That Isaac Newton, what a guy. First he invents Fig Newtons and then he goes on to explain just about everything you need to know about bodies in motion and how they're likely to be affected when a body meets a body ... comin' through the rye or anywhere else in the universe where the law of gravity holds sway.
While his three laws are fairly straightforward postulates, they, far too often, are poorly understood and even more poorly applied. And that's why, time and time again, people who fail to grasp their meaning—and more importantly, the difference between correlation and causality—lay the blame for traffic "accidents" at the doorstep of speed.
Chances are we've all been doing some thinking lately about tragic traffic encounters and I have nothing to say about why.
But I would like to, if not come to the defence of speed, at least shift the focus to more fundamental causes of driving accidents. And I wish I had a better word than accident to describe these examples of Newton's Third Law. Because accident seems to suggest random chance over which there is no defence when, in reality, there are damn few accidents and a whole lot of negligence, inattention and just plain bad driving.
The single-most dangerous thing I do on a regular basis is drive the Sea to Sky Highway. When I actually give it any thought it scares the heck out of me. It's never because of the road conditions or some of the weird engineering encountered between here and Vancouver. It's the drivers.
One of the grudges I have against the occasional RCMP roadside check isn't the inconvenience. It's the ineffectiveness. Random roadside checks have a miniscule success rate, assuming you define success in terms of making driving safer. They capture very few drivers under the influence of alcohol, a smattering of folks who still think seatbelts are a nuisance, one or two expired licences, and a few unsafe vehicles.
But, assuming you pay attention, when was the last time you drove from, say, Whistler to Vancouver without witnessing egregious, unsafe, downright stupid driving? Never, I'll bet. And you don't have to go as far as Vancouver, Function Junction is probably far enough.
Speed doesn't kill. Bad driving kills. Whether the bad is distraction, basic lack of skill, unwillingness to properly maintain a vehicle or chronic inattention, speed correlates to the degree of damage done—per that Second Law—not whether damage occurs in the first place.
OK, I'll admit I like speed. Always have. I like fast cars that handle well. I like banking turns on a mountain road on a motorcycle. I enjoyed track races and gymkhanas in my little, modestly powered sports car when I was much younger. But I didn't enjoy any of that until I learned how to drive, spent time on a skid pad, developed defensive driving skills—nothing like surviving a couple of years on a motorcycle to teach defensive driving—and was taught how to control a car, at speed, through twisting, closed tracks.
Sadly, you don't have to know how to drive a car to get a driver's licence in any province in Canada. You have to know what's in the rules-of-the-road manual you'll be tested on and, sometimes but not always, you need to prove you know how to make a car move. Knowing how to make a car move and thinking you know how to drive is kind of like thinking you know how to play chess because you know how the pieces move on the board. Getting a driver's licence in B.C. will set you back less than $100.
As with so many things, when we look elsewhere to see how things are done, we might do well to focus on Sweden. For starters, by the time you've jumped through the hoops necessary to get licenced there, it will have cost you about C$550 and a lot of time. After applying, you need to practice, either with a school or older, qualified driver. You need to understand and pass an exam on the theory of driving.
Perhaps most important, you need to do risk training. Part of that is learning about risks like alcohol, drugs and fatigue. The fun part takes place on a skid pad where you learn to drive on slippery—icy for example—roads and control your vehicle after forcing it into a high-speed slide.
Only after that do you get to take the written and driving test. Oh, and only about 50 per cent of applicants pass. If you don't pass on subsequent tries, within two months, you have to start all over and pay all the fees again.
By comparison, that last time I took a driving test—I'd inadvertently let my motorcycle qualification lapse—I had to do the full written test, even though I had a valid driver's licence. It was a breeze, given years of driving experience. Not so breezy for the person standing at the touch screen next to me. He was on the same question when I finished he'd been on when I started. A tough one about what to do if your right tires drifted onto a gravel shoulder on a highway. Duh.
When the clerk told me I'd passed, I asked how long someone had to finish the test. She understood I was referring to the person next to me and said she'd give him a few more minutes before blacking out his screen. I suggested he wouldn't have that long to think about what to do if he ever drifted onto a soft shoulder. She shrugged. I shuddered.
There are other lessons we can learn from Sweden—and many, many other countries—if we want to feel like we're taking less risk when we get behind the wheel. They rely less on drivers remembering, or noticing, they have to stop at intersections. Roundabouts drastically reduce the risk of collisions at intersections. You're under the influence if your blood/alcohol level is 0.02 in Sweden. B.C. has some of the country's strictest impaired driving laws but even so, the level of impairment is 0.05.
But if the greatest threat on the road is bad drivers, the fastest growing threat is distracted drivers. Texters, talkers, people lost in their ever more complicated infotainment touch screens.
The U.S. National Safety Council has a Road to Zero program. The goal is zero traffic fatalities by 2050. They pin their hopes on self-driving cars to an extent I'm not comfortable with. But interestingly, noodling around their website it's hard to find any mention of speed as a causative factor. Distracted driving? Right at the top.
So be safe out there. The life you save may be mine.