Hours before writing this column, I almost got hit by another driver as I was pulling out of a parking lot. I had looked both ways first to be sure the coast was clear. It was. I pulled out slowly, when less than a minute later a driver raced up beside me, gestured in an unfriendly way, then cut in front of me and gestured again. I don't know where he came from, but I know where I wanted to tell him to go.
Was it road rage? Possibly. Whichever, it made me think of the benefits of mandatory driver re-training-and therapy-for speedsters. The auto industry has made great strides in making cars safer. No one has done much to make drivers safer.
What is it about some otherwise sane people that makes them think they're professional racers when they get behind the wheel of a car? The worst, I think, are new SUV drivers, who believe all-wheel drive means they are immune from danger on slippery roads. And let's not even talk about drivers who use cell phones while they weave in and out of traffic!
There's no question that fast drivers-specifically, those who drive significantly faster than the rest of the traffic-are dangerous. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says that 40,000 people received serious to critical injuries in speeding-related accidents in 1998, the most recent year for which statistics are available. Don't tell me that slow drivers going at the posted speed limit caused some of those accidents. That doesn't make any sense.
Speedsters also are expensive. NHTSA estimates that speeding-related accidents in 1998 alone cost about $27.7 billion.
If fast drivers are trying to live out their fantasies of being professional racers, maybe they should take note of where professional racing has placed its priorities. The Indy Racing League (IRL) this year emphasized safety in its updated vehicle-design specs (see "Indy 2000: Safety sets the pace," page 62). No wonder. It's been a rough couple of years for open-wheel racing in terms of safety. And in NASCAR, remember Geoff Bodine's spectacular crash at Daytona? He suffered a concussion, cracked vertebra, fractures to his wrist and elbow, and facial lacerations. Nine fans in the grandstands remember: They were hit by flying debris.
Indy drivers know how to handle speed. They're trained in how to do it. So the IRL has concentrated on engineering details. For the rest of us, antilock brakes, vehicle crash standards, and, arguably, even airbags, have already made our cars safer.
Now, how do we get safer drivers?