A free defensive driving course — known for its whip fast, behind-the-wheel training of teens on how to handle dangerous traffic emergencies — is coming to Oregon for the first time.Like many approaches to "safety," it delivers a profoundly mixed message. Is it "defensive" or is it "whip fast"?
The project has noble aims, and it is rooted in tragedy and the profoundest grief. A parent lost children in a high-speed crash. It's important to honor its good intentions and public-mindedness.
At the same time, it is worth commenting on. It is worth comment not because it is a bad idea, should be shut down, or exacerbates the problems. It is worth comment because it shows the depth of our problem and tries to have things both ways, tries to solve a safety problem while also reinforcing the conditions that cause those safety problems. It is in foundational ways still incoherent - even if at the same time it might be very helpful and partially effective for an individual facing catastrophe.
The target audience is teens. So a basic problem to solve is "how to get their attention and to keep them engaged." The excitement of mimicking race car driving is understandable. It's also the language of the founder of the program, the parent who lost children, who was a competitive drag racer. In developing the program he spoke the language he knew, and so the program is especially authentic in that way. This also seems important. Sometimes projects languish or fail because their founders try too hard, stray from what they know, and end up with something fake.
But when you drape everything in the exciting mantle of racing, then the message is "racing can be safe, as long as you are careful." Skills for effective braking and evasive maneuvering are easily transferred to recreational skidding.
We constantly see recreational skidding and speeding in car advertising, in fact! The whole "professional driver on closed course, do not try this at home" thing. Here's a partial sequence from a couple of years ago you might have seen:
|Skidmarks and cookies around the record player.|
There's no room for people on foot in this world
|The record player's message: Buy this car!|
(Ford Focus as Muscle Car!)
the rhetoric of "accident" rather than crash. So there may not be sufficient stress on the preventable nature of crashes, and too much acceptance of an inevitability of crashes.
Crucially, the five tests on the course never once say "drive slowly." They look to be more focused on how to respond to someone else's error, and not so much on a driver's own responsibilities. Notwithstanding the headline on the video, they seem more reactive than proactive.
- Car control and recovery
- Accident avoidance and slalom
- Distracted driving
- Drop wheel recovery
- Panic Breaking
In important ways it is also like the controlled terror of an amusement park roller coaster. Slasher horror films have an audience. Danger is domesticated, made safe, and becomes an aestheticized source of pleasure. The driving workshops show emergency personnel reenacting "jaws of life" style extraction from a crash, but is that more exciting than fear-inducing?
The text here is all about safety and care and need for prudent restraint, but the subtext is all speed and excitement.
a kids safety day a few years ago. It featured "the Capitol Dragster," and also conveyed this mixed messaging on speed and safety.
Our current paradigm is teaching cars and driving as essentially safe and fun, and made unsafe only by driver error. We need to shift, or return, to a paradigm that shows cars always and everywhere a "dangerous instrumentality." Driving is dangerous and we should try to do it as little as possible. Driving needs to be the transportation solution of last resort, not the default choice of first resort. (This of course is not a message car manufacturers and dealers will want to embrace.)
Programs like BRAKES have utility. Learning better steering and braking skills might very well come in handy in a catastrophe. But if we want to make a real dent in the annual number of traffic deaths, if we want to do more about reducing the events and conditions that cause a catastrophe and are prior to it, than we will need a different approach to traffic safety and to systems.