How We Could Save Lives and Money by Changing the U.S. Driving Requirements | Edmunds

How We Could Save Lives and Money by Changing the U.S. Driving Requirements

One night, about four years ago, I was driving to my fiancée's house in light traffic. As I approached an intersection, my side of a six-lane highway had all green lights, including the left turn lane I was in. Then, without warning, a car two lanes over to my right made a 90-degree left turn across my path.

I slammed on the brakes, but it wasn't enough to prevent my bumper from meeting the left fender of the silver Corolla. The young driver was a bit rattled, but luckily the only damage done was to sheet metal and his confidence. It turns out he was following directions from his older cousin in the front seat, and they were running late to meet family for a dinner reservation.

He wasn't texting or trying to show off to friends. He was just an inexperienced driver on unfamiliar roads who got overwhelmed. This was the last accident I was involved in, and it's not only a stark reminder what can happen with inexperienced drivers, it's a constant reminder to me about driver safety in the U.S.

If we take a look at the past 10 years, vehicle mortality rates in the United States have declined overall thanks in large part to safety advancements in cars. But as soon as we begin comparing our record to other developed countries of the world, it's kind of shocking just how poor of a job we're doing. And it's not just loss of life we're talking about — the impact of crashes from 2016 alone is estimated to have cost Americans $432 billion in associated damages.

This is admittedly a complex issue without a singular root cause. Sweden, for instance, a country with one of the best road safety records, can attribute much of its success to infrastructure, with roads built to prioritize "safety over speed or convenience," according to an article by The Economist. But apart from completely overhauling our road system, I believe there are smaller, easier holes to patch, and it begins with the way we approach driver's licensing and training.

The rules to obtain a driver's license vary across state lines, but the nation as a whole has seen a notable decrease in teen driver incidents since the implementation of graduated driver licensing — a three-stage process that requires new drivers to progressively ramp up to a fully unrestricted license. In a study done by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety comparing teen driver incidents from 1996 to 2010, mortality rates for 16- to 19-year olds fell as much as 68 percent. The IIHS attributes this improvement to the adoption of GDL laws and speculates that 9,500 collisions and 500 deaths could be prevented yearly if we simply adopted the strictest mandates across the board.

However, in states such as California, drivers who are 18 years of age or older can essentially bypass the GDL requirement for seat time at the wheel. The law assumes maturity and driving skill have a linear relationship, and that simply isn't the case. Having a mandatory amount of supervised seat time should be required of all applicants, and we shouldn't stop there.

There are currently no requirements for drivers-in-training to get exposed to how a car behaves in adverse conditions such as wet roads, panic braking that trigger the antilock brakes (and how best to use them) or emergency lane changes. Our current tests deem drivers fit to handle all situations based purely on obeying all road signs and signals and demonstrating a passable parallel parking maneuver. Both the training and the subsequent testing need to be tougher.

Beyond earning a license, once we've been approved and deemed fit to pilot these rolling masses of metal at speed, renewing that license in perpetuity takes about as much effort as renewing a gym membership. In many states, even poor vision doesn't pose much of a problem. According to the Insurance Information Institute, only 18 states currently require elderly drivers to take vision exams, two require a road test and one a full medical. In other words, once you're in, it's pretty hard to get kicked out.

If we really want to reduce crashes and death rates, drivers need to know what to expect in real-world situations so they'll be less surprised and better prepared to react in a safe manner. Training and licensing requirements shouldn't be based on age; they should be based on the applicant's experience. We need sufficient time to practice getting comfortable, and once comfortable, more robust checkpoints to ensure we are still fit for such a responsibility.

Every time we climb behind the wheel, we're putting our lives and every other road-goer's life at stake. And it's within our power and interest to improve the odds of survival.

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