Thoughts on driver’s licensing standards in the US

Prompted by a Hooniverse article on the subject, I thought I’d go ahead and tackle driver’s licensing in the US in a blog post.

“Graduated licensing” is a system that many states use to attempt to improve driving standards, typically by restricting when a minor can drive, and who they can drive with. However, in that form, graduated licensing is typically based on driver age, not experience, and it poses no restrictions on what types of vehicle that a new driver can drive.

The real problem here is, as an Ohioan who is over 18, if I were a new driver, here’s the process I could go through (at least this was the process when I got my license in 2006 (although I actually did practice on my permit), but I don’t believe any of it has changed since):

  1. A friend drives me to a testing facility
  2. I go into the facility, and take a 40 question written test (75% to pass), which gets me my permit. This allows me to practice driving as long as a licensed driver 21 or older is with me.
  3. As I’m over 18, I can immediately take my maneuverability and road tests. A deputy will perform a quick inspection to ensure that the vehicle I’m using is safe to use for the tests, and then proceed with the tests. Let’s say that I’m borrowing a Geo Metro XFi, with 49 hp and weighing about 1600 pounds, for the purpose of this example. It doesn’t really matter, but it helps highlight the absurdity at the end of this.
  4. The maneuverability test is the first part. Essentially, I would have to drive through a cone course both forwards and backwards, to simulate parallel parking. This course is extremely easy in a small car. Myself, I took it in a Mazda3, and I passed it despite being somewhat unfamiliar with the car.
  5. Once I’ve passed my maneuverability test, I will take a road test. In my area, that consisted of a drive around the block without breaking too many traffic laws. It is possible to fail it, of course (and I did the first time through), but passing it, even well, is not a sign that you know what you’re doing. (Proof, about three weeks after getting my license, I was involved in a physics conflict.)
  6. Once that test is passed, a full Class D driver’s license is granted. This license, that I could’ve gotten in a 49 hp, 1600 pound car, will allow me to hop in a Bugatti Veyron (granted, that’s something I’ve never actually done), or a U-Haul with a 25,999 pound GVWR – even if I had never driven a car before that day.

There’s something really wrong with that system, in my opinion. I shouldn’t be able to do that.

So, a lot of opposition to making licensing requirements stricter is centered around the transportation requirements of individuals within the US. The argument essentially is, we’re not Europe, and mass transit and cycling will never be viable, so driver’s licenses need to be easy to get.

There are issues with that argument (I suspect that eventually, for resource consumption reasons, we’ll be forced to encourage urbanization of the populace through taxation and subsidies), but it is an accurate portrayal of the current state of the US, and I agree that personal motorized transportation is the only viable solution for a significant portion of the US right now, and access to such transportation needs to be easy right now. If you attempt to restrict access to it in general, you’ll just get lots of unlicensed driving, as happens in my area now. (If you lose your license, you still need to get to work, so you just keep driving without it.)

However, we Americans have chosen a questionable strategy for dealing with the incompetence on display on our roads. We get bigger and bigger vehicles, in an attempt to protect from both our own incompetence, and the incompetence of others. But, this is an arms race – because so many people doing that are themselves incompetent, everyone else is forced to get larger vehicles to feel safe as well. And, now, we’re to the point that people feel the need to wrap themselves in 6000 pounds of steel and 16 airbags just to feel safe taking their kid a couple miles to school, and to get that 6000 pounds of steel to accelerate quickly enough for American standards, you need a 6 liter V8. Frankly, that’s ridiculous, it causes a massive increase in resource consumption, and it puts everyone who chooses not to wrap themselves in 6000 pounds of steel at greater risk.

In my opinion, the idea of graduated licensing is a good idea, but not at all in the manner that it’s implemented in the US. I believe that graduated licensing should affect what you can drive, not when and how.

Here’s a structure (or some variation on it) that I would like to see in the US:

  • CDL Class A – would work like today’s CDL Class A (combination of vehicles with GVWR in excess of 26,001 lbs, with vehicle(s) being towed having a GVWR in excess of 10,000 lbs)
  • CDL Class B – would work like today’s CDL Class B (single vehicle in excess of 26,001 lbs GVWR, or that vehicle towing any vehicle not in excess of 10,000 lbs)
  • CDL Class C – would be extended from today’s CDL Class C (16 occupants or hazmat, essentially), to include all vehicles in excess of 8501 lbs GVWR (which receive significant exemptions from safety and emissions standards due to being commercial vehicles, so require a CDL for them). A fairly low towing limit should also require a CDL Class C, in my opinion – maybe 2500-3000 lbs?
  • Operator’s License Class D – Would have licensing standards increased significantly to near-CDL levels (and maybe CDL itself would be increased to private pilot-like levels), and would cover any vehicles with a curb weight in excess of 1750 pounds or an occupant capacity in excess of 5. A power to weight ratio requirement may be needed, too, to avoid Smartbusas becoming common.
  • Operator’s License Class E – This would have today’s licensing standards, but would be restricted to vehicles within 1750 pounds curb weight and a maximum of 5 occupants. Potentially speed (85 MPH, I think) and power/weight limits as well. And, while vehicles designed to Class E standards could theoretically tow very light loads with the appropriate license, a Class E licensee should not be allowed to tow at all.
  • Low Speed Vehicle License – This would behave like a moped license (and some states don’t require a license for mopeds), and the vehicle standards would be based on the Low Speed Vehicle/Neighborhood Electric Vehicle standards, albeit with a weight reduction to 1750 pounds (maybe less), and an occupant restriction (5 at most). The 20 mph speed limit stays, that’s for sure.

It’s my opinion that standards like this would create safer roads for all road users, by reversing the arms race towards heavier vehicles, and by ensuring that the drivers that really do need heavier vehicles have gone through the appropriate training to operate such dangerous equipment. In addition, it will reduce emissions and fuel consumption significantly, both by directly encouraging people to purchase lighter, more fuel efficient vehicles, and by making it safer to buy a lighter vehicle.

What say you?

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