Monday, July 20, 2015

Editorial: A case for changing our driver licensing process

Image courtesy of
This past week, the city of Long Beach suffered one of the most severe and lengthy power outages that I have recalled in recent memory. For 54 hours, over 50 blocks of downtown Long Beach were without any kind of power. Police scrambled to bring order by shutting down certain streets near work crews, directing traffic during rush hour, and stepping up neighborhood presence to prevent people from taking advantage of the darkness to commit crimes. Public works providers assembled generators and, at key intersections, set them up to power the stop lights to try and provide some semblance of order to the chaos, but the vast majority of stoplights were totally dark.

Now, a good driver would recall from their driver education training that when approaching an intersection with controlled by non-functioning traffic lights that one should treat the intersection as an all-way stop sign. That means bringing the vehicle to a complete stop, yielding to appropriate traffic, and then proceeding when safe. Apparently, the vast majority of drivers failed that part of the driving exam because the sheer number of near collisions that I observed because drivers failed to follow the rules - failing to stop at all, failing to yield, failing to give right of way - makes me wonder how we have managed to get by without many more utter catastrophes.

And speaking of yielding, every state's vehicle code has some provision in it to the effect of "motorists shall yield to pedestrians crossing in a marked crosswalk and only proceed when the pedestrian has reached the other side or at least some physical divider such as a center island." With stoplights out, that also meant pedestrian crossing signals were not functioning and pedestrians were to be treating the intersections as all-way stops as well. Yet, regardless of the presence of pedestrians in any state of crossing the street, some motorists edged into sidewalks, using their vehicles to physically bully the pedestrians into crossing faster, while others completely ignored the presence of pedestrians and proceeded through intersections with utter abandon, sometimes coming within inches of striking a pedestrian crossing the street.

It was during this period, when I tried to stick to my routine and take my regular walks with our dog that I fully understood just how utterly broken out driver education system truly is. It would be one thing if these kinds of close calls and near misses were uncommon and infrequent, but, alas, that is not the case. In the less than 2 full hours I spent outside walking the dog on just one single day, I crossed a grand total of 14 intersections and counted almost 100 near misses between cars and cars, cars and pedestrians, and cars and bikes. Every single incident was avoidable if the driver of the car had been paying attention, understood the laws, and took driving as a serious activity requiring focus and concentration instead of a chore to be done with the greatest degree of disdain.

A big part of the challenge in the US is that driving instruction and licensing requirements are set by each state as a part of their motor vehicle codes. This means that there is the potential for a huge range in instruction curriculum, testing standards, and practice requirements laid out by each state. Additionally, some states have adopted graduated licensing standards, offering only provisional licenses at first with heavy restrictions that get more lenient over time, while other states do not have such a process in place. This lack of standardization and the freedom with which people can travel from state to state creates a patchwork approach that allows for potentially enormous disparities in driver skill and knowledge to be present next to each other on public roads.

To make matters worse, we do not require any additional testing later on in life as most driver's licenses can be renewed with little more than a form and an eye test. In some states, you can renew your driver's license in the mail and never even have to go to the DMV. Plus, if you move states, most states require little more than the license from your previous state of residence to grant you a new license. No testing to make sure you have retained the knowledge from your original driver training and that you are up to speed on the changes that take place regularly to driving laws in your state or origin, much less determine whether or not you have a clue about the laws of the state you are moving into.

If we are serious about improving the state of driver education in this country, we need to agree upon a minimum standard and periodic retesting. Laws change over time and people need to be given a reason to periodically update their own education on those laws. We also need to make sure that parents are not responsible for the bulk of a new driver's education curriculum because many parents are themselves terrible drivers. Instead, we should adopt a model that requires more time behind the wheel supervised by a professional instructor to ensure that new drivers are not being taught many bad habits by their parents.

Take, for example, the driver training regimens required across the Atlantic Ocean in Europe. Countries like the UK have much more stringent standards than the US while still making it possible for the vast majority of people to afford to get from point A to point B, even by driving themselves should they choose to do so. The requirements are not so onerous so as to be impossible to meet, but at the same time, the more rigorous process, use of trained instructors, and greater cost seem to have an overall positive effect on driving habits. If we want to go a step further, we could always turn to Germany as an example of a country that takes driving genuinely seriously. The German requirements for earning a driver's license are among the most stringent in the world. Their general process outline is not significantly different from ours, but the rigor in training, testing, and higher standard for passing have yielded tremendous results with Germany of considered one of the most orderly societies behind the wheel.

Image courtesy of the Motorcycle Safety Foundation
Of course, many Americans might balk at the idea of looking overseas for inspiration to change our driver education practices. So perhaps we can adapt a model that is already in place to provide training and licensing to motorcyclists. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation offers courses designed to get a new rider safely in the saddle of a motorcycle and teach them both practical theory as well as hands-on skills that they will need to safely ride on the street. The beginner course is broken up in to a three to four hour classroom session that focuses on laws, theory, and practical safety discussions and is followed up by around ten to twelve hours of hands-on training. Before departing from the course, the student is given a written exam to test their theoretical knowledge and then a riding test that is scored by multiple instructors and immediate, real-world feedback is provided.

If we take this model and adapt it to driving, it might look something like this: require six to eight hours of classroom instructions on theory, laws, and practical safety plus around sixteen hours of structured, instructor led training behind the wheel followed by an immediate examination to assess both theoretical and practical knowledge. Pass the test and you receive your learner's permit, with heavy penalties for infractions and at-fault collisions along with significant restrictions similar to existing graduated licensing programs. Restrictions are reduced at various milestones until the 5-year anniversary of completing the course when a written exam is required to obtain a full license. License renewals should be required every 5-years and alternating written and practical exams are given at each renewal to make sure drivers are continuing to keep up with changing legislation and best practices.

By taking this structure, we create a scalable, repeatable, and maintainable system that makes obtaining a license a real investment of time and money. The hope is that this will change the way people look at driving and have it go from being merely a means of getting from A to B and changing it into a task that is worthy of the attention it requires. Right now, since we hand them out like candy and the tests are laughably easy to pass, there is almost no value to a driver's license beyond being a mere right of passage. Make it difficult to obtain a full license and the mere possession of one would be coveted, driving a change in the general attitude.

Then perhaps all of those near misses that I both observed and experienced last week would not have happened and I could feel confident both behind the wheel and in the saddle that the drivers around me are responsible, experienced, and well-trained and very likely free from distractions that could place me or my family in danger.

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