“…driving like they don’t know how to read”

(WARNING:  This is not funny, and it is not intended to make you feel good)


If school attendance is required, what is it students should be required to learn while attending?  Things that might help them get a job?  How to behave well in social situations?  How about some of the things that not knowing about could put them at great risk or even get them killed?

Whether a person ever visits a library, museum, plays a competitive sport, or gets a job after high school where knowing how to make change for a dollar is important, most of the residents in this country, sooner or later, face the need to know how to operate a motor vehicle.  And the consequences of not knowing how to do it safely can be deadly to them, and to others as well.

Even if you personally know how to drive safely, chances are you will frequently be on the road, and at risk of a collision with someone else who doesn’t.  So, just exactly how much importance should we place on this issue as a society?  Whether we should require everybody take Driver’s Ed is really not nearly as important as that we should expect them to get the information, the learning, and some experience practicing driving from somewhere.

Some believe driver training should be a personal matter, as driving is a privilege, not a right.  Some are concerned, and justifiably so, that too many drivers are out there now that have not had adequate training, and therefore represent a potential threat to themselves and others.  There needs to be a lot more in the driver awareness toolbox than just how to find the ignition switch and accelerator.

Some parents teach their own children.  You and I often see some of these parents driving.  They might teach some of what they know.  But it is reasonable to presume they teach very little of what they don’t know.  “My boy can drive as good as me and his mama” may not always be good enough, or have you noticed?  They need to not only know what to teach, but how to teach it.  There is some evidence that both the knowledge base and the skills base are either insufficient, or just not being used.

There are some excellent professional driving instructors out there, but not all new drivers have had the benefit of their experience and knowledge.  Maybe you can afford a course in driver education for your children, but the wreck that can break your heart might be the one caused by some other driver who was not afforded sufficient training, formal or otherwise.  Perhaps it just wasn’t offered at their school or in their community.

Maybe it was, but they didn’t want to take it.  In all things, failures do tend to provide a list of excuses.  But when the failure rips you apart, all the excuses in the world backed by the loftiest attempts to justify them, are usually meaningless, aren’t they?

At such times, what you might be willing to pay to just change a brief moment of history will make the cost of driving lessons seem like almost nothing.  Yet you cannot purchase a better past than the one that actually happened, no matter how much you might desperately want to.

More than thirty-three thousand human beings lost their lives on the highways in this country last year.  These people were neighbors, co-workers, fellow students, members of families, and friends of members of families.  Perhaps someone takes over their old jobs, but no one can take their places in our hearts.

There are terrible consequences that can occur when we don’t know how, or choose not to act in a safe and responsible manner.  The “choose not to” is a personal accountability matter having to do with ethics, but what about the “don’t know how”?  My concern here is not to argue over who should pay for it even though it is a bit obvious that it’s everybody’s problem.  If we decide not to make it a required part of public education on a universal level, should we not still want to require “proof of knowledge” from everyone who would receive the privilege of having a license to drive, whether they have taken a class in it or not?

But you might say we do that already?  Do you believe that is true?  Even if it is claimed, there appears to be a significant disparity between what we say we require, and what is being required.  You may also say statistics show with seat belts, airbags, and stricter DUI laws, the number of highway fatalities are going down (though they were up in 2012 over 2011).  But if you had to be the one to always notify the next of kin in the case of tragic accidents, what number of deaths on our highways would you say would be an acceptable number?  What if the notifier was coming to your door?

So, my question is how dare we as a society of responsible and accountable adults license anybody to drive that has anything less than high competency skills, and a high level of understanding the rules of the road?  Further, I believe we should also teach them “why” along with every single compliant “what”.  If you don’t, they haven’t really learned very well, have they?  And we must find a way to teach them it is about them, and not just about everybody else (a huge perception problem even and especially among our brightest of young people).  We have to be committed to making it happen, and not just go through the motions of compliance.

We need to assume an attitude of what is important to understand, rather just passing out a list of “thou shalt not’s”.  Look how many states have found it necessary to make “texting while driving” illegal.  An attorney friend of mine pointed out the redundancy of this as a law, when it is almost universally required that drivers operate avoiding unsafe distractions.

But there has been a universal failure to teach people what “unsafe distractions” consist of, hasn’t there?  Can you think of some other examples?  Of course you can.  In fact, it would be quite fair to say there has been a universal failure to teach drivers how to drive.  But while it may be true, most people will never admit that such a claim includes them personally.  The others maybe, but not us.  In America, the average driver claims to be above average, and believes it.

“Illusory superiority” is a phenomena that causes most drivers to actually believe they are above average in that skill, a statistic that would be mathematically impossible.  It has been called the “Lake Wobegon Effect” (for Garrison Keillor’s fictional town where “…all the children are above average”).   But that goes into all kinds of ways we choose to measure ourselves, and not just about our driving skills.  So to what extent do we socially learn to accept about average?  That it is passing?  That means it’s “not failing”?  Is that right?  Is that what we believe, and teach our children?  In some cases, average might mean substandard, doesn’t it?

