Magazine article Insight on the News

Americans Gas, Grub and Gab, but Europeans Take the Fast Lane

Magazine article Insight on the News

Americans Gas, Grub and Gab, but Europeans Take the Fast Lane

Article excerpt

A new study affirms that Americans who talk on cell phones while driving are more prone to accidents. Europeans, however, motor with more seriousness and suffer fewer fatalities on the road.

Congestion and the hurry-burly of modern life have put driving way down on the list of things people do in their cars. Wolfing down a hamburger, reading the paper, checking the coif in the rearview mirror -- all these come first for many of us.

That such practices are dangerous ought to be obvious, but it took a study published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine to lend official credibility to common sense. The article verified that drivers yakking on cellular phones are four times more likely to have an accident than those who keep their minds on driving.

The interesting thing about the publicity generated by the study: Instead of encouraging better driving practices, various public scolds are calling for more government red tape. Officials at the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, for example, are considering new regulations that would address vehicle cell phones and their "safe" operation.

Europeans, by contrast, take driving seriously and don't have these problems -- well, don't have as many of them. Germany and Switzerland require young drivers to endure elaborate apprenticeships before granting them provisional licenses. This extensive education is combined with a no-nonsense approach to traffic enforcement. Although many European countries allow much higher highway speeds than does the United States, they slap offending drivers with tough penalties for tailgating or otherwise clowning around. The fines are astonishingly high by U.S. standards -- often in the thousands of dollars -- and the loss of driving privileges is a definite threat.

The result? Few drivers natter on their cell phones on the Autobahn. Europeans don't shovel snacks into their mouths while negotiating mountain switchbacks, and they certainly don't comb their hair while steering with their knees. Europe, in turn, has significantly lower fatality rates on its highways compared with America.

The difference in attitudes between European and American motorists is evident in their choice of transmissions as well. Americans admire automatics so ardently that fewer and fewer U.S. models offer the option of a standard transmission. Europeans prefer to shift their own gears. …

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