I recently read the transcript of an informative speech given by Dr. Stephan Moran, the Associate Director of the Mercedes-Benz Crash Injury Research and Engineering Network at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, concerning the need for safer cars on our highways.
To condense his many excellent points into a quick conclusion, vehicles need to be safer. But while new technologies will likely lower the highway death rate here in the US, I can't help but think that safer cars are a retroactive fix for the real problem, which is the driver. In his speech, Moran cited legendary motoring journalist Paul Frre: "In the US, we've got speed limits of 70mph, 65mph and 55mph. Our death rate is 14.79 to the 100,000. In France, the speed limit is 81mph and 55mph and it's 13.6. Look at Germany: unlimited, 9.1 deaths to the 100,000. It says a lot about the person behind the wheel."
So what's the difference? Obtaining a license in most of Europe is a difficult and time-consuming process. You'll need an application form, a passport, a residence permit, two passport-sized photos, proof of attendance at a traffic school, proof of completion of a first aid course (so you can administer first aid at the scene of an accident), and certification of a vision test. And that just gets you in the door.
After waiting four to six months, you can start the written theory portion of the driving test, which covers the hundreds of different road signs as well as the rules of the road. It's not that dissimilar to the tests we have Stateside, except you'll actually want to know the information covered in case you should find yourself in a sticky situation.
After having successfully completed the theory portion of the test, you'll be admitted to the 30 to 45-minute practical driving test, with the instructor that taught you how to drive during the past 12 months. He'll know what your weaknesses are and you can bet he'll be testing you on them. If you pull it all off (40 percent don't), you'll have a $3000 license that's good for the rest of your life, never having to be renewed.
Whether or not people are actually learning more overseas (I think it's clear they are), the extended process (and massive expenditure) instills at least some sense of respect for the license and the law. Nobody wants to lose something they spent thousands of dollars and dozens of days getting. Here in the US, it's pretty hard to lose the $20 license you picked up during your lunch break.
Take a look at some of the questions on your driver's exam. I don't need to know how many yards away from an approaching car I need to be before clicking my high beams off. When was the last time you thought to yourself: "My house is 350 yards from the McDonald's"? Most people are completely unable to judge how far away 300 feet or 500 yards is, especially when traveling at highway speed when the oncoming vehicle is moving at an unknown speed. How about some of the other gems? You might come away from the test having memorized the percentage of drivers saved by airbags or the number of accidents in the US in 1974, but you've got no idea how not to cause these accidents yourself.
I need to know what to do when someone suddenly switches into my lane. What my car is going to do when I suddenly encounter black ice mid-corner. Why am I a moron if my car is moving and I'm putting on make-up in the rear-view? Or reading my newspaper, which is jammed into the steering wheel because I need my hands to hold my coffee? No part of 20 multiple-choice questions and a seven-minute road test is going to teach me these essentials.
The other reason it's important to put an emphasis on driver responsibility is that even the safest cars on the road here in the US are too often improperly maintained, rendering them unable to perform as intended in case of emergency. In most of Europe, by contrast, keeping that beat-up old Escort on the streets is just a bit less likely. The engine, chassis, frame and all other components, including brakes, tires, horn, wheel alignment, windshield, lights and mirrors will be checked annually. It should be noted that some states have a form of annual inspection. I think every state should-it's a better revenue stream than speeding tickets.
Safer technology is something that should always be pursued, but in the meantime, the millions of cars already on the road need to function properly. And the drivers behind the wheel need to be better educated about the two-ton machines they're driving.
Associate Senior Editor