Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

We could drive like Europeans

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BARCELONA, Spain -- Any time I drive in Europe, I am impressed with how many of their drivers could teach Canadian drivers a lesson. Seriously.

Yeah, I know. You all have preconceived notions about chaotic roundabouts in Rome, the convoluted back streets of Paris and the hyper-intensity of London. And, you're right about those places. They can be crazy.

But, get into normal traffic, drive the many motor-routes that populate Poland, the Czech Republic, rural England, Spain or even Germany, and you will see driver behaviour that is vastly superior to that of Canadian counterparts.

Let me give you a couple of cases in point. First, they actually know how to navigate a roundabout. These wonderful little innovations are starting to appear in Canada but Canadian drivers have yet to figure out how to get through them without putting the lives of themselves and others at risk.

The secret, I think, is alertness. European drivers are, as a rule, extremely aware of their surroundings. They're not on their cell phones, they're not texting anyone; they are watching what is happening with the vehicles around them. And they are prepared to react -- to go or stop in an instant. Sadly, Canadians seem absolutely lethargic by comparison.

Here's another important case in point. When you drive on the motorways, there is a very clear and disciplined protocol. Trucks stay far right, unless they must enter the centre lane to pass. They are almost never in the left, high-speed, lane. Cars also stay right, except to pass. No one goes in the far left lane, except when they are passing someone.

Now, let's compare that to the Canadian experience. I drive a controlled access road in Calgary called the Deerfoot Trail every day. It is, by comparison to the European experience, complete chaos. Cars veer in and out, jumping from lane to lane to lane, cutting off drivers as they race along in a vain effort to gain advantage. Trucks regularly plant themselves in the left lane and stay there, creating a frustrating obstruction for anyone who wants to move a bit faster.

The experience in many other Canadian cities is similar. I only wish I could get a fraction of the time back that I've wasted on Highway 401 in Toronto or the QEW on the way to Hamilton. These are roads ruled by -- I'm sorry, but it's true -- totally ignorant jerks.

So, can we raise the bar in Canada? Yes, I think we can, but it will require a bit of social consensus. One of the reason drivers in Europe are more skilled than their Canadian counterparts is because it is much more difficult to get a licence there. In Germany, for example, it takes several years and several thousand dollars. Drivers are subjected to real-life crises and trained to react -- it's a lot more than knowing how to follow a speed limit and parallel park.

It's too damn easy to get a driver's licence in Canada, and it's too damn easy to keep one.

Secondly, there is no current requirement to maintain your standards. I've had my driver's licence for 44 years, and have never had to go back for driver re-education. I have made an effort to stay current with changes to driving laws, but I'm sure many others have made no move at all.

In effect, we are tolerating widespread incompetence on the roads.

My suggestion is simple - and moderate. Let's say once every five years, every driver would be required to undergo a basic refresher course in driving laws and etiquette. To make it easy, it could even be offered online. Drivers would learn how laws have changed, and would be reminded of simple courtesies so important to maintaining order on the roads. Those who complete the refresher might qualify for a discount on their insurance. Those who don't -- well, my personal preference would be that their licence would be put on something equivalent to an Amber Alert.

Draconian? I don't think so. I'm sick and tired of dealing with drivers who either don't know what they should be doing or don't care. We can and should insist on better rules for the road.

Who knows? We might even save a few lives along the way

Doug Firby is editor-in-chief and national affairs columnist for Troy Media.

--Troy Media

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 2, 2013 J6

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