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Home arrow Opinion arrow Editorials arrow Dangerous drivers

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Dangerous drivers

For a lot of us, the most dangerous thing we'll do in a given day, statistically speaking, is drive a car. Or ride in one.

Which is why one of government's most vital tasks is to make sure people who are licensed to drive know what they're doing.

Trouble is, many drivers need to prove their competency at the controls only one time — when they take a driving test. Drivers who pass that brief and not especially demanding test can thereafter renew their license many times, over many decades, without having to demonstrate their driving proficiency.

Oregon's Legislature tried to deal with this shortcoming in 1987 by creating a program through which police can report drivers who, though they didn't necessarily break a law, seem lacking in basic driving skills.

The state Department of Motor Vehicles looks into such reports and, if the complaint seems valid, the agency can require the driver in question to pass written, driving and vision tests within 60 days, or surrender his or her license.

This program is a valuable safeguard. It helps to protect not only drivers whose abilities have diminished, but also their passengers and, since out-of-control cars do not discriminate in who they crash into, the general public.

Police reports alleging unsafe drivers were public records, available to anyone. This is as it should be — police are public employees, and the citizens who pay their salaries have a right to know what those employees are up to.

But the program changed in two ways in 2003 — and they weren't both for the better.

One change was positive. DMV expanded the reporting program so that anyone, including relatives and doctors, could file a report claiming a licensed driver was not competent.

Where DMV went wrong, though, is in deeming all reports, no matter who filed them, confidential, and thus out of the public's reach.

DMV should have granted anonymity to everyone except police officers.

Fortunately, DMV last week revised its policy a second time. Police reports are again public, as they were from 1987 to 2003. Complaints made by people other than police remain confidential.

Relatives and others should be allowed to file confidential complaints, and for a simple reason: They're more likely to report potentially dangerous drivers.

Critics contend that confidential reports from relatives could cause rifts in families because a driver who is forced to retake DMV tests might accuse a relative of, in effect, ratting him out.

Such situations are unfortunate, to be sure. But they're worth the risk. DMV has a duty to encourage people to report questionable drivers, no matter their personal feelings. Guaranteeing non-police complainants' anonymity is an incentive; refusing them anonymity encourages whistleblowers to keep quiet, and silence, in the case of dangerous drivers, can be deadly.

In any case, DMV statistics show that the bad driver reporting program isn't causing widespread family discord — about 85 percent of the complaints are made by police officers, not by relatives, doctors or others.

Police who turn in a potentially dangerous driver don't need to hide behind a veil of secrecy. They're just doing their jobs.

If a person who is summoned by DMV to take a driving test reads the complaint and berates the police officer who filed it ... well, that's no different from a driver who argues with a cop over a speeding ticket.

DMV's overriding goal must be — and the aim of its reporting policy is — to ensure people can pilot a vehicle without putting themselves, and a lot of other people, in undue peril.

People will survive the hurt feelings caused by family squabbles.

When a bad driver loses control, people die.

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