't much of a choice if you have to make a snap decision and change lanes to avoid something. If you are all alone on the highway, yes, it's just fine. However, in all the driving I've ever done on the 400-series highways here in Ontario, all lanes are equally dense, and having two packed lanes to choose from just isn't much of a choice, unless I know what side of my vehicle I'd rather have banged up. Whether a shoulder is paved or not, or even sloped and grassy, I would much rather go barreling through grass and gravel where I know absolutely no vehicles are going to be than take my chances making a sudden, unannounced lane change into either passing (left) or possibly undertaking (right) traffic.

I'll admit that I used to plunk myself into the middle lane and stay there. However, I've now come to my senses and realize that blocking the center lane simply wastes one lane, and only removed the necessity of changing lanes when approaching a merging on-ramp. These days I religiously stick to the right-hand lane except for passing. If that means that I undertake a truck or an entire convoy of middle lane hogs, so be it. Smooth sailing for me.


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