by Rino van Dam

Every American family seems to own at least two cars. Cars have long been an absolute necessity: Who would dream of actually walking down to the store? Or riding a bike to work? In a society so reliant upon automobiles, you would think that driving skills would be highly valued. Unfortunately, nothing could be farther from the truth.

The Symptoms
I came to Atlanta from Europe about one year ago. In the beginning, while I was still getting used to the traffic and finding my way around Atlanta, I didn’t mind the snail’s pace at which the traffic moves. But after a month or so, you start realizing why traffic moves so slowly: People do not have any driving skills. None at all. Not a one.

Well, I am probably exaggerating a little here. To stay on the safe side, let’s say 90% of Atlantans absolutely cannot drive. On any given day, you would probably run into any of the following situations, or possibly all of them:

• You’re on an on-ramp of I-75, or I-85, or GA-400, The ramp is clear, light traffic on the Interstate, moving along smoothly. The car in front of you is creeping along at 35 MPH, slowly accelerating, until it finally tries to merge into the traffic on the Interstate (which is doing at least 65) at around 40 Mph. After much gnashing of teeth, slamming on brakes and swerving into other lanes on the part of those already on the Interstate, the person in front of you has made it onto the highway, completely unaware of the fact that traffic behind her or him has almost come to a complete standstill.

• You’ve actually made it onto the Interstate in one piece. Traffic has picked up speed again, and the world is a happy place. Then, you get to the next exit ramp. Suddenly, the soccer mom in the leftmost lane, who had been trying to look up a number on her cellphone, realizes that this is her exit. Without checking the mirrors for traffic in the other lanes, she cuts across four lanes, and wedges herself into the line of cars exiting the Interstate.

• You get to an intersection where there’s a two-way stop, with signs for the two other directions that say in bold, big letters: “Keep Moving.” However, total chaos reigns supreme, as no one really knows what to do when there’s not four, but only two “Stop” signs. Cars stop, but then decide to go, not yielding as they should to traffic from the directions that have the right of way. This makes for a comical, jerky stop-and-go movement of traffic at the intersection. It would be funny, if the cause of the confusion wasn’t so frightening.

European Driving Test
In Europe, I took about twenty one-hour lessons, before even thinking about trying to go for a driving test. During these lessons, you are prepared for almost every conceivable type of situation on the roads and highways.

Then, during the test itself, which lasts at least 45 minutes, one small error is usually enough to make you fail the test.

Atlanta Driving Test
In contrast, when I went for my driving test here in Atlanta, I was first subjected to a very simple written test, which only asked specific questions on the meaning of signs and signals, etc., but never once asked me to interpret them.

The “driving test,” if you can call it that, consisted of performing a few maneuvers with the car, then parallel parking it. Total test time can’t have been more than five minutes, and the whole test took place in an empty parking lot, accessible only to those taking the test.

The Problem Driving in Atlanta
Suddenly, I realized why Atlantans can’t drive, and why rush-hour traffic is held up every morning because of accidents and stupid maneuvers. The driver’s license is really no more than a document to establish someone’s identity. It certainly doesn’t require any driving skills. As far as I’m concerned, people are handed a license to kill, when they get their license. Any state that prepares its citizens this poorly should not be allowed to prosecute them for having caused accidents.

Solution: The Dumbing Down
In my opinion, the cause of the problem is the non-existent driver education. Politicians, state, and other authorities do not seem to see it that way. Whatever they may suggest to make the roads safer, it’s never teaching people how to drive first, before sending them out on the roads.

Instead, speed limits are limited to levels that match the driving skills. Signs appear along roads that state what should be the obvious to anyone that studied, or even read, the rules: “Keep moving,” “Do not block intersection,” “Do not cross median.” Soon , there will be signs that tell you to drive on the right-hand side!

In general, the traffic system is dumbed down to the level of the most unskilled user, instead of educating people on how to safely use the system.

Is it because I’m an “outsider” that I seem to be the only one concerned about this? I have only been here for a year. Could I be missing something completely?

There seems to be great concern for the safety on the roads, but instead of tackling the problem at its roots, lowering speed limits and other “dumbing” measures are being sought. The United States has one of the best highway systems in the world, but is prevented from using them safely and efficiently (at least here in Atlanta) because the people using them come unprepared. Better education would have a direct and lasting effect on the level of safety on the roads, not to mention insurance rates.