The C is for Crank

The Real Problem Isn't Untrained Drivers, It's That We Let Drivers Kill People

By Erica C. Barnett August 13, 2010

(Image via BikeWise).

A couple of days ago, the P-I reported on a new UW study finding that "high-risk drivers" can be taught to drive more safely. Additionally, the researchers found that distracted and otherwise dangerous drivers are unaware of the potential consequences of their actions; "Our research shows that these high-risk drivers might not be thrill-seeking or aggressive -- maybe they're just not aware of what the risks are," one of the researchers said in a statement. After putting the drivers in a simulator for several minutes and coaching them on upcoming risks on a simulated two-lane highway, the researchers found they were less likely to look away from the road for long periods.

I haven't been able to find the study online---the Journal of Transportation Engineering, which published the study, does not have a copy on its web site---but the fact that the study apparently focused on drivers' likelihood of crashing into other cars at highway speeds doesn't give me confidence that coaching would do much to protect vulnerable users like pedestrians and cyclists. As Dan has written before, car crashes are the leading cause of death among children in the US---in part because we, as a nation, don't take seriously the massive responsibility that comes with getting inside a few thousand pounds of moving metal, glass and steel.

Take this story, from just last week: A woman in Central Kitsap County turned into the path of an oncoming cyclist, killing him. As is typical, she said she "just didn't see" him. Instead of the maximum 90 days in jail and $1,000 fine, the driver, whose license had been suspended after she got four speeding tickets in the last 18 months, was sentenced to 45 days of community service and given a $600 fine. Forty-five days of community service and $600 for taking an innocent human life. And the sad thing is, that's actually on the harsh side. More commonly the driver gets to drive away with a ticket or a deferred sentence.

What would really help with distracted driving is not simulators that teach people to avoid other cars on the highway. It's tougher laws that actually penalize people who kill or maim people with their cars. This is easy for most Washingtonians to understand when it comes to letting criminals keep their guns, but the idea that we have a right to own and operate cars, no matter what the consequences to those around us, is so sacrosanct that previous efforts to modestly increase penalties for reckless drivers have gone nowhere.

We've already endorsed Joe Fitzgibbon in the 34th District, but I want to highlight one campaign promise that makes me wish I could move to the district and vote for him myself: He has vowed to re-introduced the vulnerable users bill, which would create harsher penalties for driving offenses that endanger or end someone’s life, "both to ensure justice for those who are killed or injured and to lead drivers to pay more attention to the potentially life-ending impacts of distracted driving." If only the rest of the state legislature would be so rational.
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