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The physical evolution of automobiles, especially from safety standpoints, has been astonishing. Unfortunately, the way we relate to their use — our culture of motoring — has been far less progressive. With improvements, such as air bags and crumple zones, of past decades having negligible effect on our kill rate, maybe it’s time to move beyond tweaks to DUI infraction responses and think well outside the box. Or even leave the box a speck in our rearview mirror.

Sometimes out there in traffic, you may, like me, wish you had a special magic wand. Pointing your wand at some dangerously annoying driver (the potentially intoxicated weaver, the one who tailgates, cuts into your lane without signaling or is busy texting) would send them a ticket. No police or courts; just “pay up or turn in your license, pal, or we’re coming to your house and filling your car with cement.” Satisfying? Of course. Fortunately, our system of justice doesn’t work that way. Per the Constitution, no person may deprived of their freedom (incarcerated) or property without due process. And that’s a good thing.

But to my mind, most traffic infractions get “kid glove” handling. The process of evaluation and response is unwieldy and unimaginative. For a driver to have the privilege of driving revoked, they typically need a finding of guilt, beyond a reasonable doubt, in a court of law. In contrast, most other agencies that provide licensing have a due process for review and possible revocation that exists wholly within that agency and does not involve the court system. If a doctor, lawyer or pilot is found to have conducted themselves in a sufficiently detrimental manner, the relevant agency, such as the Federal Aviation Administration in the case of pilot, may strip the offender of their license. I believe it would hold us drivers much more accountable if state motor vehicle departments were modeled after the FAA. A lot more of us, per mile traveled, are dying in car crashes than in airplanes.

Another good way to parallel driving regulations to piloting is to have heightened requirements for education and training. To me, objections that a written exam every four-year renewal and a road test every eight years are too onerous just, well, don’t fly.

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In moving outside the box, making quantum changes to improve motoring behaviors, we could also eliminate fines for traffic violations. There are two basic problems with fines. First, for some they are just a grudging “cost of doing business” and not a significant force for behavioral change. Additionally, many are inclined to cynically think of assessed fines as primarily a source of revenue for police or courts. So what can suffice as an effective and equitable means of promoting a community of safer and more civil drivers? I suggest what worked for me as a youngster — a “time out.”

Ping-pong was a favorite basement activity during Wisconsin winters. The first time I slammed my paddle down in anger, punishment was swift and effective; no ping-pong for a week. The second time procured a month. Goodbye poor sportsmanship. Translating to the “game” of driving: A license revocation of five days for running a red light or speeding; a first DUI or texting offense gets a month or three (second offense gets two years).

There could certainly be holes in my revolutionary approach; but I expect the biggest barriers are cultural rather than technical or constitutional. And I will plead guilty to a certain level of venting. But the numbers and the misery they represent make me incredibly sad and angry. And what we’re doing now just isn’t hacking it.

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Gene Schmitz is a retired small-business owner and science teacher. He is a lifelong bicyclist and traffic safety advocate, and serves as chair of the Missoula Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and are not necessary shared by the board. 

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