Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Good advice, but nobody will take it

Imposed safety never appreciated

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If we learned anything from last week's provincewide debate on road safety, it's that we can't agree on how to make life behind the wheel safer.

The trigger for the debate was a collision involving an 86-year-old man who backed out of a bank parking lot at a high speed and struck a 10-year-old girl. There were immediate calls for age limits for driver's licences or retesting for drivers over a certain age. In this space, it was argued there is so much bad driving out there, everyone should have to be retested on a regular basis, regardless of age or driving history. The reaction to the whole subject was swift and enormous.

It's always a bad idea to take the comments section of any website for a reasonable measurement of public opinion. Even so, the debate following my last column was fascinating.

In general, there were three camps: those who liked the idea of regular retesting of all drivers, those who thought retesting of all drivers was a colossal waste of taxpayer money, and those who just wanted to rant about how bad Winnipeg drivers are.

Many people suggested increased police enforcement was the solution. With cops stopping bad drivers and punishing them for their bad habits, there would no need for retesting of any kind. There are two major problems with that suggestion.

First, police in most major metropolitan centres have stopped doing regular traffic-law enforcement because they have been asked to take on so many other responsibilities. With task forces on major crimes, anti-drug and gang units and new crimes such as Internet luring and child pornography to combat, it's hard to find the resources to go out and look for unsafe lane changes, tailgating and those who roll through stop signs.

The second problem is a symptom of the first: We've become so comfortable knowing our small driving crimes won't be punished that when the cops do crack down, we react with angry indignation. Last March, Manitoba Public Insurance and the Winnipeg Police Service launched intensive campaigns to crack down on people using their smartphones while driving. Not surprisingly, many of us reacted like indignant children who have been told they can't have a sleepover. Extra police enforcement is a great idea until we get stopped, and then it's a violation of our libertarian sensibilities.

Remember, this is a city where a small cadre of citizens are still lingering around traffic court trying to prove that photo radar and red-light cameras are some sort of government conspiracy and tax grab. Sure, it generates money for the government off the backs of bad drivers or good drivers who had a momentary lapse. But mostly it remains a tax on stupidity, which is about as righteous a tax as there ever has been.

The fact remains that road and driver safety is not an easy problem to solve. Even some of our best efforts to make drivers better and roads safer have backfired. Consider that several years back, I wrote a story about a Manitoba Public Insurance-commissioned report that showed graduates of MPI's much-vaunted driver-education program got into more accidents than teens who learned to drive on their own.

The driver-education program has always been considered a pillar of road-safety initiatives. How could it be that it contributed to more accidents? Road-safety experts have studied this anomaly and determined program graduates are more confident behind the wheel and as a result, take more chances. It's just one of those cases of seemingly right-minded public policy backfiring.

The same goes for public-service-announcement campaigns encouraging good driving. MPI has won awards for its shock-and-awe ads showing various forms of post-accident carnage and tragedy. However, road-safety experts who have studied the psychology behind the ads say they are ineffective because most of us believe public service announcements -- no matter how good the advice -- are directed at someone else. As a result, we mostly ignore that good advice, thinking we don't need it.

Solutions? I received an email from William Ward, a Winnipeg-based driver-training expert with 45 years of developing tools for training safer drivers, who offered suggestions on how to fix this problem. His six-point plan included more police enforcement, more intensive skill and collision-avoidance training, mandatory vision and auditory skill assessments and retesting every five years along with a requirement to attend theory and advanced-driving-skills refresher courses.

Ward's premise is there is no single measure that can put a dent in bad driving habits. It takes a battery of public-policy measures and laws to make our roads much safer.

That advice will likely fall on deaf ears because if we know anything about this debate, it is this: Most of us will not come to understand the wisdom in Ward's philosophy until we've suffered some sort of irreversible tragedy. And by then, that epiphany will seem like a hollow victory indeed.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 15, 2012 A4

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