Imagine yourself in a survival school, and the instructor gives you a list of ten things you must know in order to make it safely back to the base camp.  He might tell you of other things you may wish to know in order to make the journey more enjoyable, and even others that could even make it profitable.  But the basic ten things are mandatory for survival.  And as it is often in matters of life and death, you should not depend on there being any makeup tests, or any chances for extra credit.

The instructor adds that the average student, if they will just pay attention and learn, should be able to make it back alive.  Since you and all the others in the class want and expect to pass, what is the minimum required to not get a failing grade?  70%?  80%?  90%?  What if you only miss one or two?  If the goal is to safely get back to the base camp, a fair assessment of the minimum you are expected to know would be all ten of those things on the “must know” list, wouldn’t it?

But although all the rules of the road are there to avoid injury, property damage and mayhem (not to mention a little common decency and mutual respect among travelers), no state requires a perfect score on either the written or the skills test.  Shall we presume some safety rules are just not as important as others?  Would that be all the time, or just once in a while that they are not important?

For those who may wish to argue about not needing to be able to parallel park, I think the appropriate challenge is the equipment operator needs to know how to operate the equipment.  No doubt, there would be many examples with other tools and machines where you could easily draw comparisons that would clearly make sense to you.  For those that have ever operated a table saw might remember times when knowing to use a push stick instead of a finger proved valuable.

I’m sure you’ve heard it said:  “A little bit of knowledge can be dangerous.”  I think that is absolutely true about driving a motorized vehicle.  Sometimes it’s not what you know, but what you, or somebody else doesn’t know that can get you, or someone you love, killed.

Additionally, if the candidate cannot perform a vehicle inspection (fluid levels, tire pressure, and that all safety equipment is functioning), I really think they should not be considered ready to take a skills test.  You may not need to verify they can physically change a tire, but they should certainly know if they have a spare, where it, the tire tool, and the jack are located, and what the procedure of changing it involves.

In other words, if it was entirely up to me as to who would be allowed to drive, the voters of this country would be demanding more train stations, bus stops, bike paths and sidewalks–which they should, anyway.  So yes, I think the testing should be a lot tougher than it is.  And the reason I do is, if “average” is a value less than competency; if “okay” is not really “okay”, then maybe we need to reconsider what we expect–or even insist upon the average person being able to do.

You know something or you don’t.  You can show yourself competent, if you can pass a fair competency test.  If you don’t or cannot, you have not passed, even though you ran to first base almost before the ball, or almost cleared the tracks before the train got there.  Would you be willing to settle for a 76%, or even a good solid 86% in the real-life test about railroad crossings?

When it comes to being allowed behind the wheel, it certainly does seem that in some states you can get a driver’s license if you know some of the information in their driver’s handbook, including some (but not all) of the rules of the road.  And surprisingly enough, that seems acceptable to many parents taking their children to get their first driver’s license.  I overheard a mother telling the lady standing next to her at the department of drivers’ services:

“I’m praying that officer will cut her some slack.  I know Judith can’t parallel park worth a darn, but I sure don’t want to have to come back down here and go through all of this again.  Hope she cools that lead foot of hers, too.  Please, Jesus, just let her pass this time!”

Seems to me if you’d wish to invoke the Deity’s generosity on behalf of your child, it shouldn’t be to insist they be put into harm’s way along with everybody else that might cross their path, should it?  And it seems to me if you know your child isn’t proficient with operating the machine, helping them learn what they need to know might aught to take priority over getting them certified they can do something you already know they cannot do, doesn’t it?  Am I being unreasonable here?  When you apply for a license to drive, or go to get one renewed, one of the questions they are very likely to ask you is if you’d like to be an organ donor.  You would think that might get some people’s attention.

I watched people driving today.  In several places with rather high traffic, the average pace was about 30% higher than than the posted limit for speed by state law, as if it was just a mere suggestion for the feeble.  They didn’t keep safe distances, were generally discourteous and even dangerous to each other.  The overwhelming majority of them would turn, change lanes, and pass without any hand or mechanical signals whatsoever.

And, it didn’t matter if conditions for passing were unsafe or even illegal.  I saw some drivers who seem to be preoccupied with various distractions going on inside their vehicle to the extent that their tires wanted to visit over in the lanes next to them.   It is almost as if some people are unaware of what safe practices would be, or of what the law requires of their behavior.  And yes, I saw evidence of quite a few wrecks during that short drive.  If you talk with people who drive in and around Atlanta, they will tell you they’ve come to expect to see that sort of thing almost every day.  And, they usually do.

Recently, one of my sons commented on some driving practices he’d noticed while traveling in some third world countries:

“It’s crazy on their roads.  It’s like they just make up the lane they drive in as they go along.  People cut each other off without ever signaling, and they go incredibly fast right on top of each other.  It’s not just that they didn’t know how to drive very well; it’s that they didn’t know they didn’t know how to drive.  Seems to be worse in areas with lower literacy rates.”

I’ve seen this happen in small countries that all of a sudden had a huge increase in tourism.  Hundreds of  eager young people become taxi drivers.  Most of them up to the week before they got their chauffeurs’ licenses, had never even ridden in an automobile, much less read the owner’s manual for their cab.  Examples of how that was not altogether an intelligent set of decisions should not be necessary here.

