Opinion: Why Americans should learn more about driving

Kai Ponting, Staff Writer

Driving is something that nearly every American learns to do. It is the most common way that we travel across the country, and our road system is so widespread and well-maintained that we can travel to nearly any location from Alaska to the Florida Keys. During high school years, it is a badge of freedom and maturity, a license to go anywhere, anytime.

However, the proliferation of driving has made one thing clear: not everyone knows what they are doing. In the US in 2013, 34,064 people died in road accidents, which is 10.6 deaths per 100,000 people, while in Germany that number was just 3,540, at 4.3 deaths per 100,000 people, under half the rate of the United States despite derestricted sections of its famous Autobahn, according to a 2015 World Health Organization report. Germany takes driving very seriously, and we should too if we want to lower the rate at which people die due to automobiles.

Why are Germans so good at driving? First, they are home to a multitude of major car brands; Porsche, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, and BMW all are centered in Germany. Additionally, Karl Benz, a German, is the inventor of the modern, internal combustion powered automobile, meaning that driving is thoroughly integrated into Germany’s culture and history.

Their rigorous program to attain their license conveys their seriousness. A German looking to get their license must take 14 hours of classes and driving with an instructor, along with eight hours of first aid. It also costs north of $2,000 US dollars, as opposed to the US’s $300-$400. This rigorousness in driver education means that most, if not all, German drivers have the law memorized, and are not likely to disobey it. Germany is one of the most car-obsessed countries in the world, but following their methods would not harm the United States.

We should also make an effort to learn about our cars. I would hazard a guess that many people could not point out a spark plug, or know how their engine is supposed to run. This kind of knowledge can be nothing but valuable to us, as it helps us maintain our vehicles and keep them lasting longer while paying less for maintenance. We should know how to change oil ourselves, replace a battery, or even brake pads. All of these are repairs that are not particularly difficult to do oneself, yet since they are needed so often they are often the fixes that cost drivers the most in the long run of car ownership.

Lastly, we should all learn to drive quickly. Counterintuitive, but teaching a driver where the limits of a car is and what to do if one is pushed over that limit can only be useful. In my drivers education class, the only thing I was taught about my tires losing grip was to slam hard on the brakes, trust ABS, steer into a slide, and rely on electronic stability control (ESC) and traction control to save me. However, as the owner of a car from 1984, I have none of these safety systems. I have no ABS or traction control of any form, and my brakes and steering are not electronically assisted, meaning that this lesson was useless to me.

While most new drivers will probably not be put in a classic car with no assistance, computer assistance is not the end solution to limiting loss of traction. An ABS or ESC system is not very good at dealing with black ice. In other situations where losing grip causes an accident, it is also the driver’s fault for taking that speed around a corner or waiting too late to brake, so teaching them where the limit of a car is, how to avoid it, and how to deal with exceeding it is incredibly important.

However, sending every student out on a skid pad and spending days training them would be incredibly costly. A solution to this could be the use of a computer simulators. It would be far cheaper and quicker than preparing a track surface, and accurate too, since driving simulators are used by Formula One and many other racing teams to train drivers. Plus, I am sure that driving a virtual car for education would be a big hit among the teenagers taking driver’s ed.

Overall, too many accidents are caused by inattentiveness, lack of knowledge, or even lack of confidence. A highly nervous, knowledgeable driver is still very likely to cause an accident, as twitchy, rough inputs to a car’s controls are not going to promote good traction or control. In many cases, a confident, aware driver will be much safer than a driver that can answer any multiple-choice question about cars and roads but are terrified of them.

There are many things we could do to improve the driving population, and overall make our roads safer. Of course, autonomous driving and even things like lane keep assist and collision detection aim to make this sort of knowledge obsolete, but we are still decades off from those technologies being useful.

Until that day comes, we must improve the safety of our roads. We think of car accidents as almost commonplace, an inconvenience on our commute that we hope has not seriously injured anyone and do not grieve for too long. On the other hand, a plane crash receives national and international coverage, and are investigated thoroughly every time they happen. There are far fewer planes in the sky than cars on the road, but if automobile accidents can even come close to the rarity of a plane crash from greater driver awareness or involvement, then the average driver will both be far safer and more comfortable (and their insurance rates will probably be lowered too).