Driving While Stupid

By Beacon Staff

The Montana Highway Patrol reported that in 2006, Flathead County led Montana in the number of fatal accidents, a shame. The official spin is we have too many people driving on substandard roads. But is the cause our rotten roads? Only part – a darn small part.

The last week of April I did a Gumball Rally run to South Carolina with a friend who “won” a boat on eBay, to the coast and back in a bit less than six days. It was my first trip ever to the Southeast. Some interstates there are horrible, much worse than Montana.

And, there’s a reason NASCAR is so popular in the South. In the mountains near the Tennessee-North Carolina border on I-40, the traffic was so dense and the road so crooked, jammed in between concrete walls, it reminded me of car-cam shots on the high banks at Darlington – in the draft, bouncing madly about and threatening to swap paint any second.

After that, I’d say we have it pretty good in Montana. Furthermore, Montana doesn’t have rush hours like the one that caught us in St. Louis. Montanans have rush minute. Nor do we have the outrageous levels of truck traffic of other regions of the country.

I think there’s another, more important factor: Last year I remember reading in the paper about a survey taken of drivers. Guess how many folks rated themselves as “above average” drivers? Seventy percent. Now, if that’s possible, then the other 30 percent must be WAY below average … and all of them just moved to Northwest Montana.

I don’t doubt that wider roads keep people alive sometimes. Just today an above-average driver in a white van couldn’t find his lane on Whitefish Stage Road at Tronstad and borrowed almost too much of mine. A shoulder would have been handy.

Nonetheless, last winter I was heading back to Whitefish from town, a bit north of Happy Valley on the wide part of 93. It was snowing like mad, the road white and slick with grabby snow, the right lane as usual in better condition than the left late on a snow night.

Along comes Miss Above Average in a sedan, she tries to pass. One second she’s right alongside, the next she’s spinning like a top, using the whole roadway. I didn’t see sparks or flames, but I couldn’t resist pulling over to get a good look at car and driver when she entered town at a BELOW-average rate of speed – with a cell phone clamped to her ear.

Of course, with a cell phone using up her left hand, we might as well forget about turn signals, eh?

So what’s the issue here? Wide and spreading negligence, pure and simple. It used to be that Montana had a “basic rule” that motorists were supposed to drive in a “reasonable and prudent” manner in accordance with weather, road condition, and traffic.

Driving while snockered is obviously not reasonable and prudent, as alcohol was a factor in 30 percent of our killer crashes. But booze aside, our most popular types of wrecks, rollovers, rear-enders, and T-bone intersection crashes, are all driver-caused. A rollover by a sober driver means he or she missed the road. That’s lousy driving. A rear-ender? A T-bone? Sheer carelessness … which happens too often on good as well as bad roads.

Can any amount of engineering prevent such human failure? No. Perhaps humiliation would. I suggest the next Legislature pass a new basic rule, a violation of which should be called DWS, for Driving While Stupid. Explaining a DWS to parents or insurance companies should be educational.