Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A mad cap idea

This was my column last Monday, November 10.

Road safety is something that we all need to be concerned about. God knows there are just too many crazy people out there who simply should not have been given a license to drive a car, much less a public transportation vehicle. They cause monstrous traffic jams either because of their sheer recklessness, their utter disregard for road courtesy, or just by unadulterated stupidity. In the process, they inconvenience hundreds of thousands unnecessarily. Worse, they endanger lives. In fact, many lives have been lost to road accidents caused mainly by incompetent or unqualified drivers.

So yes, our quest for road safety should begin with a thorough review of the manner in which we grant driver’s licenses in this country. By all means, we should make it more difficult for people to get a driver’s license. We should put in place better, perhaps more stringent measures to ensure that applicants for a driver’s license understand the responsibility incumbent upon them. We must make sure that drivers have the necessary qualifications required to be given a license.

I wouldn’t say it in the same way as Land Transportation Office chief Alberto Suansing so dramatically put it when he likened driving a car as something that is no different from holding a firearm, which, according to him, “if not handled properly [it] could hurt and even kill somebody.” But I am willing to concede that he has a point there.

Unfortunately, I don’t quite agree with Suansing’s latest madcap idea. If the man had his way, he would require all drivers to undergo a neuro-psychiatric test before licenses can be granted or renewed. Yes, the man wants to add yet another test to the battery of tests that applicants for renewal or for a new driver’s license have to take. At present, applicants for a new license have to take a written test, an actual driving test, a physical and medical examination, and a drug test. Those applying for renewal of their driver’s license have to take the physical and medical examinations and the drug test.

I have nothing against taking a battery of tests if the tests are valid and reliable. If these tests guarantee that people who have no business driving a vehicle on the road are not given licenses, then by all means we should have them. Unfortunately, the current tests are really nothing but money-making ventures that add dubious value to the process.

The written examinations are a sham because the questions are easily made available by fixers to anyone within a 100-meter radius of the LTO offices— for a handsome fee, of course. Actually, there is no need for the leakage because the questions are so simple and don’t require the use of anyone’s mental faculties. I am not sure this is still true today, but when I took my written examinations in the early nineties the questions and the correct answers were in fact written on the walls of the LTO offices as some kind of a reviewer. When my son took his written examinations this year, the driving school that he went to gave him a reviewer, which really was the entire examination, in toto.

The actual driving test is simply another bureaucratic step that adds nothing to the process but length and obviously, more opportunities to fleece money from applicants. Applicants simply sit behind a steering wheel and move the designated practice vehicle (a contraption that can give anyone a bad case of tetanus) a few feet forward and then backwards. Either they don’t have money to pay for gas or the LTO personnel are just too damned lazy to do their jobs properly. At any rate, it’s a no-brainer because even a five-year-old can do it. Of course, one can simply pay off the LTO personnel assigned to oversee the driving test and not do it at all. A friend refused to go inside the designated practice vehicle because it was too filthy for comfort and she got away without having to do the practice test by sheer stubbornness and good old-fashioned taray (snootiness). Because my son went to a driving school, he was exempted from having to take the driving test, which raises a few more embarrassing questions. Technically, driving schools can simply certify anyone they want to.

What about the supposed medical and physical examinations? It’s a lot of BS. The clerk of the accredited medical clinic goes through the motions of checking visual acuity, taking one’s weight and measuring one’s height—and that’s about it. When a friend went to renew his license recently, he was asked to take off his glasses so he can read a chart. Of course he blew his top because he was precisely wearing glasses because his vision was not 20/20. I have more tolerance for this kind of nonsense so when I renewed my license this year, I humored the assigned clerk. I aced the test and the assigned clerk commented on my perfect vision without even bothering to check if I was wearing contact lenses—which I was at that time.

The drug test is yet another example of institutional foolishness. To begin with, we all know that there are drugs available out there that one can take to ensure that traces of prohibited substances are not detected in one’s urine. Not that there’s a real need for that kind of subterfuge— one can bring another person’s urine sample since they don’t actually watch applicants take a leak. I can understand the trepidation that those assigned to oversee the process must have; one has to be a total pervert to get a kick out of watching a procession of people taking a leak.

So we know that the current tests are at best, dubious. And we want to add yet another test—and one that’s even more complicated and takes a particular expertise to administer.

As someone who studied psychology and supervises the conduct of psychological testing for employment, I know for a fact that neuro-pyschological tests take at least six hours to administer. Yes, I think they actually mean neuro-psychological testing instead of neuro-psychiatric testing as the latter is a far more complicated endeavor that requires even more specialized expertise that is very rare even in advanced countries. But I doubt if they even know the difference. Less intensive testing may take less time but lots of hours are still required for the psychologist to review records, score tests, interpret results, formulate diagnoses, and write a formal report. The results are not easy to interpret and industry standards require that the person who administers it has at least a master’s degree in psychology.

And even then, the results cannot be considered definitive. What we get, at best, are indicators because psychology, much less psychiatry, is hardly a precise discipline. The test has been standard requirement for security guards and military personnel for the longest time now. It has not succeeded in weeding out scalawags from the service, has it? In short, it’s an idea that is not practicable in a Third World country that likes to take a lot of shortcuts. What will happen is that we simply add another test that really does not do anything except enrich a few corrupt officials and their business partners.

In addition to the inherent issues of validity and reliability of the test, an additional problem is the possibility of relying too much on the tests in the process disregarding the other factors that play a major role in ensuring road safety. We’re talking about stringent enforcement of traffic rules, discipline on the road, structural issues such as better roads and carefully designed routing schemes, etc. Yes, incompetent and unqualified drivers are to blame for the dismal state of road safety and the horrendous traffic in this country but they are not the only problem. There’s more and we probably have better luck fixing these other things first.

The problem really is this bureaucratic mindset that our officials seem to have. When things don’t work, they automatically assume that crafting yet another law, or creating another regulatory body, or adding yet another administrative wrinkle will solve the problem. Suansing’s madcap idea of requiring drivers to take neuro-psychiatric test is a classic example of this kind of feeble-mindedness.

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