Mike Stevens | Jun 30, 2008

While wandering across the web recently, I found an interesting article from behavioural psychologist, John Staddon, on how the proliferation of road signage is actually detrimental to road safety. His assertion is that the mass of instructions results, short term, in distracting drivers from actually driving. Long term, it dumbs motorists down. In other words, it puts their lives at risk.

The reality is that councils and road authorities are just inserting signs anywhere and everywhere purely to avoid liability. If you have a "duty of care", no matter how tenuous, and don't warn someone of a blindingly obvious danger, then that mouth-breather can sue you. As a result, packets of peanuts need to contain a "Caution: Contents May Contain Peanuts" warning. In the same way, if motorists aren't told not to kill themselves by driving like one-legged lemmings, then they will proceed do so. That's why we have so many signs.

If Staddon's assertion is true—and he would be considered an expert in the field—then it appears that motorists are in a race with road engineers to see by what sort of margin we can reduce overpopulation. If we don't tell people about every danger, they hurt themselves. If we tell people about every danger, they hurt themselves. For those with a desire to see idiots removed from the species, it's a win-win.

It just goes to show that there's no helping some people. Yet, we still permit these people to drive. Driving is probably one of the more dangerous things your average person will do. The typical speed limit on your average metropolitan road—60kmh—is practically unsurvivable for any pedestrian Larry Lunkhead might happen to bowl over. On roads where there cannot be footpaths for pedestrians, such as freeways, the cars will travel at practically double that speed. With current levels of technology, a collision with an immovable object at 80kmh is fatal, regardless of the safety features. That's just under three quarters of the speed limit.

Given this risk of disaster, you'd think that the government department responsible for regulating road use would set pre-requisites to ensure that the people qualified to operate motor vehicles would exhibit good judgement and sense of responsibility, solid hand/eye co-ordination, a level head, initiative and reasoning skills.

Then I look at the average motorist I have to share the road with during the day, and I wonder if the license-obtaining bar is set so low because the aforementioned bureaucrats are fans of Thomas Malthus, and are disappointed at the successes that modern medicine and agriculture have had in unbalancing his theory.

In my prior column, I said the behaviour of motorists in peak hour traffic should be reason enough for them to consider catching public transport. I've always said that your average person is too stupid to drive a car. Now, it appears as if science is backing me up. I don't know if that's a comfort or not.

In general, I'm all about freedom of choice rather than over-regulating people's lives, but at the same time I'm not an anarchist libertarian either. We have rules, and they're mostly good for social cohesion and preserving life. Letting people drive falls into the latter. It’s not a right. People should have to qualify for the privilege.

And that is how the system is set up, but the qualifications are so low that the rules may as well not exist. If you can do a lap around the block of suburbia and park a little hatchback in fair weather you're apparently good enough to drive any car in any situation. Pardon my French, but that's just bullshit.

Something needs to be done about the low skill standards on the road. It's going to take a seismic shift in attitudes, both from the public and the government, but it needs to be done. We need for people, who don't particularly enjoy driving and evidently shouldn't do it anyway, to stand up and say, "Give me another option". They need to be willing to put up with some inconvenience to get it followed, by a consistent willingness to use it. We need our government to have the stones to actually follow through with what people want, and bring in engineers that weren't scraped from the bottom of the barrel.

In other words, I think I'm praying for a miracle.

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