Monday, April 17, 2006

Why all the Accidents?

Browsing through military related blogs and hearing the Canadian news about our troops in Afghanistan, I can't help by being struck by the number of vehicle accident casualties.

Having once driven an APC during my time in the army, I well know what poor vision the driver has. Not like a driver sitting up high in a Kenworth or Mack. That must contribute to a lot of the trouble.

Even so, I also remember that while stationed with the British Army in Germany and sharing a military hospital with the Canadian Forces, who were just down the road from us at Werl and Soest, that their accident cases formed a disproportionally large part of the patient load. Since coming to live in Canada, I can see one reason for their accident rate was lack of driving skills for difficult roads. Except in the winter,Canadian roads are too easy. That in itself means the Canadian drivers didn't have the same driving experience as the Europeans who learned on reverse camber curves, cobblestones, and the like.

This is compounded by the lower basic skills factor today – say a lower median driver ability. The corporate push to profits over the years has induced all manufacturers to make handling their vehicles easier. Automatic transmissions, cruise control, ABS brakes, and more. One might suppose this is a fine idea, but it means the general level of driver skills is lower because more marginally competent drivers are on the road. Sure those drivers are fine for most driving tasks, but when things go wrong they don't have the skills, or the feel for automobile handling, to get themeslves out of trouble. Younger U.S. and Canadian drivers don't have a high level of skill unless they have handled difficult vehicles and/or difficult roads.

In the military flying business, it used to be a given that the training aircraft presented a challenge to the trainee pilots. The idea was to weed out the less skilled at an early stage of the expensive training. I'm sure if we tried to lower our national accident rates by weeding out the incompetent drivers, there'd be a hell of an outcry, but that is the only way to reduce the carnage.

Easier roads and easier vehicles make for less competent drivers.

It's not likely that the rules will be changed to make all learners pass their driving test in a vehicle with a standard transmission, but you can advance your own skill level by mastering one. Try something like the old 1931 MG that was my first vehicle – it had what we called a ‘crash box' – a non-synchronised transmission. The army had a 1 ton truck with a similar transmission and when I had one on charge I learned to drive it without using the clutch at all – all my shifts had to be spot-on. The old autos had no automatic devices, but you're not likely to get near one today. English motorcycles of the 60s had no automatic spark or choke controls – riders had to learn to adjust these with levers on the handlebars. Perhaps some purists still sell them that way.

What I'm suggesting is not that I think all you young drivers are hopeless, but that you recognise the difference between the easy driving behind an automatic on a four-lane freeway and handling some beast of a machine on a mountain track in Afghanistan or Kosovo. When you get you first license, look on it as your basic training and find some advanced training to supplement it with. Some hog of a stick-shift 4x4 on a back country trail might do as a start. The experience could save your life one day.


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