Hard to Get

By Jim McVeagh 28/12/2010


Dean Scanlen makes an impassioned plea for stricter driving license laws in the Herald today. I have much sympathy with his call to make the driving test more comprehensive. I have long been an advocate of making the defensive driving and the advanced driving courses compulsory for learner drivers. This would certainly provide new drivers with the skill-sets to get them out of trouble when they make stupid mistakes or try hot-dogging to impress their girlfriends. Unfortunately, Mr. Scanlen and I part company soon after this suggestion. I believe that the further draconian changes he suggests will not improve road safety and will just prove unworkable.

Take his suggestions for a new license test, that assesses the advanced skills and the maturity of the driver. One would have to test those skills on specially constructed skid pans (unless you share with the advanced driving skills school, producing further bottle necks). It would seem simpler to get the advanced driving school to test these skills at the time of the course and issue a certificate.

As for psychological assessment – this is laughable. There is no reliable way of testing the “maturity” of teenagers. After all, even the most apparently mature teenager can exercise poor judgement at any time. This is because the part of their brain that assesses risk is not yet fully developed and won’t be until about age 20 years for girls and age 23 for boys. You can either raise the driving license age to 20 for girls and 23 for boys (not likely to be popular) or accept the fact that teenagers are going to make stupid decisions. Your best bet is therefore to give them the skills they need to get out of trouble.

I don’t have a great deal of problem with reducing the threshold at which one loses one’s driving license, but the combination of this and making it hard to get that license back merely means that there will be a greater pool of people driving without licenses. Recall that people who lose their license have generally been engaged in illegal and/or dangerous driving practices. Many will not hesitate to drive without licenses – a fact that the police can attest to. Thus it is unlikely that toughening these laws will lead to improved accident statistics.

Immediate confiscation of vehicles of unlicensed drivers would probably be more effective a deterrent than making drivers retake their test. Vehicles should then be sold and the money placed into a fund for the victims of traffic accidents. This would include vehicles lent to license-less drivers by others, unless they could prove it was taken without permission (adding car theft to the charges of the license-less driver). Judith Collins would probably want to crush the cars, but that would seem a little excessive…

Lastly, I note that Mt Scanlen assumes that most bad drivers are teenagers. This is not the case at all. While teenagers are undoubtedly overly represented in accident statistics, they are by no means the only source of lousy drivers on the road. Most drunk drivers, for instance, are NOT teenagers. The most aggressive drivers I have encountered on the Auckland freeways are clearly middle aged. And don’t get me started about truck and bus drivers…

But the biggest hidden problem is that of elderly drivers. We require the elderly to get frequent medical checks when they renew their license but these medical examinations only determine whether there are any physical impediments to driving. The elderly, of course, have much longer reaction times (not tested), slower accommodation – eye focussing – times (also not tested) and are more likely to misestimate the speed of other vehicles (again, not tested). The result is that they do not do well in high speed and high traffic volume environments. Some thought should be given to using driving simulators to test the skills of over-70-year-old drivers and of providing restricted licenses to those who don’t quite make the grade.

I am well aware that stopping an elderly person from driving is a big deal. You immediately severely restrict the life-style of the older person, sometimes greatly to the detriment of their health. The provision of a license restricting various aspects of driving would spell out to the older person that there are certain things that they can’t do. Many should not drive at night, because of reduced ability to see at night. Some should not be allowed in rush hour traffic. Some should be restricted to 50Kph maximum and not be allowed on roads 80kph+. The purpose of this is not to restrict the elderly but allow them to continue to use their cars in a useful fashion, even though they are not able to maintain a full license. In this vein, some sensibleness is advised. There is no real point in restricting an 80-year-old farmer from driving down an 80Kph lane he has driven all his life in order to get to church, or the corner shop; so long as it is clear that someone else needs to drive him the 20km to town.

After all, we have a graduated license system for new drivers, why should we not have a graduated system for older drivers?

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