Drivers are worse than cancer

American drivers, like cigarettes, are immoral — waiting to kill us like cancer, and should be replaced by cars that drive themselves. So says Netscape co-founder and self-styled techno-futurist Mark Andreessen.

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Andreessen was chiming in on Google's self-driving cars when he dropped this inflammatory bit:

"Ten to 20 years out, driving your car will be viewed as equivalently immoral as smoking cigarettes around other people is today."

Equivalently immoral to giving other people cancer? We're talking about driving, right? Not dumping toxic waste into the water supply? Throwing a hand grenade over the counter of an Auntie Anne's? Stabbing a guy?

Bullshit.

Parsing the hyperbole, what Andreessen means — we think — is that people suck so much at driving that we're killing each other in droves, and that — thank heavens! — technology is about to release us from our deeply flawed animality. Machines are just waiting to take over and do it better. All of it: Turning, braking, navigating, swerving to avoid a skidding UPS truck. [Looking past its recent fender bender, obviously] Google's self-driving car is about to wrench the steering wheel out of our weak, unskilled and reckless mitts for our own good. People are so bad at driving cars, Andreessen said, "that computers don't have to be that good to be much better." Ouch.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says in 2010, an estimated 32,788 people were killed in the U.S. in traffic accidents. Broaden the scope, and the carnage is spectacular. According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 1.2 million people worldwide are killed in road crashes each year, and as many as 50 million are injured. That's more roadway deaths than all the soldiers killed in every single U.S. war, from the Civil War on, and the entire population of South Korea injured. Each year.

Granted, the U.S. number shows a 25% decline since 2005 — the fewest deaths per year since 1949. Largely due to passive safety enhancements — like crumple zones, beefed-up side-impact protection, air bags and devices like antilock brakes and traction control — the numbers are moving in the right direction — and all while the number of drivers steadily rise. Score one for us, right?

Not quite. Other Western nations have seen greater declines, and at 12.3 deaths per 100,000 people each year, Americans rank as only a middle-of-the-pack player in global automotive safety — just north of Cambodia and tied with Jamaica. Yah, mon.

Let's contrast the U.S.'s car-death statistics with those of Germany. Germany's rate of car ownership, at 558 per 1,000 people, is slightly lower than ours, at 779 per 1,000 (2010), but Germany sees just 4.5 deaths per 100,000 people yearly — less than half our rate.

Could it be a coincidence that obtaining a driver's license in Germany is a time-consuming, rigorous and expensive process? Perhaps not.

Before Germans are allowed to enjoy their fahrvergnügen, they face a long process that culminates in their receipt of a führerschein, or driver's license, at age 18. Ask a German about it, and he'll relate a grueling experience demanding 20 to 40 hours of rigorous instruction — including mechanical aspects — at a certified fahrschule (sorry, mom and dad), a first-aid course and out-of-pocket costs exceeding 1,500 euros. That's around $2,200.

Compared to Germany, getting a driver's license in the States is like ordering off the Wendy's dollar menu. What was your biggest worry about passing your driver's test? Not hitting the curb while parallel parking. Immediate fail, your friends warned.

"Any time you stand in line at the DMV and look around," Andreessen told the Times. "You're like, Oh, my God, I wish all these people were replaced by computer drivers." Putting aside Andreessen's sneering misanthropy for a moment, he's not wrong.

That's because Germans have come to terms with a concept we have not. That is, "active safety," which in part encompasses the ways in which roadway safety relates to drivers' skills behind the wheel. (We'll talk about the heavy hand of Germany's TÜV vehicular inspection agency some other time.)

Could it be that devaluing the skill of driving — in the name of democratizing mobility, itself a noble goal — is our real moral failing?

Yes. We must reassert ourselves as masters of our machines. We need not choose between technological advancements and ultimate control, but we must be more involved and present in the act of driving. How many farmers could drive (as well as fix) their own tractors? All of them. Their livelihoods depended on it. We need to at the very least be in command of our cars to the best of our abilities, or we might as well take a nap and let them drive.

It's time to make becoming a skilled driver its own moral imperative. It's time to stop handing out drivers' licenses like free samples at Dairy Queen. We need to make advanced driving techniques and mechanical understanding part of the required coursework for licensing. At the very least, how about a DMV-mandated autocrossing requirement? If not, there's a strong case to be made for our immediate dismissal from behind the wheel.

We can do better — we must do better.

What we need is a slogan. How about, "Every time traction control catches a slide, something inside each of us dies." OK, we'll keep working on it. Either way, don't let Andreessen and his misanthropic technology cronies win the dehumanization game. It's for your own good.