Articles

A LICENSE TO MURDER?

While thousands are killed and maimed each year on our roads several provinces still hand out driving licenses like dog tags. In fact, one man did get a license for his dog. Here is a dramatic demand for strict tests to keep the unfit off the road

FRED BODSWORTH October 15 1950
Articles

A LICENSE TO MURDER?

While thousands are killed and maimed each year on our roads several provinces still hand out driving licenses like dog tags. In fact, one man did get a license for his dog. Here is a dramatic demand for strict tests to keep the unfit off the road

FRED BODSWORTH October 15 1950

A LICENSE TO MURDER?

FRED BODSWORTH

While thousands are killed and maimed each year on our roads several provinces still hand out driving licenses like dog tags. In fact, one man did get a license for his dog. Here is a dramatic demand for strict tests to keep the unfit off the road

AN OLD man shuffled into the office of an oculist in Toronto recently. “I think I need glasses,” he said. Examination revealed he had less than 50%, vision.

“Glasses won’t help you much,” the oculist told him. “You need a surgical operation.” He took the man’s arm and led him to a couch. “Sit there,” he told him, “until whoever is driving you comes to pick you up.”

“ T ’ m driving myself, ’ ’ the old -timer said defiantly. The oculist stared in unbelief. “But you can’t drive safely,” he declared.

“Can’t drive!” the man said belligerently. “I guess I can. I’ve been driving 20 years.” He pulled on his hat and stalked out.

He hasn’t returned to arrange for the operation and he is still driving. His driving permit is automatically renewed each year and he will probably continue to drive indefinitely, endangering the lives of every motorist and pedestrian he meets. Perhaps he’ll end his motoring career as an involuntary suicide.

Last winter a car traveling at moderate speed skidded on icy pavement. The driver instinctively slammed on the brakes, and skidded still more. He swerved into the path of another car. Two people were killed. The driver had studied five afternoons a week for three months to qualify as a college football star, but the only instruction he ever received in the art of handling a ton-and-a-half, high-power machine which could take him into thousands of dangerous situations was an hour’s lesson from an uncle and a 10-minute around-theblock license test. He had been licensed 10 years as a “capable” driver but he had never learned one of driving’s fundamental safety rules—keep your foot off the brake when a tire blows or your car skids.

Near Niagara Falls last spring a driver suffered a heart attack at the wheel, crashed into another car. He was killed, five others were injured. A twominute medical examination would have revealed the heart condition and labeled him as a highway menace. But no province in Canada gives medical tests to all drivers. Thousands who are likely to suffer sudden seizures at any moment get driving permits every year.

Every week about 40 Canadians are killed and 800 injured by autos. Car accidents are bringing death to Canadians at almost the same rate as the RCAF lost men, killed and missing, in World War II. But statistics tell only half the story. Statistics don’t bleed and scream with pain. And the auto death toll mounts steadily. In 1938 it was 1,545; in 1948 it was 2,099.

Why? Police and safety experts say the main reason is that Canada, in an age of 100-horsepower 80-mile-per-hour cars, still issues licenses to drive as casually as it hands out dog tags. In some provinces the licensing system is a hypocritical form of taxation in which little effort is made to keep the unskilled and physically handicapped off the highways.

In fact, at least five provinces will shoot driving permits out through the mail with never a question about whether the recipient can see past his radiator. I know, for I have the permits, issued by Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, ón my desk. They are made out to a man who doesn’t exist. If he did exist he

could be blind, paralyzed, a homicidal maniac, dope addict and escaped murderer, for the department which issued the permits made no real attempt to find out.

Says Inspector Vernon Page, head of Toronto police traffic division: “If Canada had a thorough system of testing drivers and culled out all the unqualified, 40% of people now driving cars would be pulled off the road. Inadequacy of driver testing is the major cause of accidents.

“The biggest fault which present testing doesn’t reveal is lack of knowledge of simple rules of the road and safety practices. How many drivers know that it takes 115 feet to stop a car traveling at 40 miles per hour? How many know that slamming on brakes when a tire blows is a sure way of rolling a car over? A driver who doesn’t know these things is not a safe driver.

“The second biggest driver fault is physical and visual defects. Canada’s licensing systems let by thousands of drivers with eyesight and physical handicaps.”

