Dave Barry

Classic ’99: Hey, you’re driving me crazy

Traffic backed up on I-95 in Broward
Traffic backed up on I-95 in Broward Miami Herald File Photo

This Dave Barry column was originally published Saturday, April 10, 1999.

There is a bill before the Florida Legislature that would require drivers over age 75 to - get this - pass hearing AND vision tests before they get their licenses renewed.

Naturally, this bill is controversial. As well it should be. We Floridians have grown accustomed to certain fundamental rights. One of them is the right to wear skimpy, revealing, form-fitting clothing designed for skinny teenagers even if we are in deep middle age and have a butt the size of a junior high school. Another one is the right, when we are in public, to shout into our cellular phones, so that everybody within 50 yards of us can enjoy our conversation, especially if it's about a highly personal matter. (``SO THEY FOUND A COUPLE OF POLYPS UP THERE. RIGHT, POLYPS. ONE OF THEM IS THE SIZE OF A THUMB. RIGHT, THAT IS A BIG POLYP. THAT'S EXACTLY WHAT I SAID TO THEM, I SAID, `THAT'S A BIG POLYP!' SO ANYWAY, THEY TOOK THIS THING THAT LOOKS LIKE ONE OF THOSE ROTO-ROOTER THINGS, AND THEY STUCK THE END . . .'')

But of all the fundamental Floridian rights, the one we cling to most fiercely is the right to drive. EVERYBODY in Florida enjoys this right, as far as I can tell. NOBODY is denied a driver's license, including escaped parrots that happen to fly into the driver's-license bureau. That's why we have such a marvelous diversity of drivers down here, driving according to such marvelously diverse systems. More than once I have seen, with my own eyes, motorists on I-95 stop their cars in a traffic lane because they passed their exit, and then back up, right there on the interstate. If you honk at these people, they yell at you and gesture angrily. Their position is, ``Hey, YOU never missed an exit?''

Red means go

There is also a wide range of opinions among Florida drivers, particularly South Florida drivers, about how to interpret traffic lights. Some people - the ones who just got here from Iowa - believe that if the light is red, it is saying ``Stop!'' and they must not go through the intersection. But many people believe the traffic light is more lenient, and that if it turns red, it gives everybody a Grace Period, lasting as long as 45 seconds, during which you can still go through the intersection, provided that you demonstrate that you are sincerely in a hurry by going very fast. To these drivers, the red light is saying, ``Hurry up, before the Grace Period expires!''

So if you're an experienced South Florida driver, and you approach an intersection where the light is green, you do NOT interpret this to mean ``Go!'' You interpret it to mean, ``Stop, or you will be broadsided by Grace Period motorists hurtling through the intersection at the speed of subatomic particles.'' It is only when the light turns yellow that you know it is safe to start creeping forward; then, when it turns red, you may accelerate with confidence. Thus, at many South Florida intersections, traffic goes on red and stops on green. This is not the way it works in the rest of the United States, but it makes perfect sense in a community where living people do not vote, but dead people do.

My point is that, for Floridians, driving is like religion: Each of us feels he or she has the right to practice in his or her own way. Some of us feel that the left lane on an expressway is for passing; others of us feel that the left lane is for going 32 miles per hour while eating an Egg McMuffin with one hand, and dialing our cellular telephones with the other and steering - when we believe it is absolutely necessary - with our knees. ``You drive your way, and I'll drive mine'' - that is the attitude of the Florida motorist.

Pesky legislators

And now some butt-insky state legislators want to change everything. They want to single out a group of Florida drivers - the ones over the age of 75 - and make them prove, before they get their licenses renewed, that they can both see AND hear. Talk about government interference! Talk about Big Brother!

Naturally, the American Association of Retired Persons is unhappy about this bill. A Florida AARP spokesperson was quoted in The Herald as making the following statement about over-75 drivers:

``There's no research to support that at this chronological date you begin to lose driving skills.''

When I read this statement, I had the same reaction that I'm sure you did, namely: ``Sounds like they're smoking hashish at AARP headquarters again!'' Because you don't need ``research'' to know that driving skills deteriorate with age. All you need to do is drive on South Florida roads for 15 minutes; I guarantee you that in that time you will encounter at least one elderly motorist creeping along at 32 miles per hour below the speed limit (which means that, if the speed limit is 25, this motorist will be going backward) and coming to a full stop every time he or she encounters something disturbing, such as an intersection, a traffic sign, other cars, sunlight, etc.

Get real, AARP spokesperson! Of COURSE, driving skills deteriorate with age! I'm 51 years old, and I've noticed that my driving reflexes are definitely slower than they once were. I used to be able to hit the change-stations button on my car radio in less than three-hundredths of a second when the song A Horse With No Name came on; now, I'm up to five-hundredths.

