Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Most motorists lack skills to be safe drivers

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Google co-founder Sergey Brin rode in a driverless car to Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., in September 2012 for the signing of legislation opening the way for autonomous vehicles in the state.

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Google co-founder Sergey Brin rode in a driverless car to Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., in September 2012 for the signing of legislation opening the way for autonomous vehicles in the state.

There are three major categories of drivers you're likely to encounter on the road.

The first are those who believe the level of attention they pay will have a significant effect on both safety and the pleasure of the process. For this small group, it becomes important to continually improve skills, and it would be anathema to drive without paying attention. These folks are less vulnerable to distraction, because, in getting behind the wheel of a vehicle, they have already decided they will be engaged in the process.

There is a second, much larger group who consider themselves responsible, but do not have much knowledge of what is required to be a skilled driver. Fair enough, because there really isn't a place, outside of advanced driving schools, for the public to learn more about driving. That has to be a major reason why, when surveyed, more than 90 per cent of North Americans said they were better-than-average drivers.

Unfortunately, being a responsible citizen, scrupulously obeying traffic laws and meaning well does not make you a good or safe driver. That requires a degree of technical understanding, some real skills as opposed to randomly acquired habits, and a high level of self-awareness.

The third group, which is growing in size year by year, consists of people who demonstrate by their actions that most of the time when they are driving their brains are somewhere else than in the car.

Between social demands and cultural norms, aided by automotive technology few people understand, this group represents our increasing willingness to sub-contract the process of paying attention. They cannot be considered drivers, but are at best glorified passengers who aim their vehicles in a general direction while being otherwise occupied. Their next step towards a brave new world will be in Google's automated cars.

You cannot legislate away distracted driving -- it's a cultural phenomenon and has to be addressed as such. Witness the contradiction: Most people think texting and driving should be illegal for every motorist except themselves. For many, driving is not considered something that requires any special skill or demands any particular interest, beyond vague awareness of power, performance, prestige and style -- items at the heart of an ad writer's dreams.

What of the autonomous car? Nice idea for a mundane commute, as long as the driver retains some basic control. Will this happen? Fat chance. Most people in autonomous cars will be in passenger mode. While there may be some altruists at Google who care for your safety, that company and others are craving the chance for a captive audience so they can sell more products.

Will autonomous cars make our roads safer? Perhaps, at least until things go wrong, whether through hackers, terrorists, human error or system failure. The resulting chaos will, in all likelihood, exceed anything we could imagine today.

There is a simple solution to this. Encourage more people to join the first group, to learn more about driving, to understand how safety features work, maybe think of driving as a skill that can be developed and enjoyed.

Will this happen? As an advanced driving instructor, I've seen it work with many of our customers. For greater effect, it would require our safety establishment to realize skills and technical understanding cannot be ignored in the push towards safer roads.

Alan Sidorov is an experienced automobile racer, product tester and freelance writer. You can reach him at www.spdt.ca.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 6, 2013 F10

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