BMWs and Minivans

Since the earliest days of powered machinery, and most likely before that, young people have had a penchant for undertaking feats of daring. Virtually all of us have some memory of our youth that we recall as “doing something stupid,” or at least that’s how we refer to those events now.

In the automotive world, young men take a hard rap from insurance companies for being a high risk, yet few of them would agree that the assessment is fair. The raw numbers show that young males are more likely to be involved in an accident than any other age group or gender by a wide margin, but at least we have the excuse that they are young and inexperienced. Combine this with the fact that young men still equate an adrenaline rush with excitement as opposed to a fear of death, and the results become clearer.

We have a greater ratio of cars to people than any other civilized country on the face of the Earth, the most extensive road system by far, and without a doubt, the most pitiful excuse for a driver training program bar none. Virtually every other country with an extensive transportation system requires its drivers to be trained in stages, thereby taking several years to achieve full capability. While some might argue that we have a graduated system, I don’t think six months of training and then several years of 11pm to 5am curfew qualifies as intense conditional training. This state-by-state list shows just how prominent this practice is.

Pilots are required to complete a ground school, or classroom phase, before moving on to flight instruction. After a set number of hours in the air, the student pilot must prove capable to navigate, with or without visual cues, practice ditch scenarios, pre-flight their aircraft, and log a set number of hours solo before they can be rated to carry a passenger. All of this in order to get certified to fly a single engine light aircraft. If they wish to fly any larger or more complex aircraft, they must be trained further, checked out, and then rated to fly said airplane.

By stark contrast, in this country you can receive a driver’s license in any state, and then be set loose to buy and drive anything from the smallest economy car to the most behemoth four-wheel drive, one-ton payload truck sitting on any given dealer’s lot. This whole scenario is fraught with potential disaster, even with the factor of male youth taken away. I often wonder how many people who announce, “I’m a good driver,” would be willing to climb aboard an aircraft with a pilot who had an equal amount of flying experience.

This brings me to my first major rant, and its one that I didn’t come by lightly. In the many thousands of miles I have logged traveling across this country, there are two phenomena I have witnessed more times than I can count, and that alone is what makes them frightening.

I have come to expect erratic or unpredictable driving habits from young men in modified cars, and to me, they are reason enough to institute better driver training so that more of them might survive to see thirty years old. It is for this very reason that both the Navy and Air Force have high intensity combat flight training, because statistics have clearly shown that if the pilot can complete his first ten missions, his survivability rate more than doubles. Many will argue that combat is a very different situation, but I submit that anyone who has driven the Capital Beltway, the Los Angeles Freeway, or the Cross-Bronx Expressway has equally risked their lives.

Before I go any further, I will offer my apologies to members of the Bimmer Faithful everywhere. I know there are many enthusiasts that have devoted substantial time and money to hone their skills under the best conditions possible. Many who have made the pilgrimage to the The Nurburgring in Germany to test those skills on one of the most demanding and legendary race courses in the world, but with all of those responsible owners excused, there remains a huge faction of BMW owners that are danger on wheels.

BMW has long used the tagline of, “The Ultimate Driving Machine,” and it may very well be just that, but I believe that phrase should be followed with a warning label, “Just because you can afford the ultimate driving machine, does not make you the ultimate driver.”

I have been witness to more displays of rampant lane changing, aggressive tailgating, and blatant, reckless speeding than any other make of automobile. The vast majority of these drivers are not teenage boys, so that excuse is out the window, and while they may think they are displaying superior skill by diving through traffic, all they are doing is endangering themselves and many others.

There are more than a few models available at the BMW dealership that qualify as potent performance machines, several with 400 or more horsepower, but for the same reason the Air Force doesn’t start a pilot out on an F-22 Raptor, such a car should not be sold to an insufficiently trained driver. His simple license is not nearly enough credential to constitute such a risk.

I’m sure there are those at this point that would question my credentials, but even with my 30-plus years of driving performance oriented cars, I am still objective enough to recognize when I am out of my element, and the places where it is acceptable to push my limits.

All of my experience aside, if levels of driver rating were instituted today, I would be more than happy to submit myself for whatever testing was required. More to the point, I would be ready to accept the level of license I was qualified to hold, and if additional training would be required I would gladly step in line.

The second phenomenon I have too often witnessed is the unhinged woman in a mini-van yammering away on her cell phone. This deadly trifecta is an absolute contradiction to every law aimed at automobile safety.

The mini-van itself is wonderful creation, and the whole time my kids were growing up I kept one in our driveway. Even after they were grown I found the mini-van to be capable hauler that didn’t break your wallet at the gas pump. I’ve carried all manner of people and things over the years, but one thing is certain, the mini-van is no sports car. A top-heavy vehicle like this is dangerous when pushed at speed, which makes it all the more astounding when I am passed on the interstate by one like I’m backing up.

If my cruise speed is 70-74mph, then being passed at such a pace dictates a speed of 85 or above, combine this with abrupt lane changes, sans any kind of signal I might add, and a one-handed driver on a cell phone at the wheel, and I pray for any children who might be strapped inside.

Federally mandated crash testing doesn’t come close to those kinds of speeds, so the possibility of fatalities is almost certain. This kind of pace would be bad enough with a trained, alert driver, but under the aforementioned circumstances it becomes downright perilous.

I recall reading a few years ago about the state of Montana doing away with their unrestricted daytime speed limits. The magazine article included a statement by a mother of three, who said she routinely cruised her minivan at 100mph highway speeds so her kids could make it to their various activities. She lamented that if the speed limit were lowered, they would never make it in time for the events on their list. I submit that anyone who routinely cruises at 100mph is shooting craps with their very lives, not to mention the lives of their children.

Many would argue that the Germans do so everyday on the Autobahn, but they neglect to note such details as a four year driver training program, supreme road maintenance, traffic offenses that include eating while driving, much less talking on a cell phone. Let’s also not forget traffic fines based on your income and a rigid lane discipline rarely observed in this country. For a more detailed list of Autobahn laws and enforcement click here.

Besides the tougher driving laws, you can read about how much more is involved to get a driver’s license in Germany in this article.

In the racing world, teams of technicians spend countless hours of testing to make every precaution possible for the benefit of the driver’s safety. Suspension adjustments and tire changes, as well as a host of other tuning variables can be tweaked before or during a race for the given conditions of the day. Our daily road-going cars are an exercise in averages as engineers try to build a car that will perform in weather conditions ranging from the Arizona heat to the fierce cold of North Dakota. They strive to find handling that works on the smooth highway to the rocky, rut-filled country back roads. To have any such expectation that such a vehicle is prepared for the kind of high speed assault more suited to a dedicated racing machine is a level of over-confidence that brushes close to hubris.

When I see these people pulled to the side of the road by law enforcement, I used to think what poor souls they were, but now I see it as a second chance before a deadly encounter with fate. One thing is certain, if you roll the dice often enough, sooner or later they will come up snake eyes. Unfortunately in the automotive realm, paying the house when you lose has an incredibly steep price tag, one that includes everything you ever wanted to do.

  • T. August Green
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