Another police chief told me: “How are we supposed to cut down accidents when permits are issued to fatheads who couldn’t even drive a wheelbarrow safely?”

The Cars Are Better Than Their Drivers

Safety experts like W. A. Bryce, of the University of Toronto’s school of public safety, say about 10% of drivers now licensed in Canada would be denied permits if medical tests alone were given. Most of these are unaware they have medical defects which make them poor drivers—250,000 potential killers zooming down our highways with the spectre of death always in the back seat. The common defects are faulty vision, epilepsy, heart conditions, diabetes, and certain arthritic conditions responsible for sudden pains and temporary paralyses.

Says Bryce: “Eighty-five per cent of accidents are due to human error, 10% to mechanical failure in the vehicle, 5% to road and weather conditions. It would cost millions to test all cars and keep them in perfect shape, and even then you would be eliminating the cause of only 10% of accidents. An all-round drivers’ test which would detect physical handicaps and demand a thorough driving knowledge from the remainder would strike at the real source of accidents.”

L. L. Theriault, motor vehicle registrar for New Brunswick, said recently that accident reports from police which reach his desk make it obvious that “there are many licensed drivers who are physically and mentally incompetent to handle a car.” He added that his office was powerless to deal with the problem under present licensing regulations.

Police Chief J. J. Oakes, of Saint John, N.B., added: “Stricter licensing, when we get it, should cut down accidents a lot.”

Recently the Vancouver Sun, discussing the system under which driving permits are automatically renewed each year, commented: “There is no means of telling how many hundreds of thousands of drivers are menaces to the public and themselves. Their vision may be poor, their reactions retarded by degenerative disease, but governments give them the right to take death-dealing machines at will onto public highways.”

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British Columbia Attorney-General Gordon S. Wismer stated: “We must have more frequent, more thorough drivers’ examinations.” Since then B. C. has brought in much tougher licensing requirements. Elsewhere the criticism is as valid as ever.

Every motor vehicle is subjected to dozens of assembly-line tests and inspections yet the driver, the important accident cause, gets a slapdash testing, then a license which says the freedom of the highway, within the law, is his.

“We’ll never improve the accident rate,” says Toronto’s Inspector Page, “until we improve driver standards. Cars don’t go out of control, they are driven out of control. With many drivers their permit is more than a license to drive—it is a license to murder.”

Every four hours one Canadian dies and 20 are injured amid screeching brakes and shattering glass because we still regard driving as a right, rather than a privilege.

Several months ago when I began my research for this article one of the editors of Maclean’s, who had had experience with the driver-testing procedure in several provinces, bet that he could obtain at least four permits by mail without a check being made on his driving qualifications. I knew the situation was bad, but doubted it could be that bad, so took the bet. I lost. He got permits from five provinces.

He merely wrote to each province, enclosed the necessary fee, said his company was moving him to that province and he would require a license to drive. He said he possessed an Ontario permit, gave an address from which he arranged to pick up mail, gave his sex, age and height, then signed it all “Harold L. Harrison,” a fictitious name. He deliberately did not give the number of his Ontario permit just to see if any of the other provinces would ask for it as a check on the application’s authenticity.

A simple check would have revealed that no one with that name and address possessed a driver’s permit in Ontario. Yet Prince Edward Island and Alberta sent licenses almost in the next mail.

Saskatchewan and Manitoba sent along a form containing a couple of simple questions about physical condition. “Harrison,” being a fictional character, was of course in top physical shape. What fiction hero isn’t? Saskatchewan emphasized in a letter, “It will be necessary for you to attach your last driving license when applying for a Saskatchewan permit if you are residing outside the province.” The phony Harrison ignored this, but Saskatchewan, and Manitoba too, coughed up with driving permits a few weeks later. So did Quebec.

What makes this ridiculous, besides being potentially tragic, is that there was no need to issue the mail-order permits. If “Harrison” had been moving with his car he could have continued driving as a tourist for 60 days with whatever license he originally had, then he could have obtained his new permit in person through the normal channels.

Newfoundland Was Hot

As long as some provinces run a mail-order business in drivers’ permits like this, canceling licenses for traffic offenses is a farce. A driver whose license is canceled merely has to pick up a new one from one of the easy-going provinces and he’s safe for at least 60 days. If an inquisitive traffic cop asks him why the license plates on his car aren’t from the same province as his driver’s permit, why, he’s a tourist in town driving his brother’s car.