My son went on to say that’s the way it is now in America. We both agreed it gets it’s very scary out there sometimes, and seems worse now than just even a decade ago. Then he again said quite emphatically:

“Dad, now people here are driving like they don’t know how to read.”

I thought a minute, then told him:

“They don’t.”

We set some of our standards on the minimum we will accept.  And what we will accept becomes what we can expect.  When the minimum becomes the mark people shoot for, the minimum, and not the best, is what is produced over, and over, and over.  And that is not just about our driving skills, but about other areas of our lives where substandard practices become the norm.  Until we raise the standard of what is acceptable, what is expected will never have any reason to improve.

7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by little d on December 10, 2013 at 12:02 am

    ” (WARNING: This is not funny, and it is not intended to make you feel good) ”

    I agree the intro to this press was appropriate, for humor is generally used to competently look at reality, and where we stand in it, because its so unavoidably tragic the findings and or the degree to which we accept and tolerate it. Its a fallback behavior that concedes our level of seriousness, and our position to challenge it too.

    One of my pet examples I use when discussing observations of this type is of the modern updated version of wagon trails that we now know as two lane roads. We meet each other head on at various speeds with a bare minimum distance of separation. This worked ok when we were approaching each other on a horse driven system, but at today’s posted speed limits, with unlimited horses under the hood, not so much.

    We have accepted that under our system of transportation’s, being slaughtered or maimed by design is part of it. I think when you’ve accepted that, accepting the level of training to enter the field is of little worry. Of course it should just the opposite, but what has Standing usually reigns no matter the tragedy.

    I think you’ve done another excellent job arranging your thoughts into words, and the message is crystal clear for all to see. Thanks for taking the time to share it.

    little d


  2. Posted by Mickey Foster on December 10, 2013 at 5:01 pm

    To legally drive an automobile requires that the driver first obtain some form of licensing accepted in the driver’s home state. To answer a few questions about road signs and to show an examiner that one can make the vehicle move and not knock over a few cones, and to finally demonstrate the ability to park the vehicle between the lines does not guarantee nor prove that one will be a safe driver. There are so many variables involved, down here we have bridges over water where there are boats with almost naked women…hard to pay attention to those lines on the road while looking at almost naked women…speaking of boats…well, boats can have big big motors and go almost as fast as cars, no licensing needed, only money. So, here we are…maybe reading, writing and arithmetic is not all that important with a heavy duty course in plain old common sense….


  3. Posted by Mickey Foster on December 10, 2013 at 5:02 pm

    should have said without a heavy duty course in plain old common sense…


    • Posted by thevanbrown on December 10, 2013 at 5:27 pm

      If what is commonly sensed be enough, I reckon. It’s good to use the common sense of touch to get the “feel” or the vehicle and of the road. And it’s good to keep the sense of hearing on alert for sounds that could mean the presence of hazards or emergencies not seen yet. The common sense of sight is also very important. And if it is used along with an ability to calculate, a person who knows how many seconds it will take to activate the breaks on the machine they are driving and the distance of some object in front of them, might be able to stop if they’d at least leave that much time and distance between where they are now and where the vehicle in front of them is positioned. If they don’t, the common sense of touch is quite likely to create some discomfort, even if only for a sadly brief moment.


  4. Posted by Bonnie on December 11, 2013 at 7:11 pm

    I think that most people believe that driving is a right, therefore they’ll do it however they want and pretend laws do not apply to them. I recall a time I was a passenger in the car. The driver was exceeding the posted speed limit and I commented on that. His reply was “that’s not the real speed limit. Since there is construction, it is only a suggestion.” Later, a police officer suggested he slow down. You write good stuff, Van Brown!!


  5. When I read this post I can still hear my Dad yelling out the car window at the other drivers, “Did you get your license at the Five & Dime?!” Every time my father got behind the wheel he seemed to morph from a quiet soft spoken man into a combination of Frankenstein and the Werewolf. For those drivers who refused to signal their intentions of turning either left or right, “Don’t you know what that stalk on the side of your steering wheel is for?!!” As for teaching me how to drive, well that was a total disaster. Once again he transformed into an angry maniacal B movie monster screaming, yelling and finally grabbing the steering wheel bringing the very brief lesson to an end. For the sake of preserving our normally close Father/Daughter relationship, I learned how to drive through a driving school. After two tries I passed my road test. Parallel parking was my nemisis but finally conquered it. Years later I had to pick up my Dad from LaGuardia airport, a relatively short trip from our house. By then I was an experienced driver but I couldn’t help but notice my Dad kept pressing an imaginary break for the entire 30 minutes or so it took us to reach home. Due to becoming Mr. Magoo or rather Ms. Magoo and thanks to retina surgery and just getting older I no longer drive and probably my Dad Edward Palmer is in Heaven breathing a sigh or relief!


  6. Posted by betty on January 27, 2014 at 9:05 pm

    I only drive when I’m forced to !!!
    ’nuff said…


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