Q: I believe that everyone who renews their driver license should take a small ten-question multiple choice test. That way they would review the “Rules of the Road” book from time to time. It is not meant to deny a license, but to sit down and explain to the person the ones they got wrong and how it should be.
A: I know, that’s not a question. But it did prompt a question for me: Would giving drivers a written test when they renew their license reduce crashes? For the record, I’ve said before that I like this idea. If we’re giving people permission to pilot multi-ton projectiles through neighborhoods, they should at least be able to demonstrate that they know the rules, right?
Compared to 28 other high-income countries, the US isn’t doing so great at traffic safety. When ranking the countries based on the most traffic fatalities per 100,000 people, we’re number one. Recent data show the US at 11.1 fatalities per 100,000 people. For reference, the next-highest country on the list is Poland, at 7.7, and the lowest country is Norway, at 2.
I thought I’d take a look at the relicensing requirements of the five best countries on the list and the five countries that are culturally the most similar to the US and see if that might be part of the reason their traffic fatalities are lower than ours. (In countries where licenses are issued by provinces or states, like Canada and Australia, I checked on the process in several jurisdictions.)
The top five countries (followed by the number of fatalities per 100,000 people are Norway (as already noted), Sweden (2.2), Switzerland, (2.2), United Kingdom (2.7), and Ireland (2.9).
The countries most culturally similar to the US, according to the Country Similarity Index, are Canada (4.7), Australia (4.7), and New Zealand (7.1), followed by United Kingdom and Ireland making both lists.
None of the eight countries have a written test as part of their license renewal process. Even more intriguing, Switzerland, one of the safest places to drive in the world, doesn’t require license renewal. The only time you need to apply for a new one is if it’s lost or stolen, or you need to update the information on it.
Despite my thinking it’s a good idea, requiring a test as part of driver relicensing is not one of the ingredients in any of the safest countries to drive. Why then, is the US fairing so poorly in traffic safety? Or to give it a positive spin, what could we learn from those other countries?
Here are a few things that you’ll find in the safest countries to drive: Rigorous training and licensing requirements for first time drivers, more enforcement and steeper penalties for impaired driving, self-enforcing road design that protects vulnerable road users, safer (and smaller) vehicles, smarter speed limits, automated enforcement, comprehensive public transportation, thoughtful urban planning, I could go on. We do some of that here, and there’s nothing but our own willingness preventing us from doing more. Most of our fatal crashes involve impairment, speed, distraction, lack of seat belt use, or a combination thereof. If we surveyed the people who engaged in those behaviors and asked if they knew they were violating the law, I bet we’d be right near 100 percent. Yes, we should make sure drivers know the rules. But to really change the trajectory, we need to build a system that protects road users, and grow a culture where all drivers want to respect the rules. It might not be easy, but it’s worth it.
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