To their credit some provinces smelled a rat at once and flatly refused to send mail-order driving licenses. British Columbia wasn’t interested in whether the applicant already held a license in another province. If he wished a B. C. license he would have to come to the coast and take the B. C. test—and that was that. To mail enquiries Ontario gives the same flat answer.

Nova Scotia said politely but firmly that it didn’t issue driving licenses to motorists with out-of-province addresses.

Newfoundland, the province with fewest drivers, can afford to be freer with its driving permits than any other province, yet it was one of the strict ones. It sent along an application form

with 21 questions covering all phases of driving ability. My friend dropped it as too “hot” to play around with for it had to be sworn on oath before a justice of the peace.

“Harrison” couldn’t give a positive verdict on New Brunswick. When he wrote for his license the province sent him an application form and asked for his Ontario license. As with Saskatchewan, he ignored the request for the Ontario permit. He doesn’t know if this would have worked, for apparently his letter went astray and the next thing he knew the province had returned his money to him on the grounds that it hadn’t heard from him again. By this time he had won his bet with me so he let the matte drop.

How do the driver-testing systems of the various provinces rate?

Alberta, Saskatchewan, Quebec and New Brunswick are the black sheep. The reckless manner in which they toss out driving permits is a menace not only to those provinces themselves, but to all of Canada and the U. S., for the permits entitle their holders to drive as tourists for 60 days in any province or state they choose.

Alberta intends to start tests in a year or so. But all today’s Albertan has to do, to legally take charge of a machine that is deadlier in unskilled hands than a double-barreled shotgun, is sign a form (no oath demanded) and hand in a dollar. On the form he is supposed to reveal any sight or physical disabilities. An Alberta newspaperman told me: “This is merely a formality

as refusals are very rare. Licenses may be obtained by mail or through another person. It is possible for a blind person to obtain a license by failing to report his blindness on the application

Recently an Edmonton Bulletin reporter obtained driving permits for his dog, a goat and, so he said, a dead duck. The licenses were applied for and duly made out to Rover Burke, William Ghote and Mort Anas (bad Latin for “dead duck”).

Elderly Alberta drivers get their permits automatically renewed no matter how seriously their vision or physical condition may be deteriorating. One driver, past 70, had fast-failing eyesight and his family pleaded with him to give up driving. He wouldn’t listen. Finally the family informed the government’s licensing bureau that he was incapable of handling a car and they begged authorities to stop renewing his permit. The bureau complied. It was one of the few Alberta cases last year in which a license application was turned down.

Car $79, Damage $3,500

Saskatchewan has had no driving test until this year. Now drivers applying for the first time get a test from police. But Saskatchewan’s 200,000odd drivers already licensed will still be able to renew their permits by mail if they are too feeble to reach an issuing office. Even with new drivers only a short test behind the wheel is given and there is no medical or vision test. Driver licensing in Saskatchewan, perhaps significantly, is controlled by the Treasury Department, Taxation Branch. The address: Revenue Building, Regina.

A Montreal automobile club official has reported that more than 90% of car drivers in Quebec have never been required to pass any form of driving test. Jean Beyries, a Montreal insurance executive, pointing out that car insurance in Quebec is much higher than it is anywhere else in Canada says the high rates are due to the frequency of accidents, which in turn are a direct result of “the suicidal licensing laws in this province.”

Quebec law requires no test for a passenger car driving license (80% of the province’s vehicles) unless the applicant “is known to have” a mental or physical disability. Instead of having tests to detect hidden disabilities Quebec puts the cart before the horse, leaves detection to chance, then when disabilities are discovered gives the test afterward. Even applicants obviously disabled frequently get licenses without driving ability being tested. At Levis a war veteran who had lost both arms above the elbow was

granted a driver’s license without being tested.

Technically, Quebec law requires a driving license applicant to be 17 years old, “acquainted with” traffic laws and able to drive. Frequently little attempt is made to learn whether even these requirements are met. A highways department official says: “At the very least more than 7,000 youths under 17 have driving licenses.”

