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Becoming a Driver at 26 Years Old
Some early lessons I've picked up after becoming a motorist over the summer.
Since I graduated college, I spent my summer in suburban Fremont, California at a friend’s place while I sublet the duration of my Santa Cruz lease. At 26 years old, I had to get my driver’s license upon moving there. Growing up in Berkeley / Oakland, public transit was sufficient enough that I didn’t need a license. While I certainly gave an attempt at traversing Fremont and the east-side of Silicon Valley on public transit alone, trips that took 2 - 3 hours on transit vs. 15 - 25 minutes in an automobile made it untenable. To make matters worse, Fremont is served by AC Transit while the San Jose / South Bay is served by VTA, forcing a costly transfer in a region that’s identical but is separated by a century old arbitrary county line.
Riding transit cost me $5 to $12 a day and took more than 3 hours in total travel time to go a few miles. In a car the gas cost was often under $1 in mileage cost and the abundance of free street parking made taking transit illogical. The only people who ride bus transit down here are school kids, people who can’t afford cars and commuters with a subsidized pass. It’s one of the hidden advantages drivers have — everyone, including non-drivers like myself, subsidize street parking to be free. It’s why parking should reflect its cost of construction and maintenance.
Now if you’re over the age of 18 you don’t actually need to wait a year to take a driver’s test with your provisional license. As soon as you pass the practice test you can apply to take the behind-the-wheel test. Regardless I practiced with a provisional for a year before moving to Fremont.
When I took the actual behind the wheel test I was blown away by its ease.
I pulled out the DMV parking lot and drove around the block doing the most basic, non-complicated turns. Not even a U-turn was requested. I had expected a parallel parking test but all I was required to do was pull aside an empty curb and drive in reverse for about 10 second. After doing additional left and right turns, and simple lane-merges requested only after vehicles were far away, I was granted a driver’s license from the overseer who had been handing them out like candy.
Your ability to operate a 3,000 lbs. or above vehicle that can reach speeds over 100 MPH hinges on your ability to do a basic car functionality test, more than your actual competence behind the wheel. The tests have purposely gotten easier over the years as public transportation and cycling infrastructure has been defunded. With significant numbers of driver license applicants getting rejected by parallel parking tests or U-turns, states have simply eliminated them rather than demand improvement. No wonder 40,000 Americans die on the roads each year and over 100,000 injured with standards like that. The worse part is, you don’t ever have to re-test again once you’ve done it.
If I were in charge of the DMV driver’s test (admittedly I can be by petitioning my local electeds to pass new laws) here’s what I would add that’s crucial to traffic safety:
You should have to do a written and behind-the-wheel test at least once every 5 - 10 years. The written tests are arguably more important than the behind-the-wheel tests. It’s one of the few times Americans engage with the actual vehicle code.
You should have to drive on the freeway if a freeway is near your DMV. A basic little whirl around the block at 25 MPH does not prove you’re capable of going 70 and merging on the Interstate.
U-turns must be required. Parallel parking must be required. Emergency stops and deploying hazards must be required.
You must prove you can operate around cyclists and pedestrians, perhaps in a parking lot demonstration with stand-ins.
A behind-the-wheel test must require a sufficient number of hours driving with a provisional license for adults.
Anyways, I acquired my license and it certainly felt empowering as I was able to go any location I wanted to in suburbia. However, from the eyes of a 26-year pedestrian now driver, I quickly realized two things: (1) you get quickly punished for being a responsible driver by city planners and other motorists; (2) automobiles have an psychologically empowering effect that goes unregulated.
The California legislature has recently re-authorized the deployment of speed cameras in six select cities (assuming the governor doesn’t veto): Los Angeles, San Jose, San Francisco, Long Beach, Oakland and Glendale. This is a great development and a big step to reducing traffic deaths because “speed limits” appear to be a joke.
Speed limits in the U.S. are actually speed floors where you’re expected to exceed the speed limit and its considered unreasonable to be fined for going a couple miles over. Which defeats the purpose of a speed “limit.” I have no idea why freeways bother posting that “Speed Limit 65” sign when the flow of traffic even in the right-most lane easily exceeds it. It normalizes the idea that speed limits are meant to be broken and encourages motorists to merge into lanes and pass slower drivers, which creates congestion and collisions.
A common street I’ve driven on is where a four lane road with two lanes going one direction will drop speed limits to 25 MPH if near a school zone during school hours or special area where neighbors want the speed reduced. First of all, if I’m not from the area, I’ll have no idea when school is in session and you can’t have a self-enforcing 25 MPH speed limit on a road going in a direction with more than one lane. Even on a two-lane road with one lane in each direction. If the lane’s width from the curb or parking greatly exceeds the width of an average automobile, nobody will obey the speed limit.
If you give motorists lots of space that allow speeding — they’ll speed. If you squish them between opposing traffic and parking or the curb, they won’t. It doesn’t matter what the little white sign says. It’s why speed cameras may become unpopular to the electorate again and re-banned if they’re clumsily used as a substitute for poor road design. People drive faster based on how much space they have and how quickly traffic flows, not based on speed limit signs. I find even myself breaking speed limits because the road design is massively wide and cars will simply pass me if I slow down.
As a new driver, I’m excited for the prospects of legalizing automated speed enforcement and seeing those who callously speed on our roads finally pay their dues. A recent Finnish study found that speed cameras reduced the amount of speeders on the road by 52% in Helsinki. But it’s only the start of the solution. We need comprehensive reform of our roads and a re-adjustment of speed limits to fit within the widths of what roads encourage.
Police traffic stops will still be needed, particularly on irresponsible, outright criminal and delinquent drivers who purposely use false plates or obscure them; including by police officers themselves. Civilian reporting can come in handy, where civilians have the power to take pictures of violating vehicles in parking or traffic situations and report them for fines and penalties. But for the day-to-day violations, automated enforcement should do most of the heavy lifting.
Becoming a driver at 26 has made me an inherently defensive driver against a population that has become increasingly anti-social behind the wheel. In one scary circumstance, my insistance on driving 25 MPH irritated drivers behind me so they began to pass me as I slowed at an intersection, only to nearly hit and kill an elderly woman in the crosswalk. Cameras will help stop some of those drivers but enforcement is only half the job. The roads need to be fixed, too.