Thursday, June 26, 2008

Miseducating American Drivers

This is not (exactly) more ranting on how the Fort Smith police force has been persecuting me lately; but it is in the same area.

John Staddon writes here about our bizarre method of policing traffic in America, and its inevitable bad outcomes.

Speed limits in the U.S. are perhaps a more severe safety hazard than stop signs. In many places, they change too frequently—sometimes every few hundred yards—once again training drivers to look for signs, not at the road. What’s more, many speed limits in the U.S. are set in arbitrary and irrational ways. An eight-lane interstate can have a limit of 50 to 70 mph or more. What makes the difference? A necessarily imperfect guess at probable traffic conditions. The road may sometimes be busy—so the limit is set low. But sometimes the road is not busy, and the safe speed is then much higher than the limit.

A particularly vexing aspect of the U.S. policy is that speed limits seem to be enforced more when speeding is safe. As a colleague once pointed out, “An empty highway on a sunny day? You’re dead meat!” A more systematic effort to train drivers to ignore road conditions can hardly be imagined. By training drivers to drive according to the signs rather than their judgment in great conditions, the American system also subtly encourages them to rely on the signs rather than judgment in poor conditions, when merely following the signs would be dangerous.

Some of what he says seems suspect to me; but other bits seem accurate. And, clearly, the American way of driving, and of regulating drivers, is just whack.

Here in Pork Smith, for instance, we no longer require driver's education for children; nor do we require cars to be inspected.

(This is not the only state I have lived in where this is the case, btw. The feeling seems to be if you want to drive about in a car with no brakes and no brake lights which is leaking antifreeze and has bald tires, why that's your bidness, in't it, and none of the gummits. Also, why shud the gummit be tellin you how to drive, slong as you kin pass the test?)

Anyway: then the arbitrators of driving justice, by which I mean the police, arrest folk for having their tags on wrong, or for having a crack in their windshield, but NOT for driving 95 in their SUVs or for tailgating in a thunderstorm, and what is the effect, I ask you? What does little Johnny learn?

Well, as Staddon points out, Johnny learns that Johnny should always drive as fast as the traffic sign says he can, or, in fact, fifteen miles over that limit, no matter what the weather conditions are at the time -- and, since the police do not ever stop him for tailgating, Johnny should tailgate if anyone in front of him is not going 15 miles over the limit in the driving rain or sleet -- Johnny learns it's okay to pass on a blind curve, since he doesn't get arrested for doing that -- Johnny's only education about driving is getting arrested, or the enforced traffic laws.

Until Johnny dies, of course.

And, as my students who write me essays about this very subject tell me, dying on the highway doesn't mean you got it wrong: it doesn't mean you were wrong to tailgate or drive too fast in the snow or rain: it just means Jesus wanted to call you home. It just means it was your time to go. (I remember the first student who explained this to me -- I remember sitting in the writing conference looking at her. After a moment, I said gently, So you have no control over your destiny? It's all in God's hands? She said, Of course it is! I said, And you don't wear your seatbelt, then, I guess. Or carry auto insurance? Or put kids in car seats? She sat staring back at me. Of course, as I realize now, the answer to all three of these was probably: No, I don't; I wouldn't if the law didn't make me, and I wouldn't if the law didn't make me. But she wasn't going to tell me that, was she?)

Given that this actually matters -- given the number of people who die on our highways, for no really good reason (why are we policing the highways in this particular way? Survival of the idiots?) -- and given how dangerous driving actually is, and given how little control we have over the idiots in the other vehicles, I'm frequently astounded by how little we think about this issue.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sins wen has us Redneks needed drivin edumacation?

Seriously, it is amazing that more people do not get killed on the roads. I just hope the DARPA robot-cars come within my lifetime. It is not just Pork Smith - a few states to the east of you the normal attitude is:
"If that dude behind me wants to speed faster than I am speeding, he can just blow engine to pass."