At Sillery, a suburb of Quebec City, an old car crashed into a store front, injured the 16-year-old driver, caused

$3,500 damage. The youth had obtained his license an hour before. He had told the issuing clerk he would not be 17 for three months. The clerk shrugged, gave him the license anyway, didn’t even bother to ask if he could drive. The youth couldn’t. He had bought a 1928 model car that day for $79, had never driven before. And he still has the same driving license.

Applicants for chauffeurs’ licenses 120% of drivers) must be tested, so the Quebec act says. But one taximan said his test consisted of stopping on a hill,

starting again and returning to the license office (time required: seven minutes). Another reported: “They

were too busy that morning to give tests. They just filled in my card and marked me ‘past.’ ”

New Brunswick is now drafting plans for tighter control of driving permit distribution. Said a police chief: “About time, because the halt, the lame and blind have no trouble getting drivers’ licenses in New Brunswick.” Recently a New Brunswick motorist in an accident couldn’t read the headline of a newspaper that a traffic officer held a few feet in front of him. Under New Brunswick’s new system examining will be by unprejudiced police and other officials; garage men, who are supposed to be doing it now, will be out. But there are no provisions for medical and vision tests or for examination of the 100,000 drivers who obtained licenses under the old easy-going system. Meanwhile, these drivers are having accidents at a rate almost double that of the Canadian average.

Red Light For Color Blind

Safety authorities place the British Columbia and Ontario testing programs at the head of the list, but not everyone familiar with the urgent need for raising driver standards will grant even these provinces a clean bill of health. Says Inspector Page, of Toronto, one of the continent’s top experts in traffic safety: “The British Columbia and Ontario systems are as good as those anywhere, yet they fall short of what our soaring accident rate demands. So why shouldn’t we improve them?”

British Columbia puts its would-be drivers through the following battery of tests:

1. A written test on rules of the road and driving techniques.

2. A verbal test on the meaning of traffic signs.

3. Scientific eye tests which cover general visual acuity, ability to see at the side without turning head, depth perception (which determines ability to judge distance), tendency to double vision and color-blindness.

4. A reaction test on a reactometer which measures the speed with which the applicant recognizes a warning and applies brakes.

5. A road test of 12 minutes through crowded city streets and traffic

If the applicant’s vision or reaction speed is below normal he may be issued a restricted license—one which permits him to drive only when wearing specified glasses, to drive only in daylight, or at a specified reduced speed. A restricted license for color-blind drivers permits them to drive only in daylight and on streets not controlled by traffic lights. And to make certain that a driver doesn’t become a highway menace because of after-effects of illness or old age, B. C. is now calling in every driver every five years for retesting.

Ignorance Is Legal

Ontario puts its applicants through a verbal test on traffic laws and safedriving practices, and gives a thorough road test, particularly to drivers applying in cities. It has the medical records of thousands of men who were turned down by the armed services and every application is checked against this file for disabilities which the Army medical might have turned up.

Well, that’s the generally discouraging picture across Canada. What should be done? What must we do before driving permits can be recognized as a guarantee that every car is

in safe and capable hands? How can we cancel those licenses to murder?

I took these vital questions to the leading traffic safety experts in Canada. Here are their answers:

1. Make every applicant pass a detailed written test on traffic rules and the hazards and potentialities of his car.

2. After the applicant has proved he knows the fundamentals of safe driving in theory we must give him a grueling road test under an impartial and welltrained examiner—a test of many miles through heavy traffic and country roads.

3. Give every applicant a complete visual and medical examination. Those seriously handicapped must be barred from driving. Those with limited handicaps can be advised of their limitations, warned to make allowances for them, and issued licenses with the understanding they are constant probationers.

4. Give new tests periodically to catch up with those whose eyesight or physical condition is deteriorating.

Where and how adequately are these four requirements being met in Canada today? Let’s go back over them one by one.

Only British Columbia requires all drivers to pass a written test on driving safety knowledge and traffic rules. Professor Bryce, of the University of Toronto, says the commonest fault among drivers is ignorance of the crushing power they control. “How many realize,” he asks, “that at 60 m.p.h. they are covering 88 feet every second, that an impact at that speed is the same as driving off the top of a 120-foot building?”

