We need to grow culture where public respects driving laws

Q: I believe that everyone who renews their driver license should take a small 10-question multiple-choice test. That way they would review the “Rules of the Road” book from time to time. It is not meant to deny a license, but to explain to the person the ones they got wrong and how it should be.

A: I like this idea. If we’re giving people permission to pilot multi-ton projectiles through neighborhoods, they should at least be able to demonstrate that they know the rules, right?

Compared to 28 other high-income countries, the US isn’t doing so great at traffic safety. When ranking countries based on traffic fatalities we’re No. 1, and not in a good way. Recent data shows the US at 11.1 fatalities per 100,000 people. The next-highest country is Poland, at 7.7, and the best country is Norway, at 2.

The top five countries behind Norway are Sweden (2.2), Switzerland, (2.2), United Kingdom (2.7) and Ireland (2.9). The countries most culturally similar to the US, according to the Country Similarity Index, are Canada (4.7), Australia (4.7) and New Zealand (7.1), followed by United Kingdom and Ireland making both lists.

None of the eight countries has a written test as part of their license renewal process. Switzerland doesn’t even require license renewal. The only time you need to apply for a new one is if it’s lost or stolen, or you need to update the information on it.

Despite my thinking it’s a good idea, requiring a test as part of driver relicensing is not one of the ingredients in any of the safest countries to drive. Why then is the US fairing so poorly in traffic safety?

Here are a few things that you’ll find in the safest countries: Rigorous training and licensing requirements for first-time drivers, more enforcement and steeper penalties for impaired driving, self-enforcing road design that protects vulnerable road users, safer (and smaller) vehicles, smarter speed limits, automated enforcement, comprehensive public transportation and thoughtful urban planning. We do some of that here, and there’s nothing but our own willingness preventing us from doing more.

Most of our fatal crashes involve impairment, speed, distraction, lack of seat belt use or a combination thereof. If we surveyed the people who engaged in those behaviors and asked if they knew they were violating the law, I bet we’d be right near 100%. Yes, we should make sure drivers know the rules. But to really change the trajectory, we need to build a system that protects road users, and grow a culture where all drivers want to respect the rules. It might not be easy, but it’s worth it.

Doug Dahl writes a weekly column for this newspaper. He is with the state Traffic Safety Commission.