Another Perspective

Turning Left on Red

How about more than just one type of driver's license?

By 12.12.07

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What if we tried a tiered licensing system?

It's self-evident that there's a wide range of driving ability -- from the barely competent to the highly skilled. Yet we have a one-size-fits-all licensing policy. And worse, traffic laws based on the least common denominator.

This is a pretty clumsy and counterproductive approach, if you stop to think about it.

For openers, it breeds cynicism and lack of respect for the traffic code on the part of better-than-average drivers -- who not only resent being ticketed for violating rules designed for the inept (such as no turn on red) but know full well that driving faster than at an artificially set low speed limit is by no means "unsafe" -- despite the DMV and insurance company agit-prop. Rather, it's just a means for extracting money to fund this or that municipal project -- albeit without resort to an open, overt tax.

Widespread contempt for these little rules -- and those who enforce them -- is another side effect. Traffic control devices (signs, lights, etc.) quickly lose their informational value. When speed limits are routinely under-posted, we become habituated to ignoring them. Curves posted 45 mph are taken at 60 without the slightest drama. We learn that such signs are worthless as far as their "warning" value is concerned. It's all contrived -- whereas a properly posted speed limit would actually provide useful information about the fastest safe speed for a given stretch of road.

And: The not-so-competent have very little incentive to get better. Their marginal driving ability is reinforced and even rewarded. This tends to create more (and worse) bad drivers -- in a road-bound manifestation of Gresham's Law. Instead of doing something about drivers too addled or inept to gauge the flow of cross traffic, we pass "No Turn on Red" laws. Rather than ticket (or send off for remedial instruction) drivers who come to a stop on freeway on-ramps, we put up traffic lights to institutionalize incompetence -- treating everyone as if they were as helpless and inept as the worst drivers out there.

While all this is going on the automakers work overtime developing ingenious (but complex and expensive) technology to, essentially, idiot-proof cars. Anti-lock brakes make skidding out harder. But we now have drivers who have no idea how to handle a skid when one does happen -- as on ice, where ABS is ineffective.

Stability and traction control systems keep the vehicle tracking straight even under inclement conditions and very high speeds. But this arguably creates a false sense of security -- making the Average Joe feel like Michael Schumacher. So he drives much faster, under more tenuous conditions. When loss of control does happen (computers can only do so much), the results are often much more catastrophic due to the higher speeds involved.

Maybe a tiered licensing system would reverse the trend, at least a little bit.

WHAT DOES A "TIERED" licensing system mean? In brief, it would be a system with more than one level of driver's license. Demonstrated higher skill would qualify an applicant for a higher tier license. And with it would come certain privileges, such as the right to drive faster on certain roads (such as highways) which would have a lane reserved for high-speed traffic.

There's no reason why a driver capable of holding an SCCA license shouldn't be able to drive at 80 or 90 mph on a modern Interstate -- other than the dumbed-down leveling of our currently set up traffic laws, which assume everyone on the road is as marginally skilled as the most marginally skilled driver out there. Which is like putting the bright kid in with the Specials. He's frustrated -- and the Specials get no benefit from dragging him to their level -- other than perhaps indulging their envy. Which is vicious anyhow and ought not to be the basis for policy of any kind.

To those who say a tiered system would be an administrative nightmare and impossible to enforce -- one has only to look across to the pond to England, where a tiered licensing system for motorcycles has existed for years. The basic principle is identical: New/inexperienced riders must acquire proficiency (and ride smaller cc, less powerful machines) until they've shown they can handle more -- at which point they may graduate to a full license and ride whatever machine they wish to ride.

It works for the Brits; it could work for us, too.

We could have a basic license -- which entitles the bearer to operate a motor vehicle on public roads, but which prohibits him from (for example) making rights on red -- or using the high-speed lanes on the Interstate.

The "top" license would confer special privileges -- including the right to make a right (or even a left) on red and to use high-speed lanes set aside for high-speed traffic. To qualify, the applicant would need to take and pass a course of high-speed/high-performance/accident avoidance driving techniques such as those currently given to law enforcement personal -- or (in the private sector) by schools such as those run by Skip Barber and Bob Bondurant. The applicant would need to demonstrate proficiency not merely at driving fast -- but at driving fast safely.

BUT THAT WOULD ONLY BE half of it. A high-skilled driver (just like a high-skilled martial artist) may use his higher skills irresponsibly. To counter that, the tiered system would contain provisions calling for immediate revocation of privileges for confirmed abuse (such as reckless driving) as well as a major review (with possible revocation) anytime the bearer is involved in an at-fault accident.

Penalties for operating a vehicle on the restricted high-speed lanes (or exercising "top" license privileges such as making a right on red) when not properly licensed would also have to be severe enough to make anyone think twice about abusing the system. Arrest on the spot. Vehicle impounded and (upon conviction of the owner) sold at auction. End of story.

Violations would likely be few and far between. And we'd enjoy freer-flowing roads, less henpecky and counterproductive laws -- and less misuse of police manpower, too. Everything would run a lot more smoothly.

But it will never happen -- for despite all the talk about America being a merit-based society, the reality is that on the roads, it's socialism -- from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs. No one's allowed to rise above the level of the least common denominator.

At least, not without risking a piece of payin' paper!

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About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.