Four Drivers in Four Minutes

Only in the larger cities of Ontario and British Columbia is the second “must” of the safety experts being met today. The big fault in ensuring thorough road tests is the practice in several provinces of authorizing service station managers or attendants to examine driver license applicants. Worst offenders: Nova Scotia, New

Brunswick and Ontario.

In New Brunswick a motorist seeking a driving permit for the first time is required to go to anyone connected with a garage or service station and have him sign a form declaring that the applicant is a qualified driver. “Not one garage man in 10 is conscientious enough to give an applicant a driving test, as he is supposed to,” said a traffic officer. “Why should he? If he turned an applicant down the chap would simply go to one of his competitors— and take his gas and oil business with

An Ontario Department of Highways supervisor recently recommended that an examiner be fired. The examiner, a busy service station manager, would size up an applicant, murmur, “You look like a good driver,” and sign the application without leaving his desk.

Another examiner recently took four applicants out at once in the same car. Each applicant drove a block, then another took the wheel—four minutes, four blocks, $4 in fees paid the “examiner,” and four new drivers turned loose. Drivers or killers?

What about vision and medical examinations, point No. 3? This year the Automotive Transport Association and College of Optometry in Toronto tested the eyes of 359 truck drivers. One in 10 had eyesight so defective that glasses were urgently needed, scores had minor visual defects.

During the past six months in Toronto and vicinity alone there have been seven accidents caused when drivers suffered heart attacks, four by epileptic seizures, two by diabetic

seizures, one by after-effects of spinal meningitis and one in which the driver was insane. Yet only B. C. gives a scientific eye test to every applicant. And nowhere in Canada are drivers given medical tests to detect hidden ailments like epilepsy and heart conditions. Often the applicant is honestly unaware of his condition.

At New Toronto recently a boy riding a bicycle on the shoulder of a highway was struck by a car and seriously injured. The car driver was found to be blind in his right eye. His license was canceled—too late.

Sydney Hamilton, chief examiner at Vancouver, tested a truck driver a few months ago. The man passed his written, eyesight and reaction-speed tests with good scores. In his road test he drove a heavy truck loaded with six tons of feed, again scored high. Hamilton and the driver got out of the truck and entered the office where the license was to be made out. The driver promptly threw a fit. He was sent to a doctor, diagnosed as an epileptic, and his license application was refused.

Yearly Test For Oldsters

Sometimes the “healthiest” drivers slump suddenly unconscious at the wheel. This summer at Pickering, Ont., a fire truck carrying six firemen raced down a hill on a fire call, driven by the fire chief, 47, who was apparently in good health. Suddenly the chief fainted. The truck began to sway. A narrow bridge lay ahead. One of the firemen kicked the chief’s foot off the accelerator and grabbed the wheel. The truck grazed a tree and the bridge guard rail, finally was brought to a safe stop. Five firemen narrowly missed death. The chief was dead of a heart attack.

Commenting on point No. 4—the need for retesting, especially of older drivers — Toronto’s Inspector Page says, “I obtained my original driving licence when I was 16. “I have had it renewed for 21 years without another test. I could be blind, insane, paralyzed —no one in the department of highways would know until I decided to tell

“A driver should get a thorough test and be given a license good for five years. Before it is renewed he should get a complete driving and medical test again. When a driver reaches 65 or 70 he should be given at least a vision and medical test every year.”

Ontario now retests annually all drivers over 80, all drivers involved in fatal accidents, all drivers over 70 involved in any accident and all accident repeaters (two or more accidents in a year). But the retest doesn’t include a medical examination unless the driver has an ailment so obvious he cannot hide it.

Last November British Columbia started issuing five-year permits and demanding retests every renewal. But no medical examination is required unless the applicant is obviously shaky or handicapped.

In other provinces permits are renewed automatically year after year unless the driver causes a serious accident and is ordered by a court to be retested.

I’d like to repeat that each week in the year 40 Canadians are killed and 800 injured in auto accidents. The drivers responsible, like our fictitious “Harold L. Harrison,” often have no right to the driving licences they hold.

R. A. Stapells, president of the Canadian Automobile Association, and of the Ontario Safety League, sums it up: “There is one sure way to cut our accident toll. That is, hunt out the accidents and yank them off the road—before they happen.” ★