American Culture

Are Americans too stupid to drive?

Guest Scrogue Rho Holden is a frequent S&R commenter who lives and works in the greater Denver metro area.

Check out the results of this recent report on the qualifications of American drivers:

…if a test administered by GMAC Insurance is any indication, one in six people cruising our highways and byways — roughly 36 million licensed drivers — would flunk their driver’s test if they had to take it today.

One in six. This is especially scary given how easy the test is, because a lot of people who pass the test wouldn’t if it were sufficiently stringent.

Before I start ranting let me provide a bit of background about why this particular question concerns me. I’ve been driving since early 1982 and in the last 26 years I have been hit 17 times while in an automobile, once while on foot and yet another time while on a bicycle. None of these accidents were deemed to be my fault and at least five of the cases involved drunk drivers (three where I was driving and both when I wasn’t). That’s the background, but not the “why now?” That has to do with a little mathematical equation I’ve been working on: Cell Phones + Driving = Darwin’s Proof.

None of the accidents I’ve been involved in involved cell phones (to my knowledge), but in the past several months drivers in the Denver area have been trying to do something about that. I’ve had several close calls with cell-using idiot drivers, but there are two in particular that stand out.

The first one happened toward the end of the evening rush hour as I was heading north on I-25, leaving the Denver metro area. I was in a 65 mph zone traveling with the flow of traffic at about 70 mph. All of a sudden I see a silver BMW sedan coming behind me like I was standing still. He closes to within about 10 feet behind me, then slingshots around me in a move that would impress Jeff Gordon. I look to my left as he screams past and what I see is as enraging as it is terrifying. He’s holding a cell phone to his ear with his left hand and his right hand is holding a hamburger. As far as I can tell this means he’s steering with his knees. Not only is he going at least 15 mph faster than the rest of us during a high-traffic period (I-25 Northbound during rush hour can be extremely packed), he’s not paying attention and his hands aren’t on the wheel.

The other case was even worse. A few days later I was heading into Denver, with a moderate traffic flow, on a Saturday morning. A Subaru wagon merges onto the highway. Instead of settling into his lane, though, he drifts across into my lane, forcing me to veer left and causing the car behind me to have to slam on his brakes to avoid crashing into me. The Subaru still doesn’t react, so I then have to hit my brakes to avoid getting slammed into the concrete divider.

I could see he wasn’t paying any attention. He didn’t check his mirrors or even look at the other traffic he was affecting. No, he was on his cell phone. The woman in the passenger seat was oblivious, too; she was fixing her makeup in the vanity mirror. So far this isn’t any worse than the Beemer incident. But then I notice the car seat in the back. It was the type used for newborns or very young babies. I could see a little fist waving through the window so I knew it was occupied, but the seat itself was waggling back and forth, obviously not properly attached.

If I’d had my cell phone with me I would have pulled over and called 911 immediately, but I didn’t.

I’m sure most readers have experienced as bad or worse, although hopefully you haven’t been hit as many times as I have. It’s getting worse, too. In 2007 both Washington and New Jersey felt it necessary to pass laws making it illegal to text while driving. That seems like common sense to me, but apparently not everyone agrees. In my opinion, anyone who texts while driving is a prime candidate for a Darwin Award.

I just hope they don’t any innocent bystanders with them.

10 replies »

  1. As one of the last of a dying breed, the non-cellphone user, it would be all too easy for me to self-righteously condemn those who dial and drive. But I know how easy it is to succumb to temptation, especially when the phone ring-tones.

    Take my wife. Please (not really). In suburban New York City, where we live, she used to rail against people driving and talking.

    But it wasn’t long before she got a ticket for that herself.

    Incidentally, operating increasingly complex car stereos on your dashboard is also a hazard. How many has that killed?

    One of my biggest complaints about drivers around here — on the level of “What next? The breakdown of society?” — are drivers who, side by side with you on the highway, drift into your lane. That kind of inattention is truly out-freaking.

    Number one of course is those who run red lights, which makes being a pedestrian in this suburban area extremely perilous, especially for the elderly. In effect, after the light turns to green for the pedestrian, you need to automatically wait four or five beats before walking.

    Finally, all prospective drivers should be required to take courses in high-speed evasion maneuvers befor being licensed. Are you kidding me? the car industry screams after a quarter in which GM has lost $700 million.

  2. Russ,
    It’s worse than that for pedestrians. I was standing at the corner waiting for the light to change so I could cross in a crosswalk when a drunk decided he needed to turn right by jumping the curb and running me over, It seems in Denver not even the sidewalks are safe.

    Denny, Thanks … Still looking forward to the next time you pounce on me with a soap box I’ve inadvertently blundered under. 🙂

  3. Seventeen times in 26 years is just flat bad luck. I”ve had exactly one accident in the past 30 years, and that was a guy who slid into from behind on a snowy day.

    Still, I know what you mean.

    I saw an episode on Mythbusters once where they drove through an obstacle course drunk and they drove through it again while sober but on a cell phone. They drove MUCH better when they were drunk.

    I really think there’s a tendency to visualize while talking on the phone, and that visualization takes the driver away from what’s going on around him or her.

  4. JSO,

    I wish I had that kind of luck to have only been hit once but as Sam could tell you the law of averages seems to run shrieking out the door anytime I’m involved. With all the times I’ve been hit I’m not dead or in a wheel chair. I’m actually about as active as any other middle aged tech geek.

  5. Rho,

    Depending on how much time you spent behind the wheel since ’82, your amount of incidents are probably not out of the realm of possibility ……19 accidents in a quarter century has better odds than winning the Powerball. I’d have trouble calculating the exact odds without knowing more data…..but 19 accidents still brings a WOW!!! from me.


  6. Jeff,
    Unfortunately I have had a number of jobs with long commutes (40+ miles) and I spent a year as a taxi driver. Believe me when I think about it and the fact that although I’ve been hauled into the hospital on numerous occasions because of it strapped to a back board I’m still fairly healthy and active I go WOW myself. Anyway thanks for the sentiment.

  7. Jeff,

    Most of those commutes either took place during rush hour or in the wee hours of the night when the drunks are out in force.

  8. Another threat to safe driving, less well-known than cell phones, is prescription antidepressants. Years ago I was prescribed them and they messed up my driving. Chopped my attention into discrete segments.

    Maybe it was just me, but think how many people are using those and driving.

    JSO, that was instructive about the comparison between drunks and cell phone users. Especially the visualization part.

    Also years ago, I used to drive while drinking and high on marijuana and, muscular control aside, my mind kept wandering off from the road. Hairy.

  9. Russ,

    Glad to hear you no longer drive intoxicated. The point about anti-depressants is interesting though. I’ve never thought about that but if it has those effects even on a small percentage of the number of people taking them thats still a LOT of drivers to be worried about.