Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Is more frequent driver testing the answer?

Would you be surprised to learn that the greatest threat to safety on our roads is “careless driving and dangerous driving practices”? More so than the traffic conditions and the condition of the vehicles themselves?

Indeed it is, according to a recent national poll.

Further aggravating the seriousness of the situation, many of the poll participants aged 26-44 openly admitted to dangerous driving habits in the course of their hurried and distracted daily driving routine. Also worrisome is that this particular age group is also known for a higher statistical incidence of road rage and extreme aggressive behavior.

While many road safety experts and advocates agree that safety requires three things “Safe cars, safe roads and safe drivers”, the later is often the most elusive and yet, ironically the simplest to address and even control. Or is it?

Looking at the numbers

To be more specific, this poll also found that most drivers believe it is quite safe to exceed the posted speed limit by 5-10 km/h.
  • 71% of the polled drivers speed on a regular basis (surprisingly, seniors were meaningfully represented in this group).
  • Nearly 1 in every 3 men believes it is acceptable to exceed the posted speed limit by 5-10km/h.
  • Many of the polled drivers (59%) also admit they will eat while driving
  • A majority of the drivers with ages between 26 and 44 admitted to having the most dangerous behaviors on the road.
  • 37% of the polled drivers admit to talking on a mobile phone while driving.
  • Amazingly, 14% of the polled drivers also admitted to reading while driving.

To summarize, in this nationwide poll by (Mason-Dixon) approximately 90% of the participants admitted to engaging in one or more of the above violations in the past 6 months and not coincidentally, these very same behaviors are identified by experts as the primary reasons for traffic fatalities on our roads.

What about driver re-testing? Would this help?

Perhaps, and according to most drivers polled: Definitely, yes.

But the vast majority indentified only the very young and the older drivers as needing frequent testing. When asked if everyone should be subjected to regular road testing, most drivers characterized the suggestion as a wasteful and costly undertaking. In fact, many of these respondents described themselves as either “safe” or “very safe” drivers despite having also admitted to being involved in a minor traffic accident in the last 2 years where they were found to be at fault by at least 50%.

Of the many unsafe practices these drivers also admitted to, regular speeding, tailgating at unsafe speeds and lane changes without signaling were among the most common.

Now then, is general mandatory or targeted testing the answer?

Again, unless forced to do so, many drivers would rather avoid a re-test. They often cited their “safe driving record” and cost (personal and societal) as supporting reasons. For many of these drivers, minor infractions and other behavioral “faux-pas” are not the primary causes of the loss of life and loss of property on our roads, even though they concede that these practices could still be the root cause for an accident. According to these folks the problem is always with someone else as reflected by the numbers produced by the same poll:

  • 77 percent of the polled drivers said seniors should be periodically retested
  • 69 percent favored retesting for teens
When overlapping the above statistics with the earlier numbers identifying problematic drivers in ages between 26 and 44, we come to the conclusion that perhaps all drivers should undergo some sort of regular mandatory road testing.

However, any type of mandatory testing is bound to carry a significant operational overhead to be shouldered by the already cash-lean testing centers. Without even factoring other consequences this alone has the potential of being considered the political minefield that many politicians would rather avoid.

After all, it is quite conceivable than many licensed drivers would lose their privilege to drive on the account of a failed test and if these statistics are any indication, we suspect the numbers would be high enough to scare even the most courageous legislator.

What are the chances that we will ever have general mandatory testing? Very slim indeed. The same cannot be said about targeted testing, but then again this option is often the least favorite and the pushback from special interest groups can be quite pronounced.

How about incentivized testing?

This type of testing could be used in the context of reduced insurance premiums and also the prerequisite to recovering from a loss of driving privileges.

In the case of good drivers, a regular road test (say, every 5 years) could make them eligible for an additional discount that will be in effect until either a traffic accident or traffic act violation is filed on that driver’s record.

Incentivized testing could also be used to lower driver license renewal fees and could potentially include other rewards affecting reduced member ship fees in some of the nation’s auto clubs. Some suggest that this type of benefit should also help negotiate lower personal insurance premiums and even lower financing rates.

How about traffic act enforcement?

In the absence of a smart highway system with sophisticated vehicles to use it, the only viable options left to us is to adjust the safety equation with either more or less traffic enforcement. On this front, we have the costly presence of enforcement personnel on our roadways and even the much hated “cash cows” of speed and intersection camera systems.

But does enforcement work? And if it does then why have we not invested on more of this to stem the continued loss of human and material losses.

Could it be because enforcement is an essential component but not the only determinant in promoting safety and compliance with the traffic act?

Indeed, increasing safety on our roads is one of the complex issues of our time, dwarfed only by the multitude of approaches and perspectives on how to increase safety.

As it has been shown in the past, over-using the hand of enforcement would likely result in diminishing returns in safety with extreme rises in cost which also happen to have other consequences and societal costs.

Conversely, reducing the amount of active enforcement while everything else remains unchanged would not only worsen the road safety but also erode the purpose and value of the traffic act and its laws.

Perhaps the answer lies with a combination of approaches that combine some form of testing and enforcement. Adding education and continuous promotion of traffic safety on a variety of mediums and venues could also help as it is being shown by the initiatives adopted by many local governments.

In the meantime what can you and I do to increase safety on our roads?

As some would say “Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I will remember.” we believe that the most affordable approach to improving safety on our roads is to "do it by example" as often and frequently as possible.

Safety begins with each of us, and even though it may, at first, be accompanied by a sense of futility, the results can be quite impressive. In other words, driving courteously, defensibly and in compliance with the traffic regulations in your area serves as a living and practical demonstration that you can not only arrive safely to your destination but you will do so efficiently with not only maximum financial benefit to yourself but with sizable environmental benefits to spare.

What can I do to be a better driver?
  1. Leave 5 to 10 minutes earlier before your commute.
  2. Drive at or safely below the speed limit and obey all traffic signs and signals.
  3. DO NOT respond or acknowledge any displays of aggressive, combative or unlawful conduct on the part of other drivers. Allow them to pass and signal your intentions clearly and appropriately.
  4. Observe potentially dangerous situations and give yourself enough room to preempt the safe avoidance of an accident.
  5. When driving, look ahead and plan your decelerations and lane changes. Brake gradually and gently especially if you strive to maintain at least a 2-4 car length buffer between yourself and the vehicle immediately in front of you.
  6. Maintain your vehicle in good operating order. Check your tire pressure and please remember that the manufacturer tire pressure is the minimum safe pressure you should practice. Contrary to the belief of many drivers and others in the industry, tire blow-outs and other catastrophic tire failures are more likely when the tires are operated with an inflation level below the manufacturer recommended value. Although mild over-inflation (pressures above the tire’s maximum rated pressure) is safer than operating your tires under-inflated, we strongly suggest you consider the conditions of your tire (age and prior damage) as well as the climate and roads you drive in.
  7. Finally, adopt any number of basic hypermiling techniques as afforded by the CleanMPG hypermiling toolkit. When in doubt, please ask ;)

Please discuss;


  1. Thank you for talking abou this issue and pointing out the stats. I agree that regular re-testing should be applied to everyone but I doubt many will like the idea.

    I disagree on the costs though, cause I believe the costs of keeping unsafe drivers off the roads is always lower than the cost needed to keep their vitims alive in hospital for months on end.


  2. Testing will harvest some of the low hanging fruit, but in the end its a drivers choice to stay within the law or stray outside it.

    In my view, throwing the money at improving the accident investigation process would lead to a bigger step forward in safety.


  3. MSantos where have you been? I miss your commentary.