CAUTION: Bad Drivers Ahead

By POONAM GUPTA, columnist

Recently, I received my probationary driver’s license. I must say, it was as if I had finally achieved the teenage “American Dream.” Now in my hands was the freedom to drive to the mall without waiting for my mother to finish the dishes. But, as I was celebrating, something continued to trouble me — during my road test, I had not only overstepped the speed limit in a school zone, but I had also managed to end up in the wrong lane after performing a k-turn. At this point, my driving skills may have been deemed questionable at best. I can attest to the fact that I’m not Driver of the Year, and I know those kinds of violations would generally merit a failed road test. Nevertheless, with nothing more than a hasty “Be safe!” from my test proctor, I received my license and was on my merry way.

As a disclaimer, I am not complaining about passing, nor do I wish to retake the exam. My driver’s license picture may resemble a criminal’s mugshot, but I am ecstatic just to have obtained it. However, it is worth noting that a new driver must be told what standards are expected of him or her. It is quite possible that the driving instructor was being more lenient with me, as it was my birthday. But should he have been? I couldn’t help but ask myself, what kinds of teenage drivers are driving schools passing. and are there too many unprepared drivers on our roads today?

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that in 16 states, one can bypass the age limit for a learner’s permit, the number of hours needed to get behind the wheel, and even night-driving limitations, simply by taking a driver’s education course. Some states do not even require a course like the one mandated in New Jersey; instead, they offer an unregulated online version. According to Troy Costales, vice chairman of the Governor’s Highway Safety Association, “[Driver’s education] programs aren’t doing as well as they could be because they are so focused on getting teens to pass the driving test, not on giving teens the skills they need to keep them safe.” Before my test, my driving teacher took me on….the test route ..at least.17 times,.to the point where I had each turn memorized. This “teaching to the test” method may work in a classroom setting, /..but when it comes to driving, only true mastery can guarantee safety and security.

Even the written test is considered by many to be very easy to pass. Anyone can obtain a driver’s manual from the local Department of Motor Vehicles, memorize some information, and regurgitate it when necessary. If we have learned anything from memorizing equations for math class or the progression of various world events in history, it is that recalling is not the same as understanding.

Truly learning how to drive requires more than knowledge of facts and the test route. Above all else, driving requires confidence, which comes solely from practice. Some argue that the only way to receive this practice is to get on the road more. A kid needs to learn eventually. What better way to do that than to just drive?  

Take a look at Oregon, for example. That state has witnessed a noticeably substantial decrease in the frequency of teenage car accidents, which is believed to be the result of their strict driver’s education program. This might be because the state mandates that teenage drivers receive 50 hours of practice behind the wheel with a licensed adult before even attempting to obtain a driver’s license. This far surpasses the requirements enforced by other states, and is a step forward in the endeavor to improve the safety of drivers on Oregon’s roads. Numerous other states do not possess the means necessary to adopt and enforce such a stringent driving program, and with almost 3,000 teenage deaths per year caused by accidents, one cannot help but wonder how many of the licenses that have been issued are currently in the right, responsible hands.

These days, it is extremely difficult to get around without a car. However, that does not justify entrusting the responsibility of a driver’s license to the inexperienced and the unprepared. We need to implement programs to truly prepare new drivers for the open road. The freedom of driving comes at a cost: the responsibility and burden of keeping both yourself and others safe. Both prospective and experienced drivers must keep in mind that their actions may have more substantial consequences than they intend. Is it truly worth fulfilling every teenage driver’s “American Dream,” even though it may jeopardize innocent people?

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