By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Is anyone happy with the way our traffic system works?
We have what you might call a least common denominator, “one size fits all” licensing system that arguably serves no one well.
Drivers with experience and above-average skill (demonstrated by passing a more difficult driving test, or having successfully earned a certificate from a high-performance driving school such as Bondurant or Skip Barber, etc.) could probably be trusted to drive considerably faster than currently posted maximum lawful speeds of 70-75 mph (which is what speed limits were circa 1970) without endangering themselves or others.
In practice, of course, they already do.
But despite their ability to drive faster safely, they’re lumped in with the least competent via dumbed-down speed limits that put them in almost constant jeopardy of being radar-trapped into a $150 piece of payin’ paper.
On the flip side, marginal and outright incompetent drivers are not treated as such by the system. Jut the opposite. They are often rewarded — or at least, encouraged to think they are “good drivers” by dint of the fact that they don’t “speed.”
That they often tailgate, wander across the double yellow, blow through red lights — and so on — hardly seems to matter since for the most part, these offenses are not the focus of traffic safety enforcement. “Speeding” is the major no-no, even though driving faster than a number painted on a sign may have no bearing whatever on how safely (or not) you happen to be driving.
Since so little is expected of all drivers, the general level of skill is very low. This almost certainly makes it less safe out there than it ought to be — and easily could be.
But how to reconcile the good drivers with the bad ones — or at least, to not punish the good drivers just because they transgress against laws intended for the benefit of the not-so-good drivers?
A tiered system of licensing — with “fast lanes” on highways set aside for those who have passed more demanding proficiency requirements — could make driving safer and more pleasant for everyone. Such a system exists already in countries like Germany and the results have been hard to argue with: Germany enjoys a generally higher average skill level for its drivers (because getting a license over there is not an easy thing, as it is here) and an accident/fatality rate that is better than ours, despite often much faster rates of travel.
In a tiered system, there are two categories of driver’s license: The Basic and the Expert (with a Learner’s for teenaged/first-time drivers).
In order to get your Basic license, you’d have to pass a written test proving that you know the rules of the road such as what the passing lane is for, who goes first at 4-way stops and so on. In addition to the written part, an actual on-road “road test” would be next — one that actually requires the subject being tested to prove basic competence behind the wheel in real-word driving conditions. The test would take at least 30 minutes and involve driving on secondary roads and highways, merging with traffic, parallel parking and so on.
This alone would result in a major uptick in the ability of the typical American motorist, simply by dint of weeding out the people who haven’t yet mastered the skills needed to safely operate a motor vehicle. Currently, most states require nothing more demanding than a few turns around some cones in the DMV parking lot — or a cursory drive around the block. This is outrageous given the responsibility that comes with driving a motor vehicle.
Successful passage of an actual road test in real-world conditions — as is the practice in many European countries — ought to be a mandatory minimum before any person is allowed onto public roads. But of course, it’s not. We literally let almost anyone who can insert a key into the ignition switch and pull the lever into “Drive” get a license — and not just a Basic license, but an “open class” license with no restrictions placed on the person whatsoever.
It’s interesting that the self-styled “safety advocates” who complain endlessly about “speeding” rarely, if ever, focus on our frighteningly lax driver’s licensing procedures. A “speeder” is arguably less dangerous than a person who timidly creeps into fast-moving traffic or constantly wanders across the double yellow in curves or who parks in the far left lane at exactly 55 mph, refusing to yield to faster-moving traffic.
But back to tiered licenses.
After a person acquires their first or Basic license and drives without incident for say two years, he would be eligible for an Expert endorsement (like the current “m” endorsement required to operate a motorcycle in many states). Additional training — such as successful completion of a high-performance driving school – could be the basic requirement for the “expert” endorsement, along with a DMV record free of any record of at-fault accidents or convictions for things that genuinely reflect careless or dangerous driving, such as DWI.
The holder of an Expert endorsement would be allowed to operate his vehicle on dedicated fast lanes with higher maximum speed limits — or even no formal speed limits at all, as on the German Autobahns.
Unsafe? Scary? Not really.
The Germans are very strict about their training and licensing requirements — but once an applicant has made the cut, the German authorities leave it up to him to judge what speed is safe. And it works quite well. The accident/fatality rate on the Autobahns — where cars routinely cruise at 100 mph — is lower than it is on our Interstate highways, where it is rarely legal to drive faster than 70 mph.
A tiered licensing system and fast lanes could accomplish several worthwhile things:
* It would give all drivers something to strive for — encouraging the acquisition of a higher level of skill behind the wheel. This would tend to lift the quality of the driving pool in general, which would make the driving environment safer for everyone.
* It would end the revenue-motivated harassment of drivers who are able to safely handle high-speed driving but who are currently subject to being ticketed merely because they happen to be driving faster than a number painted on a sign.
* Police could devote their energies to identifying and weeding out the genuinely dangerous drivers — tailgaters, people who refuse to yield to faster-moving traffic, drunks, the reckless, etc. This would do much to increase highway safety. It would also go a long way toward rebuilding the diminished stature of the highway patrol in the minds of many motorists, who have become very cynical about law enforcement as a result of radar traps and “speed enforcement” in general.
It’d be a pretty cool thing for all concerned — if it could ever be realized.
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