Column Date 2006-01-22

The Great American Road Show

We have a serious driving problem in America, and it’s time we faced up to it.

In particular, two kinds of drivers get into more accidents than any others: very new drivers and very old drivers. (Which is why insurance companies, who are no dummies, charge a small fortune to insure both groups.)

Very new drivers, mostly teenagers, are quivering with excitement, pumped with adrenaline and have extremely heavy right feet. (It is well known to adolescent geneticists that the right foot grows much faster than the left. Eventually, when you reach your mid-20’s, the left foot catches up.)

Teenagers are dangerous but, in the final analysis, boring drivers. You always know exactly what they’re going to do: they accelerate as fast as they can, weave in and out of traffic wildly, and totally ignore other people’s honking or yelling because their car stereos have blown out their eardrums in their first hundred miles on the road.

Very old drivers are much more entertaining.

Recently, a car driven by an elderly woman in front of me started slowing down: 40…30…20…10…and then came to a full stop. In the middle of a state highway. She rolled down her passenger side window and asked a man sitting at a bus stop for directions, totally oblivious of the line of cars screeching to a halt behind her.

Then there was the octogenarian I saw pushing his walker unsteadily toward a waiting Lincoln town car. A young man walked slowly beside him, ready to give assistance if the old man lost his balance or faltered. I figured (logically I thought) that the young man was his driver and would help him get into the back seat.

Instead, the young man opened the driver’s door, and helped the old guy in. The car drove off at around 2 miles an hour. Then, when he turned onto the highway, the old man accelerated to a blazing 5 miles an hour.

And in our own family, there’s Aunt Edie who, at age 94, received her automatic driver’s license renewal in the mail. It was good for five years, it said. She put it up on her kitchen wall as a sign of Total State Stupidity. Aunt Edie had, wisely, stopped driving when her reflexes and eyesight had both given out, 4 years earlier.

But I am not one to present a problem without offering a solution. And I think the solution has been staring us in the face for decades: Bumper Cars.

That’s right, Bumper Cars – those little two-person cars with enormous rubber bumpers that have been a staple of amusement parks across America for decades.

Bumper cars are clearly the answer: they can’t go very fast, and if they hit something, they bounce off. What’s more, they run on clean, efficient electricity. And, they’re fun!

We should simply require teens and oldsters with poor driving records to drive these cars, if they want to drive at all. Special “BCO” (Bumper Cars Only) lanes would have to be set up, of course, but that’s easy.

We could make Detroit happy by giving them a heads-up so they could start producing bumper cars before the Japanese.

And parents of teenagers would be happy, too -- if your teens are bouncing off the walls at home, this is a safe way to let them bounce off other teens instead. (The lack of back seats in bumper cars would also, no doubt, please many in our current administration.)

As for the rest of us, bumper cars would not only give us safer highways but lower insurance rates to boot.

Note: I know there are dangerous drivers of all ages I haven’t mentioned. Bumper cars would, naturally, be mandatory for folks who drive holding cellphones, lipstick, makeup mirrors, cigars, hairbrushes, or, on the California freeways, handguns.

As for road rage, I suspect that would vanish. It’s hard to stay mad when you’re having fun.

©2005 Peter Tannen