Learning to drive

Like all physical skills, learning to drive depends on your ability to coordinate hand and feet movements with what you can see. If anything is likely to interfere with this activity, the state has difficult decisions on deciding whether each individual applicant is allowed to learn. Although this sounds easy, it’s actually quite difficult to avoid offending people because of their age or “disability”.

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This is, of course, a joke. No dog would be allowed on the road in America. This is not necessarily the case in New Zealand where the local folk have a different view of the ability of dogs to learn.

Once you’ve reached the minimum age laid down by your state — some states have special hardship rules allowing special exemptions to be made to the usual age rules — it’s all down to deciding precisely what people should have to learn before they are allowed on the public roads unsupervised. Then we get into nice areas like whether lessons should be compulsory, what qualifications the instructors should have, what tests the drivers should have to pass before being given a license, and so on.

Of course, all drivers should know about the local laws but this can be studied in books or online. The same cannot be said about the practicality of driving. No matter how good the book’s design or how clearly a video shows what physical movements you’re supposed to make, there’s no substitute for sitting behind the wheel and trying to do it. Then we come to practical decisions. Suppose you’re so seriously overweight that, even with the seat pushed back as far as it will go, the steering wheel rubs your stomach. Turning to look over your shoulder before changing lane or reversing might be a problem. Truck drivers have to pass a physical examination before they’re allowed on the road. In fact, many cheat and go to phony examiners to get false certificates. Yet the truck owners and employers are joining in so get round the law. Why? Because 86% of the estimated 3.2 million truck drivers in America are overweight or obese, and it would be inconvenient to find and train enough slim people to do the work. The result? The drivers of tractor-trailer and heavy trucks caused 13% of all fatal road accidents. But there are currently no limits on overweight people driving conventional vehicles.

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What laws should states make about people with disabilities? In this, of course, there are equally difficult questions like when poor eyesight should prevent you from learning (or if you get old and your eyesight starts to fail, should you be banned from the roads?), or what should happen if one of your arms or legs is paralyzed or can’t move properly. In many cases, the vehicles can be modified or adapted to make the driving safe, but then there’s the decision whether holding a license entitles you to drive any vehicle no matter what your limits. As an example, if you learn in an automatic, should you be allowed to drive a stick-shift? These are not policy questions that are easy to resolve when so many people depend on their private transport to move around. If public transport was better, politicians would have an easy time in defining who’s allowed to drive and what they can drive.

As a final thought, there’s the question of precisely what the test should include. Should it purely be driving forwards in light traffic conditions? Or should there be tests as to whether you can reverse safely or park the vehicle in a tight spot. If you live in a part of the country where snow and ice lies on the ground for significant periods, should you prove you can control a skid? Every state must make its own decisions. Here’s a guide to what drivers in California have to do by way of a test:

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