July 24, 2003

What if?

by Chris Feeney

What if your Sweet 16th Birthday wasn't the only time you had to take your driver's test? Let's face it folks, there are lots of people out there behind the wheel of a car who simply do not belong. This was never more painfully apparent than in Santa Monica, CA, last week where a driver plowed through a crowded farmer's market killing 10 people and injuring dozens more. The driver wasn't drunk nor was he on drugs. Apparently the elderly man just became confused and apparently was so flustered as he progressed through the three-block accident scene that he was pressing the gas instead of the brake. It's hard to imagine such a horrific accident and the impact this poor driving has had on the families of the victims. Most of us only have to worry about a car backing out in front of us from time to time or having to tiptoe along at a snail's pace behind a slower motorist. While these are inconvenient they obviously don't compare to the California tragedy. Still they all make one wonder if there shouldn't be more strict regulations governing driving rights. More people die in car crashes than from gunshots, falls, poisoning, fires and drowning combined. In 2000 alone more than 40,000 people were killed in traffic crashes. As most motor vehicle experts will tell you these deaths generally are not the fault of the car or the roadway. The biggest number of crashes is caused simply by driver error. We fall asleep, we take our eye off the road for a second to grab a new CD, or we just flat out disobey a traffic law. There are lots of reasons but really there are few excuses. Still there are so many opportunities for mistakes and a motor vehicle is such a powerful instrument maybe our society should consider making some changes to make it a little tougher not only to get a driver's license but to maintain it as well. The former is already being installed as new laws are making it more difficult for young drivers to obtain their driver's license while placing more restrictions on the 16-18 age group. Statistics show that this age group is involved in the greatest percentage of crashes. Unfortunately for a community like ours, the next step will likely be to curb the driving privileges of the group of citizens at the other end of the age divide, elderly drivers. Undoubtedly there already is a movement building steam after the California farmer's market crash, which involved an 86-year-old man. But before we rush to judgment and decide that you have to turn in your car keys if you want to collect social security, we should consider our motivations. Are we really concerned about safety or are we just still mad about being a few minutes late to work because we got behind the slow old lady in her big "boat"? (Sorry for the stereotype but it worked in this analogy). I think we need to be concerned about motorist safety. I don't think you simply can say because a person is only 16 or because he or she is 80 means they are not capable of being a safe driver. Instead I think we need to have some way to regularly review driver's based on their ability. I never again want to have to go back out with that driving tester and be forced to parallel park, but if I'm having problems keeping my car on the right side of the road or I continually run up on the curb because I can no longer judge distances when making a turn, then I probably shouldn't be driving anymore. No one wants to be told they cannot drive anymore, but I can't imagine anyone wants to get out of the car in the middle of a farmer's market and be told they just killed 10 people because no one told them they shouldn't be driving anymore.

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