Every year tens of thousands of people are killed in automobile accidents. Nearly 10% of which occur in California.
Maybe this institutionalized carnage is due to a lack of practical experience. Maybe it is a lack of understanding for how an automobile works, or how the laws of physics effect the automobile. Whatever the case may be, in the state of California the minimum age to go hurtling about in a 2500+ lb. hunk of potentially murderous steel without adult supervision is just 16 years old!
This morbidly accepted paradigm is clearly a problem. The answer I argue, is not more on road regulation, in the form of strict speed laws and/ or enforcement, rather a higher price of entry. Not a monetary fee mind you, but an investment of time. It’s just too damn easy to get a driver’s license, at least it is in California.
Looking at the statistics, driving can be dangerous. When you really think about it, the very nature of propelling a soft, human, flesh bag through space at highway speeds is inherently dangerous.
To put the hazardous nature of driving on public roads in perspective, consider this; The average fatal fall occurs from a height of 21.81 ft. (Mustafa İçer). The speed of a falling body from this height is roughly 25.5 MPH. That said, the speed at which most motorist travel a great deal of the time is far more than 25 MPH. Given, several factors such as airbags, seat belts, and the car itself act to mitigate any damage to the vulnerable meat sacks within, the fundamental peril is present nonetheless.
In the year 2014 despite such mitigations 32,675 people met their untimely demise behind the wheel, or at the hands of someone behind the wheel. (United States Department of Transportation). The inauspicious passing of said individuals is likely not due to the lack of safety features, excessive speed, or even alcohol impaired drivers. I argue the cause is rooted in the idea that the privilege to drive is taken for granted.
Simply put no technical or practical experience is needed to attain a driver’s license in the state of California. All that is required is one lives to the age of 18 and pass a 36 question multiple choice test then proceed to drive around the block without crashing into anything. I literally don’t know ANYONE that has actually failed the “Behind the Wheel” test! Furthermore, the written test is a joke. You are allowed three attempts in one visit to the DMV to pass this test. Below is a screenshot from the DMV sample test.
A dust storm… really? Should you fail either the written or “driving test” three times, you simply start over, pay the fee ($33) and try again until you get it right.
As for the actual driving test, in my personal experience I was not asked to merge onto the freeway (or merge at all for that matter), parallel park, or even demonstrate the ability to properly navigate a curve. This may explain why 15% of all the traffic related fatalities in California are attributed to the 5% of drivers under the age 20 (www.fhwa.dot.gov, and CDC).
Compare this meager excuse for “driver training” to what one must go through in a county like Germany. Deutschland shall illustrate on two fronts how the California driver licensing system is broken.
Firstly, driver education and practical training is required. In order to acquire a permit to drive a motor vehicle on public roads in the land of ‘the ultimate driving machine’ one must have a minimum of 12 driving theory courses. In many cases an individual will need to take up to 20 of these courses before the professional, certified driving instructor deems one proficient enough to drive on a test course.
Then an additional 12-14 practical lessons are required, yes… required. Again, these lessons are mandatory at any age when attempting to attain a driver’s license for the first time in Germany. Moreover, this process takes 3-4 months and costs the equivalent of nearly $2000 USD. Contrastingly, I can’t help but thinking about my ‘Driver’s Ed’ class as a Freshman in Highschool. I was 15 years old, and my mind was anything but focused on Mr. Airington’s lecture about driver safety. Far from it. I clearly remember being jarred awake by a flying whiteboard eraser as it ricocheted off my head and/or desk mid speech. To top it off I passed both the written and practical exam on my first attempt. Just to reiterate, I know zero people that have failed the physical driving test.
Secondly many parts of the Autobahn have no speed limit at all, so long as conditions are favorable (http://www.gesetze-im-internet.de/stvo_2013/__3.html). Yet the traffic fatalities of the entire country total only 3,540 (in 2013). That is 10 times less than the US, where all roads have speed limits. The highest of which is 75 MPH. California alone is responsible for a death toll of 3107 in the same calendar year with a maximum speed of 70 MPH.
‘Statistics can be deceiving’ you say. ‘There’s more people in the US’ or ‘California is a densely populated state’ one may retort. To be fair, Germany has a population of approximately 80 million people, whereas California has a population of nearly 40 million. Both are good enough sample sizes to make an industry standard statistic of incidents per 100,000 relevant. For example: The number of road fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants of Germany is 4.3. California on the other hand… 8 fatalities per 100,000 thereby proving high rates of speed alone do not make the basic risk of driving any greater. However, increasing the rate of incompetence amongst drivers directly impacts road safety in a negative fashion.
There is an overwhelming number of atrocious drivers in California, if you have ever been in the SF Bay Area, or LA around 4:00 PM on a weekday you know, in your heart of hearts, this is unalloyed truth.
The 6.7 million traffic cases that cross the desk of the California court system annually is ample evidence supporting the notion that either inadequate or negligent drivers roam the streets like a degenerate army of petty hooligans.
Additionally, the copious amounts of time that average person spends in traffic would further suggest that California drivers are downright dreadful. According to a study conducted by the Texas Transportation Institute, the average American commuter spends 42 hours a year sitting in traffic (). Tom Tom (the Navigation company) has taken this study a step further. Of 189 cities indexed 3 of the top 5 that spend a significantly higher percentage of time in traffic are in the Golden State. San Jose spends 32% more time in traffic ranking in at the fifth worst traffic city. San Francisco is number 2 at 39% and big surprise Los Angeles is the worst… and so is the traffic, with the average commuter spending 45% more time parked on the freeways than the national average. That’s nearly 61 hours traveling at under 5 MPH!
As someone who spends an inordinate amount of time driving (in California), I can attest that this traffic occurs for numerous reasons. Not only do individuals treat the public roadways like their own personal bumper-car palace, there appears to be a complete and utter lack of comprehension of common road courtesies. All too often I am witness to some automotive monument to mediocrity racing down the inside lane only to slam on the brakes where the clearly indicated merging lane ends. This causes a chain reaction of rapidly illuminating tail lights as the majority of following commuters panic stop to avoid a collision (sometimes the collision is unavoidable). Either outcome leads to inevitable congestion. Lane discipline may as well be an ancient Mayan proverb as I firmly believe that more people are fluent in the lost language than those that grasp the concept of a ‘passing lane’ (even though signs in plain English litter the shoulder stating ‘slower traffic keep right’).
All this boorish, negligent, inconsiderate behavior and tragedy can be avoided. So there will always be that one driver, but if the masses were appropriately taught the basic courtesies of the road, much of it could be greatly diminished. Moreover, if greater emphasis on driver technique was imparted prior to issuing a license, it is possible that the harrowing loss of life on American streets could be decidedly curtailed. Just make the damned driver’s license test more challenging damnit!