September is coming again. The leaves will soon fall, the high temperatures will abate, and the children will return to school to learn everything they need to know about life.
Everything, that is, except how to avoid the one thing that will kill more of them than any other cause before the age of 21 — traffic accidents.
When I was 15 and living in the suburbs of Chicago, driver’s education was the real deal. It was a regular class, with teachers and textbooks and cars donated by a local dealer. We learned about all the basics of driving, turning, signaling, braking and so on.
But this class had a kicker, provided by state law, that made us work harder than in almost any other class. Come out of this class with a bad grade, and no license until you’re 18.
That’s right — 18. One-eight. Voting age. Talk about inspiration. That’s like saying that if you didn’t pass sex education, you couldn’t do it until you were 25.
Needless to say, I passed driver’s ed, and with flying colors.
After my sophomore year, my family moved to the Kansas City area, and I went to a new school. For many youths in that area, driver’s ed was a different idea entirely.
Most districts there did not offer it during the regular class year or during regular class hours. Many students received a license at 16 having had little if any instruction, mainly given by parents whose main goal was getting out of driving their children to football practice and dance class.
And it was all legal.
School is supposed to teach children the skills they need to make it in real life.
In biology, students learn all about a frog’s innards, but nothing about what happens to their own innards if, having not worn their seat belts, they are thrown out of a car suddenly brought from 55 to 0 mph after hitting a telephone pole.
In physics, students learn about how time changes at the speed of light. But many don’t learn how much time it takes to stop a speeding Dodge during emergency braking. In fact, some of my friends were so taken with the speed of light that several tried to achieve it. You know, that “120” at the end of the speedometer isn’t just for show.
Well, that hasn’t changed. But a lot of things have, and for the worse.
We say we’re preparing our children for the real world, to compete in the new century, the new millennium.
We give them computer skills and Internet access. We think we’re preparing them for danger by putting them through DARE programs and teaching them that drugs are bad and to “just say no.”
We spend billions across this country on such instruction. And that’s all good. Those are skills and ideas we need to pass on. Ask any trucker who does his own accounting or picks up his loads off a load board how important it is to be able to run a computer program.
But anymore, far too many school districts in our country don’t offer driver’s education at all. Students with minimal instruction speed along our highways mixing it up with tractor-trailers that weigh as much as 20 of the cars they’re driving. They have no idea that if they dive in front of that rig, hit the brakes and drop their speed by 40 mph — as a joke, all in the name of fun — that unless there’s one damned skilled truck driver behind the wheel, it’s all over, and no one will be laughing.
More of them will be killed in an accident involving a car than from any other cause. If those accidents involve a truck, it’s more likely than not that the car was at fault.
It’s time we got our priorities straight.
Driver’s education, including a healthy dose of how to share the road, should be a mandatory part of the regular school curriculum in every town, every county, every state in this nation. And children who don’t pass should have to wait to get their license.
Until we do that, they can pass all the laws restricting truckers they want, and it won’t matter; the death toll will keep rising.
Mark Reddig can be reached at email@example.com.