Happy New Year, America. Please resolve this year to learn how to drive.
Seriously. After a 2,700-mile road trip from Detroit to Hollywood, Florida, I can confirm the state of the American driver is probably the worst it has ever been. Yes, this is based upon anecdotal evidence, but the evidence is clear: You suck behind the wheel.
No wonder there is such as big movement right now to create self-driving vehicles. Even if machines were hurling people into trees every quarter mile, it would not likely be as terrifying as a snow-covered highway in West Virginia or any piece of blacktop in Florida.
Statistically speaking, things don’t look good. The National Safety Council says 2015 was a bumper year for auto fatalities, with 38,300 people killed in traffic accidents. Final numbers are not available for 2016, but halfway through fatal accidents were up 10 percent – meaning there’s still a chance to top 40,000 deaths in 2016. What the hell is wrong with you?
Part of the jump in traffic deaths, experts say, is that gas is cheap and the economy is good, putting more people on the road. More people driving more miles means more accidents. It’s pretty simple arithmetic. But it may also be that American drivers are awful.
Mother’s Against Drunk Drivers says that, sadly, drunk driving has increased in recent years, citing one statistic that says nearly 300,000 people drive drunk every day.
Highway driving, the bulk of what I did over the holidays, is not particularly exciting stuff. Put the vehicle on cruise control and steer. But people seem to have a problem with doing either of these things. Steering appears to be a severe problem for today’s drivers. Some ride too close to the line, others swerve over at the worst moments. Still others seem to be obliviously unaware of that vibrating sound coming into the cabin. It comes from driving outside of your lane and means you’re about to either hit a guardrail or run off the road.
The bigger problem with these unsteady drivers is that it makes it more difficult to drive past them. You never know when they are going to correct their steering and pull back into their own lane. They are pitifully unaware of their surroundings and think they are the only vehicle on the road. Pay attention: You are doing 80 miles per hour in a 4,000-pound vehicle that can and will kill someone if you’re not careful.
I used to think people swerved like this because they were drunk. Drunk drivers tend to overcorrect and that causes them to weave in their own lane. And Mother’s Against Drunk Drivers says that, sadly, drunk driving has increased in recent years, citing one statistic that says nearly 300,000 people drive drunk every day.
If they’re not drunk, then I used to think they were talking on their cell phone or trying to text someone. While I hate when people use the term “epidemic” to describe something, firsthand, I can’t even tell you how many people I witnessed texting on the highway. Stop it. First, you’re not that important. Second, you’re now in my lane. People texting on the highway are a menace to society and should be barred from driving. Get caught, lose your license. It’s that dangerous. It’s that stupid.
But often, as I passed the weavers, there was nothing. They had both hands on the steering wheel and they were just cruising down the highway without a care in the world. These people just don’t know how to steer.
Now, big semi trucks often get blamed for being the cause of problems on our highways. But they were the one group that continually did a great job on the road. They drove in straight lines and while their uphill acceleration – or the lack thereof – is annoying, they never were a danger.
No, the problem is people in cars and minivans: Chrysler Town & Country minivans to be more accurate. I don’t know why this year seemed to be the year of minivan road rage, but nothing induced it more often than a Town & Country cutting in front of me and then slowing down.
None of this is very hard. And it might save a few lives.
Speed is the problem here. People no longer know how to maintain a single speed. They might keep a vehicle within a set 15 mph, but they can never just turn cruise control on and let the car maintain a single speed. Worse yet, no one seems to comprehend that it’s completely unnecessary to stay in the left-hand lane. That is the passing lane. The right-hand lane is for driving. Just because you’re doing the speed limit does not mean you should be in the left lane. Get out of the way. Move over and let other people pass you.
Why? Because passing on the right is more dangerous. If three cars pass you on the right, you’re probably not going nearly as fast as you might think you are. Move over and let other people go on about their way. At the very worst, if they are speeding, maybe the police will catch them. If not, who cares? It’s none of your business.
Also, let’s go back in time to when we used turn signal indicators. They are handy and let other people know what you’re doing. Of course, if you’re not going to use them, then turn them off. If you are not looking down at your instrument panel every couple of minutes and noticing that big blinking light (I look at mine probably three or four times every minute, as well as all three of my mirrors) then you shouldn’t be driving. If you don’t notice a car approaching you from behind, again, you should get off the road. You suck.
Finally, let’s take a moment before a big trip to check out your vehicle. Is it roadworthy? Are the tires properly inflated? Do you have windshield wiper fluid? Oil? Treads on your tires? These are simple things to check and literally take five minutes. But throughout my trip, there were dozens of vehicles on the side of the road. Yes, accidents happen, tires strike nails, and cars spout leaks, but many of these things could have been addressed before getting on the road.
While I wish people who commit these mistakes would voluntarily turn in their licenses, I know that is never going to happen. But people could take a defensive driving course. They could go out in a parking lot and see what their vehicle feels like on snow or ice and figure out how to steer into the skid or that today you no longer pump the brakes, but instead hold them firmly down.
None of this is very hard. And it might save a few lives. If not, we may have to stay home until the self-driving vehicles arrive, so we can all be a little bit safer on the road.
Scott Burgess has covered the auto industry for more than a decade as The Detroit News' auto critic and as Detroit Editor at Motor Trend. Before writing about cars and the people who make them, he was a newspaper journalist, where he covered everything from small town politics to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.