Car driving as a right?

In issue 20 (October-November 2010) of Horizon the RAC President Alden Halse wrote about the need for individuals ‘to acknowledge the part they play in keeping our roads and community safe’.  Unfortunately, observing the driving style of the average Western Australian, one would have to conclude that despite improved training, the general standard of driving is poor, with intolerant and aggressive behaviour far too common.

Many drivers regard driving a car as a right, forgetting the fact that to drive a car on a public road is actually a privilege, accompanied by the responsibilities of behaviour and adherence to road rules. Unfortunately, when a driver regards driving as a ‘right’ these responsibilities tend to be minimised and when another driver infringes their ‘rights’ it is not unusual to witness an offensive and sometimes violent reaction.

So how did we develop this perception of driving as a right?

I would suggest that it is a direct result of the licensing emphasis being on the vehicle and not on the driver.

The current system of licensing for vehicles and drivers has its roots in Victorian England.

An 1865 act required all road locomotives, which included automobiles, to travel at a maximum of 4 mph (6 km/h) in the country and 2 mph (3 km/h) in towns and have a crew of three, one of whom should carry a red flag walking 60 yards (55 m) ahead of each vehicle. Over the years this act was progressively amended and finally replaced.

In 1903, driver registration was introduced but simply involved the purchase of a driver’s licence, with no test required.

Actual registration of vehicles did not happen until 1920 when an act of parliament was introduced which ‘required councils to register all new vehicles and to allocate a separate number to each vehicle’.  The emphasis was on licensing the vehicle, as in the early years only the wealthy could afford them, and there were considerable practical difficulties in providing driver testing.

The principles of this system continue to the present day.

Since the 1960s there has been a huge increase in car ownership, with the reliability and safety of cars improving all the time.

Drivers, despite being better trained, remain the prime cause of vehicle accidents. A 1985 report based on British and American crash data found driver error, intoxication and other human factors contribute wholly or partly to 93% of crashes, and yet a British RAC survey found nearly all drivers who’d been in a crash did not believe themselves to be at fault.

(It is interesting to note a bit of British driving history.  In 1930, speed limits were abolished in the UK, and in that year there were 7,500 fatalities (by comparison in 2009 there were 2,400)  consequently the British Parliament promptly reintroduced speed limits and in 1934 driving competency tests.  When tests were suspended for 7 years during the Second World War, annual vehicle fatalities peaked at 9,169.)

With vehicles, all owners know that they will have to replace their vehicle every few years as it wears out and becomes unreliable. Many choose to do it more frequently to ensure they have a current or fashionable model.

By comparison, having taken a driving test and been granted a driving licence at some stage in their lives, apart from renewing the photo and paying a small fee every 5 years, no other updating is required.  So if you passed your test in 1950s or earlier in some remote country town, there is an assumption that you will have increased your driving skill level to meet current standards. Even if you lose your licence there is no requirement to retake the test to prove competency, you simply get the licence back.  It’s little wonder then that driving licences are regarded as a right and not a privilege.

If we are to see drivers start taking greater responsibility for their actions, then they need to understand that holding a drivers licence is a privilege.

I would suggest four courses of action to start with

  1. Drivers must resit the written test every time their licence is renewed or has been suspended, to ensure they have knowledge of all the current traffic regulations.  It will also allow the testing authorities to place an emphasis on areas of traffic regulations where experience has shown drivers have the greatest level of ignorance
  2. Laws should be changed so if you drive a vehicle in a manner that causes harm to others, this will be treated as an assault with a weapon and not simply a traffic offence. I have watched drivers effectively use their vehicles as weapons, although I doubt that this would be their perception. If you strike someone with for example, a car jack, you can be arrested for assault, so why should it be any different for the whole car?
  3. Educating children as road users, starting at primary school with pedestrian skills, followed by cycling skills. It is ironic that with all the emphasis on safety, state governments have abandoned teaching children fundamental road survival skills. Yet these skills provide a sound basis to learning to drive a car.
  4. Vehicle and third party Insurance to be attached to the driving licence and not the vehicle, as it is the driver that is the prime cause of accidents.  By attaching insurance to drivers licence, insurance charges can be more accurately calculated to reflect the individual drivers’ traffic record.

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