Split up the duties

So, yes, older people have diminished driving skills. But that is not the whole story: Many elderly drivers have learned to compensate for their physical shortcomings. I have a good friend, whom I will call Bob, who told me about a clever driving system that was developed by his elderly parents, whom I will call Herb and Gladys. Herb had always done the driving in the family, but as he got older, his vision got to be pretty bad.

``Basically,'' says Bob, ``he was legally blind.''

Gladys, who had never driven, did not want to start late in life; however, her eyesight was still pretty good. So they worked out a system whereby Herb would drive, and Gladys would tell him what was going on, visually, in front of the car.

``There's a person crossing the street,'' she'd say. Or: ``The light is green now.''

When Bob found out about what his parents were doing, he was quite alarmed, but his father assured him that it was OK.

``His argument was that he drove really slowly,'' said Bob. ``Also, he drove only to places where he had driven before.''

Sounds reasonable to me! And yet the Florida Legislature would require this man to take a vision and hearing test! I can agree with the hearing part: Obviously, Herb would have to be able to hear what Gladys was telling him. But he shouldn't ALSO have to take a vision test, since, under this particular driving system, seeing is not the driver's responsibility. If anybody should have to take Herb's vision test, it should be Gladys.

Based on my experience in South Florida, I believe that many elderly drivers employ aspects of the Herb-and-Gladys system, particularly the aspect of driving slowly. The thinking seems to be, ``If I drive very slowly, people will see me and stay out of the way.'' This is why a lot of your elderly also like to drive large, highly visible cars such as the Cadillac El Giganto, the Oldsmobile Inertia and the Buick Roadsquatter. In fact, if the state Legislature really wants to help, it should pass a law requiring that cars operated by drivers aged 75 and over must be equipped with special Visibility Enhancers, to make them easier for other drivers to see and avoid, as shown here in Exhibit One:

db-exhibit1.jpg

By requiring Visibility Enhancers, the state could allow elderly drivers to stay safely on the road without subjecting them to the indignity of proving that they can see and hear. But if the state Legislature is really serious about making Florida's highways safer, it should not stop there. No, if the Legislature wants to remove the REAL menace from our roads, it would require that the first question on the written test for a Florida driver's license be as follows:

  1. Are you a young male?

  a. Yes.

  b. No.

The correct answer would be ``No.'' People giving the wrong answer (``Yes'') would immediately fail the test. These people would then have two options, if they wanted to obtain a driver's license:

OPTION ONE: Grow older.

OPTION TWO: Get a major operation.

Such a law would make our roads WAY safer. I say this because young male drivers are, to put it as delicately as possible, insane. I don't mean ALL of them, of course; I mean 99.9999 percent of them. Virtually every time I'm on the road, trying to avoid rear-ending the senior citizens ahead of me creeping along in their Oldsmobile Inertias, I'll see, in my rearview mirror, a tiny dot, perhaps a mile away, that within seconds turns into a car swerving violently through traffic, passing everything, including overhead jets, rays of light, etc. This car is always being driven by a young male. Young males in cars are always in a HUGE hurry, which is pretty ironic considering that when they're NOT in cars, and you ask them to do something that would require them to get off the sofa, such as picking their dirty laundry up off the floor (not that I am specifically referring to my son here), they move at the speed of dead oysters.

So I think the state Legislature should prohibit males from obtaining licenses until they reach an age when they are mature enough to drive responsibly, such as 47. If that isn't practical, the Legislature should pass a law requiring that cars operated by young males be equipped with a safety device called a Velocity Inhibitor, as shown in Exhibit Two:

db-exhibit2.jpg

And while the legislators are at it, they could help South Florida motorists out by requiring that vehicles operated by our seasonal visitors from the far North - and don't get us wrong; we love them like crazy - be equipped with a special Canadian Driver Indicator, as shown in Exhibit Three:

db-exhibit3.jpg

In summary, I believe that if the state Legislature wants to improve motoring safety, it does not need to trample on people's civil rights by making them take hearing and vision tests. Instead, by requiring the three simple and practical solutions I have proposed here - the Visibility Enhancer for elderly drivers, the Velocity Inhibitor for young males and the Canadian Driver Indicator - the Legislature will vastly improve the safety of our highways while preserving Florida's proud tradition of granting driving privileges to essentially every life form more advanced than celery.

So if you're a Florida motorist and you agree with me on this issue, I urge you to write to your state legislator. Then, I urge you to get some dynamite and blow up the Golden Glades interchange.

©1999 Dave Barry

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