Friday, March 04, 2011

A letter to the editor...

[in October of 2004, I wrote the following in response to some serial idiocy I saw in the local newspaper. The letter below sums up my thoughts on the subject.]
... of The editor spouted off and said something really stupid.

So I wrote him back... Here's the letter to the editor that the Gazette will probably never print, because it makes too much farkin' sense for Montgomery County:

I read with a mixture of sadness and interest about the recent tragic roadway deaths of five county youths. It seems as if every few weeks there’s a new statistic, another pole alongside the road made into a makeshift memorial where some young local student lost his or her life. It’s hard to drive anywhere in the county without seeing such a sight, and it’s a message to all parents in the area.

On page 16 of the Gazette, I see where the editors are calling for tougher penalties, higher fines, and more emphasis on enforcement. Then on page 20, I read where the entire State of Maryland has exactly ONE person in charge of inspecting the state’s Driver Education schools. Our state’s requirements for obtaining and keeping a driver’s license are ridiculously low, and our laws do practically nothing to ensure that the cars on our roads are properly maintained. Emissions testing every two years only checks for an engine that is out of tune or a catalytic converter that's gone bad, not tires that are bald, steering linkages that are about to give way, suspensions that are worn out, or brakes on the verge of failure.

There is also no real means of seeing to it that drivers’ skills are up to par. Indeed, the state has just made it easier for those with impaired skills to renew their licenses without even taking a simple vision test, by allowing people to renew by mail, phone, and Internet. Driving used to be a privilege; now it's considered a Constitutionally-guaranteed right.

The answer, according to those who think they knows what's best for us, is to suggest that the state introduce new laws to “get tough” on young drivers. I was once one of those young drivers, and so were most of the people reading this article. The typical response to a tragedy (and losing 5 kids in a weekend qualifies as quite a tragedy) is for lawmakers to play politics and say “if only the legislature had passed my bill to get tough on teen drivers…” Now there are calls for increased fines and other penalties (including car seizures) for any on-road behavior that police want to call “racing.”

That’s the wrong answer to the wrong question.

The question at hand is “why are so many kids getting killed on the road?” The answer is simple: They’re kids and they want to have fun. Let's be honest, and get this up-front: Driving fast is fun. Can we stop pretending otherwise, for a moment? Entire industries cater to the love of the automobile and the fun that can be had with it. There’s nothing at all wrong with that. The problem comes when someone with little experience behind the wheel and even less knowledge of how the car she is driving behaves under a variety of circumstances wants to have fun. Statistics have shown for years that younger drivers are involved in more vehicle collisions than any other age group, and there is exactly one reason at the top of the list: Lack of experience behind the wheel.

Well, so many people say, why don’t we raise the driving age? Why don’t we enact new laws to “get tough” on these kids? Why don’t we throw legislation and money at the problem, which seems to work so well with every other problem in our society? Better yet, why don't we make more things illegal?

Nonsense. I ask, “why aren’t we giving them proper instruction?” I’d also ask “who in their right mind would give the keys to a 2004 Pontiac GTO with 300 horsepower on tap, to a 17 year old?” Did the kid ever learn what that car could do, before being handed the wheel and turned loose? 

And finally, doesn’t anyone still believe in the notion of a kid’s “first car” being an old heap that doesn’t go fast, doesn’t corner like a Porsche, and doesn’t look like it belongs on the cover of Sport Compact Car magazine? Giving your kid a hot-rod without his or her having learned how to drive it properly is hardly different from giving the kid a bottle of vodka and a bag of crack with the keys and saying, “have fun.”

Anyone who has attended a typical “driving school” in Maryland since 1989 (when the State decided that Driver’s Ed was no longer important enough to be available to students in high school), has gotten a mediocre excuse for education behind the wheel. Examine the criteria for getting and keeping a driver’s license in other countries for contrast (Germany immediately comes to mind), and our requirements practically guarantee that as long as parents refuse to take a very active role in teaching their kids how to properly drive, we’re just doomed for more of the same. We can pass new laws, pat ourselves on the back, and make ourselves feel better about it, but we’ll still see kids getting killed and the problem won’t go away. But at least we can say we've done something, right?

The answer: Learning how to control a vehicle makes for a better driver.

Performance driving schools like Skip Barber, Bobby Ore, and Bondurant have taught collision avoidance, tactical maneuvers, and total vehicle control to people all over the country for years. Graduates of those schools go on to become some of the safest and most accident-free drivers on the road. These schools are not just for police and Secret Service officers. They're available to would-be racers. They're available to stuntmen. And they're most available to young teens who need to learn how not to get killed out on the Beltway.

Some parents might bark at the prospect of spending upwards of $1500 for a performance driving school. Of course, after spending $35,000 on your kid's shiny new GTO, that last $1500 to teach him how to drive it really does get steep. 

The money spent on a performance driving school may very well be recouped in not having to spend so much for vehicle repairs, fines, higher insurance rates down the road, hospital bills, lawsuits, and funeral costs. In fact, many insurance companies offer discounts to drivers who have successfully completed such a course. How much is your kid’s safety worth?

And for those who simply cannot (for whatever reason) send their kids to a performance school, local chapters of the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) are everywhere. Far from a dangerous street-racing experience, SCCA events teach car control, braking and cornering, and smart judgment behind the wheel. Events are staged practically year-round, and are a very good way for drivers of all ages to learn the limits of not only the vehicle but also their own skills, without the risk of mowing down pedestrians or wrapping the car around a telephone pole. Speeds at these events are generally low (far below highway speed) and the emphasis is on safety. What’s more, there are entire classes geared towards younger drivers.

This also teaches kids that their natural desire to push the limits has its place – on a closed course under supervision, and not on the street. Just telling kids to “drive safely” and buckle-up isn’t enough. Give them an opportunity to actually learn.

Is this a one-stop fix-all? Please. There is no single solution that will automatically make our roads safer places to drive. With record traffic and deteriorating infrastructure, it’s not going to get any easier. However, with some education and a more common-sense approach to motoring, the “average” lunatic behind the wheel can be made into quite a good driver, and many of our younger drivers may be given a chance to prove their harshest critics wrong.

They might even live to see graduation. 

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