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Dear Minister, let’s build better drivers

The Star's Ian Law writes Ontario Minister of Transportation Bob Chiarelli on how to improve driver training.

Published May 25, 2012
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Recently, along with Toronto Star Wheels reporter Richard Brennan, I interviewed Ontario Transport Minister Bob Chiarelli. Afterward, I wrote this letter to the minister:

Dear Minister Chiarelli,

Thank you for taking the time to sit down and discuss driving, infrastructure, speed limits, driver training and mass transit with us.

It was a pleasure meeting you, but I must say I was disappointed on a number of topics — but at least it wasn’t all bad news.

I would certainly give you an “A” for your political savvy. You showed your abilities as a seasoned politician to dance around the actual question and throw out some statistics when the dialogue turned uncomfortable.

With respect to the proposal to raise the speed limits on our major highways, it was quickly dismissed. You recited the infamous mantra “speed kills,” which is not exactly accurate. It’s not speed, it is collisions that kill. Collisions are a consequence of poor driver training resulting in driver error and bad judgment.

To back up the existing speed limit you often referred to statistics that show Ontario’s roads as being the safest in North America. As good as that may be, to me that’s like saying, “we live on the safest street in Murder City.” We are still losing over 700 Ontarians a year in fatal vehicles crashes and that is 700 too many.

Mr. Minister, you argued that we have the safest roads because the speed limit was 100 km/h, yet when I pointed out that the vast majority (85 per cent according to studies) of motorists are now driving at speed of 115 to 120 km/h, it appeared you didn’t want to acknowledge that fact. It felt like we ran into a stop sign on this topic.

It would have been nice if at least you were a “car guy” and looked upon driving as more than just a form of transportation. Having a passion for the art of driving can give a person a different perspective on the skills that can take driving from just transportation to a talent worthy of pride.

I feel having a passion for something brings an added dimension to the table. If you want to be the captain of a ship, it helps if you enjoy being on water.

When asked if you had ever experienced advanced driver training, you shrugged and said “only what you needed to get your driver’s licence.” Sadly, this reflects the attitude of most motorists.

Being the person who has the final say over the quality of our driver training and testing, I would think knowing what possibilities are out there to improve driver education would be an asset. It’s like being the Minister of Education and never having been to university.

On the topic of improving driver training in Ontario, you were eager to point out the MTO is looking into publishing a new driver’s handbook this summer.

It’s a good start, but only a very small slice of the driver education pie.

When I asked you if the MTO would consider making winter driving training a mandatory part of driver’s education as it is in Scandinavian countries, you would only say “that it is discussed in the classroom portion of the MTO course.”

Mr. Minister, talking about winter driving in a classroom with 20 or 30 bored teenagers is not nearly as effective as putting them behind the wheel and having them experience exactly how a vehicle will react on ice and snow and then showing them the technique to maintain or regain control of their vehicle.

Driving experts agree that 95 per cent of crashes are caused by driver error. This fact points to driver training as a big part of that problem.

When I asked if the MTO has any plans to improve our driver training and testing in any way, you left me with a vague answer by saying MTO is always looking at ways to improve. I feel MTO does a lot of looking, but it is action we need to save lives.

The last improvement to our driver training was the Graduated Licensing System implemented in 1994. Driver education is still in the dark ages compared to other automotive safety advancements. Over the last few decades, vehicle design has improved immensely, tire technology is vastly superior to what it was and road design has greatly increased driving safety. The one area that has stood still is driver training.

I enjoyed seeing that spark in your eye when I threw out the suggestion that maybe the MTO could work with the Ministry of Education to take driver education into our schools where it can be taught to teenagers over four years instead of only the 40 hours required now.

Traffic crashes are the leading cause of death and serious injuries in our teenagers. Our schools prepare our youngsters with life skills to be a contributing member of society. Driving is a life skill that could be taught by our schools to ensure a better quality of education, an education that can save lives.

Private sector driving schools are driven by profit. They need a quick turnover of students to make their business economically viable. These schools are more interested in quantity of instruction, not quality of instruction.

With some delight, you talked about “Delegated Administrative Authority,” explaining it is an initiative that MTO has undertaken to encourage a partnership with public and private institutions to improve driver education. I was happy to hear working with the Ministry of Education is a possibility.

Mr. Minister, I urge you to “see the big picture” in driver training and testing. I invite you and your advisers to a day of advanced driver training to witness exactly how much better Ontario drivers can be.

Let’s make Ontario’s roads the safest in the world by building better drivers.

Sincerely,

Ian Law

Better Driving Expert

Toronto Star Wheels

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