Jan 072015
 

I would offer to write a brief piece for Policy Options, The Walrus, or some other such magazine but have no desire to spend the time documenting the self-evident, which will be obvious later, just to appear “well researched.” Instead, I’ll write here and content myself with distributing the link.

Here’s the premise. Governments of all sorts are incapable of rapidly deploying intelligent policy for a number of reasons, not the least of which is politics and the pressure to do big and meaningful things. It appears better to do nothing than to do something not publicity grabbing. So, trivial things get done for trivial political reasons, or overinflated mega-projects are launched only to crash into a mess of overspending and under-performing.

But, in the spirit of the unfortunately discredited Broken Windows theory (the idea that broken windows are an example of indicators that residents don’t care so further vandalism is more likely…), I have a couple of ideas for the provincial governments. These ideas have three key features. First, they are simple to implement, administer, and enforce if necessary. Second, they are or can be revenue neutral at worst. Third, their most significant benefit is indirect financial and social impact. The biggest drawback is that they will be resisted because both target the sacrosanct car and driver.

First idea: Outlaw blackened windows on all vehicles not in livery service.

I don’t know when manufacturer-installed and after-market window tinting became vogue. When I was young it was not done and may have been unlawful—at least in Manitoba. Only limousines had tinted windows, and only for the passenger compartment at that. Today, every other car on the road has completely opaque glass all the way around.

The problem here is pure social psychology. The window tinting enables an anonymity effect, which subtly encourages people to do things that they would not do if they knew people could see who they were. It’s common and goes a long way to explain increasing driver aggression, particularly from within cars with tinted windows. There is also the entitlement effect in play on the roads and in parking lots, but that typically affects only drivers of luxury vehicles.

The solution is to immediately ban the production and sale of vehicles with tinted windows. Vehicles with existing tinting and livery vehicles would have to be grandfathered. Admittedly, there are gaping holes for anybody with a pre-2015 vehicle to apply aftermarket films, which couldn’t be banned without affecting the ability to apply such films to house and commercial windows. But, inspection and registering of the vehicle for tinting could be made part of the emissions testing process.

The value is in the opportunity to negate the anonymity effect to shape more civilized behaviour on the roads. More civilized behaviour, less rage; less rage, fewer altercations; fewer altercations, lower insurance and other costs.

Second idea: Compel mandatory driver retesting every five years (at least).

Needless to say, acceptance with open arms is improbable. Despite my high school driver’s ed. teacher’s mantra that “driving is a privilege not a right,” common belief is exactly the opposite. That’s why people will drive, legally, well beyond their capacity to do so. It’s also why drivers get into intractable ruts of poor, potentially fatal driving habits like never signalling, weaving between lanes, tailing too close, running lights and stop signs, passing on double solid lines, and so on.

But the program is relatively small with asymmetric downstream impact. Retesting could be easily implemented: most of the processes exist. Licenses have to be renewed—that is, a new picture and so on, not just the fees paid—every five years typically. Only a testing component would need to be added. And even that process exists for new drivers. By increasing the renewal fee to cover the testing, the program could run cost neutrally if that were important.

The immediate benefits would be obvious. All those drivers that we see who should be participants on Canada’s Worst Driver would get cleared off the road. All those drivers who no longer have the physical or mental agility to be behind the wheel would be cleared off the road. For seniors and others who, allegedly, depend on driving their cars, there could be a grant of lifetime access to public transit. Once again, the level of highway civility ought to go up owing to a clear, shared understanding of the rules and what to expect of other drivers. Right now, it’s a crapshoot anticipating what other cars will do in any given situation.

The longer-term benefits are where fixing this particular broken window starts to change the neighbourhood. With more recently refreshed drivers behind the wheels (especially if you can see them through untinted windows), we could expect increased safety and thus the incidents of traffic accidents ought to go down. The effect of that one impact ripples outward. The most obvious and probably valuable effects are: policing could be directed toward other areas instead of highway traffic; use of ambulance and other emergency service for traffic accidents, including hospital-generated health care costs, would decline; and property damage and insurance costs would be reduced. (This last one adds up particularly in provinces where public insurance prevails.)

 

This is just fixing broken windows and shouldn’t demand extensive study, debate, and investment in (mega-)projects. But the asymmetric effects will well outweigh any insignificant political costs. It should not require loads of courage to command them into practice.

And if you like these, you should hear some of my other ideas for health care, information technologies, productivity, and innovation

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