Rules of the Road

If what you think of traffic laws influences how you drive, are you a good driver?

Here’s a question that came up during a recent discussion about some of Washington’s traffic laws: Is obeying the law enough to make me a safe driver? If not, what is the standard?

A while back I had a conversation with my brother-in-law, a skilled carpenter. We were discussing building codes, and he said that if you build your house to code, you have a substandard house. His point was that code compliance is the bare minimum you can do in construction. There are building techniques that exceed code requirements that make your home stronger, more weather-tight and capable of lasting many more years.

I think the same philosophy applies in traffic safety. We have laws that set the minimum standard for driving and then we have the actual best practice. Want some examples? I have a bunch.

The first one that comes to mind is distracted driving. Our state law prohibits talking on the phone while driving unless the phone is in hands-free mode. Here’s the thing; the only thing that makes hands-free mode (a tiny bit) safer is that you can have both hands on the wheel. But that’s not where the real problem lies. The problem with talking on the phone is that it distracts your brain from the task of driving. Even though you’re not violating traffic law by talking hands-free, civil courts have rendered multi-million dollar judgments against drivers (and the companies they worked for) who killed or seriously injured other road users while they were complying with the law by talking hands-free but still too distracted to avoid a crash. The best practice is simply not to talk on the phone at all while driving (but you already knew that.)

Then there’s the intermediate driver license. The intermediate driver license has been a great tool for reducing young driver crashes. It has limits on things like the number of passengers a new driver can have in their car and driving at night. But the night driving limitation is from 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., while the crash data indicates that young driver crashes are happening closer to 9 p.m. If you’re a parent armed with that information you might want to set family rules that are stronger than what the law requires.

While we’re on the topic of young drivers, the law requires a young driver to have an instructional permit for six months before being eligible to get a driver license. I’d argue that a better standard would require a 16-year-old with an instructional permit to demonstrate sufficient responsibility before getting a license. How can we measure that? Again, this is where the parents can set the standards. The law may permit a 16-year-old to get a license, but not every 16-year-old is ready for that responsibility; mom and dad have the power to make that call.

How about speed? The law sets the speed limit on city streets at 25 mph. However, in neighborhoods and urban areas with lots of pedestrians that can be too fast. I’m stating the obvious, but when speeds increase, pedestrian survival rates plummet in crashes. The tipping point is just above 20 mph. If you’re an attentive driver, you might find that you naturally drive slower than 25 mph in some environments, just because you’re trying to give yourself time to respond to a surprise like a kid chasing a ball into the street or a cyclist swerving to avoid a pothole. Some cities have taken action based on the crash data and reduced neighborhood streets to 20 mph, but even if the law doesn’t change where you drive, driving slower than the speed limit when appropriate is the smart and safe decision. Also, I should mention that although we often drive like the posted speed limit is a minimum, the law does clearly state that those big black numbers on the white background are maximums.

I’ve just barely scratched the surface, so this might become a multi-part series. For now, consider this: How you think about traffic laws will influence how you drive. If you think of the law as defining how much you can get away with before you get in trouble you’ll drive differently than if you think of the laws as a shared set of instructions so that we can anticipate each other’s predicable behaviors and get to our destination safely. Then the law becomes the baseline, and we adjust our driving behaviors for safety. Sometimes being a safe driver means our own personal driving standards will exceed the requirements of the law.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit Ask a question.

Doug Dahl, Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force, answers questions about road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices every Monday. Ask him a question using our form. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit