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Jay Leno: The Collector

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On car safety. Are stronger cars making us worse drivers?

I was thrilled to hear that Mercedes-Benz has a driving academy at its facility at Brooklands in England, where kids, as soon as they are tall enough to operate the controls, can safely experience driving for themselves. Then, just before they are old enough to try for their driving licence on the highway, they can have lessons in things like car control. We need that in the USA.
This story kind of sums up American kids’ attitude to ‘drivers ed’. When I was about 16, three of us were out with an instructor, Mr Hinkley. He was middle-aged, nervous and a chain-smoker.

One of us had an air horn, you know, the kind of thing to start races or that European soccer fans carry. Driving along, as the instructor was talking about looking out for oncoming trucks, one of the kids let this air horn off. The instructor nearly died, virtually having a heart attack on the spot. We nearly died laughing.

The US is one of the easiest places to get a licence to drive. You go to a car park and learn basic handling. There is no instruction in panic braking, no highway driving and certainly not any kind of relatively high-speed manoeuvring. It’s like sending a soldier into battle who’s learned to shoot on a video game.

One teenage girl told me she liked to text because ‘driving is so boring’. Speaking of that girl, a friend of mine was knocked off his motorbike – T-boned by a young girl in a car. He was OK but while he was lying there on the road, dazed, looking up at the sky, the girl came running over. She did not ask how he was. Instead her first words were ‘Can you not tell my mum…’

Not only do new drivers not know how to drive properly, they rarely know how to maintain a car. My mother was no mechanic but she knew the basics. There is a writer on our show. He complained that his new car was a ‘lemon’. I asked what the problem was. He said it shook at anything over 50mph. I asked if he had hit a kerb or something. He said ‘No, it’s just a lemon.’ A few days later he was really pissed off and said he was going to give it back to the dealer. So I said I’d take a look. I could not believe it. ‘Joe, the tyre’s flat.’

Thankfully, as many people’s interest in the joy of driving wanes, car safety is improving. Cars have improved more since the 1990s than in the whole period from 1920 to the 1980s. So many times I see a car in a ball by the side of the highway and the driver standing unscathed by the wreckage, on his cellphone. We have 100 million drivers in America and the number of deaths is around 30,000 – an all-time low. But still too high.

A friend of mine asked what I thought of him buying his teenage son a classic Mustang as a present for passing his driving test. I said ‘Not if you don’t want to kill him.’ Old cars have none of the collapsible steering columns and all the other safety features in new cars; things that are keeping our distracted young drivers alive when their skills are not up to those of previous generations. Skills developed in previous years were honed because life depended on being able to control a car.

I think the safer cars have become, the worse drivers have too.

I know people who think that ABS – anti-lock brakes – means the car will never skid, so they do not need to learn how to correct a car in a skid. I heard of one kid who was taught (yes, taught) that in an accident he should put his hands by his side (to avoid getting his arms broken by the airbag), close his eyes and wait for the crash. Nothing about trying to avoid the crash.

As a motorcyclist, I am so much more alert than before. In the past, at an intersection, you’d make eye contact with the driver in a car at the junction. To make sure they had seen you. Now, as cars roll up to junctions, the drivers’ eyes almost always fall to their lap, to their iPod or cellphone. So I hoot to make sure they look up and see I am there.

While it is great that our cars are safer than ever, if we taught our young drivers more thoroughly then not only would our cars be safer but also our roads. If I was in charge of drivers ed, then I’d make it more real-world relevant by using highways, by making learners understand what happens in a skid by using skid pans, teaching them how anti-lock brakes work, how to cope in an emergency… and how to change a wheel!

I hear Mercedes is going to bring some of the elements from its UK driving academy to the US soon, starting in LA. Anything to make driving more appealing and safer is good news.

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