Honest, officer, I didn’t see it coming

How to make Illinois drivers better drivers?

Note to readers: Like our governor-elect, I am a businessman, and to be successful, a businessman must know how to make his product stand out in a crowded marketplace. Which is why this week I have chosen to be the only opinion-monger to not burden his readers with my opinion of events that have not evented yet as we begin the transition from the Illinois we all know to the great Illinois that is a-borning.
You’re welcome.

In “Merge, right?” (Aug. 21, 2014) I noted that Illinois drivers do not agree on the most efficient way in which two lanes of traffic can merge into one. The Rules of the Road offer only limited guidance, even assuming that drivers still remember them from when they studied for their license test. Situations on the roads are more complex than the rules can, or should, prescribe for, and drivers are left to rely on their own judgment and that of the drivers around them to cope with them. Which is why we have insurance companies.

So far this year more than 800 people have died in traffic “accidents” in Illinois, most of which were caused by drivers doing something not necessarily illegal, but stupid. How to make people better drivers? In this country we make obtaining a license to drive conditional upon proving that you know how to drive. Except we don’t. I’ve been licensed to drive by three states, and each of them asked of me only what the law requires and not enough on what good driving requires. The 35-question written test in Illinois – I took it again recently – is risibly easy to pass.

They do better in Europe, I’m told. In Britain, whose driver standards are not at all the toughest in Europe, only two of five of the people who take what the Brits call the practical test (our behind-the-wheel test) pass in a given year, and only three of five pass even the driving theory test – what we call the written test.

The theory test, introduced in 1996, is split into two parts, and would-be drivers must pass both of them. The first section comprises 50 multiple-choice questions. You have to identify road signs, know (or guess) the legal penalties for, say, drunk driving just like in Illinois, only the Brits also test drivers on how to handle a trailer and maintain a car. The second element is the hazard perception test. It contains a series of 14 one-minute video clips showing potential road hazards in a simulated environment; in Illinois these are presented as pictures on paper as part of the written test.

In all, the Brits ask three and a half times more questions of would-be drivers than does Illinois. They also demand higher scores to pass. You must answer 43 or more of the 50 multiple-choice questions correctly within 57 minutes. The hazards perception questions are scored by points (tougher questions, more points) and you need to score at least 44 out of 75 to pass and do it in 20 minutes.

As for the behind-the-wheel test, I suspect a lot of veteran drivers would agree that every newbie ought to know how to parallel park, how to merge onto interstates and how to handle a car on slick pavement, to name only three of the essential skills that are not tested by the Secretary of State. Applying more rigorous standards would, unfortunately, pose obvious practical problems. To test applicants’ ability to handle interstate driving, for example, license exams would have to be administered only near interstates. Tougher tests also pose political problems with voters who think that everyone shold be held to a higher standard but them. It’s no accident that the only faction of drivers who has been made subject to tougher standards are teenagers, who can’t vote.

 Ten years ago, I might have predicted that such problems would soon be rendered moot by virtual reality technology. Applicants could be tested anywhere by “driving” in a wide variety of situations through use of simulators. But virtual reality never became real. Today, a different computer-based future threatens to render the whole problem of driver standards moot – cars that do the driving for us.

The effort to make human society safe from humans is one I feel obliged to endorse, out of exasperation. Driverless cars will not make each of us invulnerable to the foolishness or incompetence of other humans; they will merely make us vulnerable to the foolishness or incompetence of systems engineers and data lords like Google. And by demanding even less of our brains and our bodies, we are likely to progress as a society but regress as a species. That’s a high price to pay to not have to learn how to parallel park.  

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.

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