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Commentary: Wait, the DMV Cares About Public Safety?

California Department of Motor Vehicles withdraws permit to Cruise after one of its robo-cars drags a pedestrians across the pavement. So what about all the human drivers who are just as dangerous or much more so?

A Cruise rear-ended a Muni bus last March. Photo from baur @d_bau13’s Twitter

The California Department of Motor Vehicles has suspended Cruise's permit to run driverless taxis in San Francisco. The announcment came Tuesday, after an investigation into an Oct. 2 crash in which a Cruise Autonomous Vehicle (AV) reportedly did a "pullover maneuver" with a pedestrian trapped under the car, dragging the victim across the pavement.

From the DMV release:

Public safety remains the California DMV’s top priority, and the department’s autonomous vehicle regulations provide a framework to facilitate the safe testing and deployment of this technology on California public roads. When there is an unreasonable risk to public safety, the DMV can immediately suspend or revoke permits. There is no set time for a suspension.

The California DMV today notified Cruise that the department is suspending Cruise’s autonomous vehicle deployment and driverless testing permits, effective immediately. 

Thank goodness the DMV is taking pedestrian safety seriously for a change. But public safety remains the California DMV’s top priority? Uh, no.

State DMVs, most DOTs, police departments, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are captured by the auto industry. That's clear to, well, anybody who looks at American roads with an informed eye or anybody who's attempted to report a reckless or malicious driver (good luck with that).

First, let's get this straight: this editorial is neither an endorsement or a statement against robot cars per se. The simple fact is we don't know if AVs will be safe or not. The most I'll say is DMVs should be extremely careful before allowing more machines on our streets, experimental or not, that can mash human beings to a pulp.

But if California's DMV is turning a corner and is going to go after automated cars for harming a pedestrian, when is it going to do the same with the many carbon-based drivers who are more dangerous than AVs?

Take, for example, the driver featured in this recent Tweet from advocate and Streetsblog reader Vladimir Vlad:

Does anybody expect the DMV to take away that driver's keys, even though he isn't competent enough to consistently tell the difference between a train tunnel, a pedestrian path, and a street? Let's not even get started on drivers with multiple speeding tickets, drivers who park on bike lanes, or even drivers (see image below) who assault people with their cars but are permitted to keep on driving.

Matthew Marshall Engle, a Ross motorist who was caught on video driving at and threatening to kill a cyclist. Image: Jan Weissenberger

The irony: if there had been a driver in the Cruise car that dragged that pedestrian and they'd just said "I didn't see her," not only would the DMV probably not be involved, no charges would be filed and the person would be back on the road the next day. We've seen that a million times.

If it turns out that the accusations are true and General Motors officials covered up the fact that their car dragged someone, those officials should be in jail. But the same should be true for drivers who injure or kill someone for all the usual absurd reasons, such as: "they came out of nowhere," "the sun was in my eyes," etc. None of these things should be an excuse, because what they really are is a confession.

If you hit someone who "came out of nowhere," it's almost certainly because you were texting, eating a sandwich, playing with your dog, or otherwise not fulfilling a basic requirement of operating a car: paying strict attention to the road. And if the sun was in your eyes, brake. If you hit the gas, that's just playing Russian Roulette with the public. And let's not even get started on drunk or stoned driving. Or drivers who modify already dangerous vehicles into death machines:

Please don't claim regulators care about safety when they allow trucks such as this on the road.

These are all crimes that should cost a driver their license at minimum. Immediately.

It won't happen, but the DMV's move makes me hope--or maybe fantasize is the right word--that North American regulators might one day turn a corner on safety. Maybe someday they might look for inspiration from the FAA, which, despite its faults, really has achieved Vision Zero in aviation. Years go by without a commercial airplane crash. That's because of the systems they have in place to study and correct dangerous conditions. It's also because pilots don't get away with drunk flying or texting while in the cockpit. Americans could also, of course, look to the Netherlands or Norway and how they issue drivers licenses and regulate streets.

Instead, we have a DMV that seems intent on giving drivers licenses to anybody with a pulse. With that, we get over 4,000 people killed and many more with life-altering injuries every year in this state.

Tom Flood turning the usual "remember to wear Hi-Vis" PSAs on their head.

Regulators prefer to blame pedestrians for not wearing bright clothing rather than requiring drivers to be competent and pay attention (note the ad from the great Tom Flood above turning the typical North American, regulatory narrative on its head).

But, to its credit, the DMV did something over the Cruise incident. Perhaps advocates can leverage this opportunity to get the California DMV and other regulators to start taking pedestrian and bicyclist safety seriously in general?

For now, look both ways, wear Hi-Vis, don't use ear pods, don't walk distracted, etc. And be prepared to get mowed down anyway by some inattentive, speeding, drunk, or otherwise dangerous human driver because our regulators can't be counted on to take away someone's keys even when they clearly pose a hazard to the public--and usually even after they kill someone.

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