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It’s official: The cars have gotten smarter, and we’ve gotten dumber. The evidence is all around us every day, but it comes into sharp focus when drivers are confronted by that most confounding of disruptions – broken traffic lights. Shock. Alarm. Chaos.

I had the opportunity to examine the phenomenon close up when a stretch of road was blacked out. At intersection after intersection, I witnessed a colourful array of human folly. It was like a National Geographic documentary. I could imagine the narrator describing the action. “Evidence that the species was doomed to extinction was most clearly discovered when drivers – who had passed both written and practical tests in order to receive their licenses – were utterly baffled by what to do when coming to an intersection where the traffic lights were out.”

It’s challenging for me to choose which boneheaded move was the best.

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Was it the drivers who sat still – frozen – for minutes, and then lurched into the intersection at high speed?

The drivers who cruised through the crossroads at 30 km/h without ever considering stopping?

The drivers who stopped, started, then stopped in the middle of the intersection?

The drivers who took the lights being out as an opportunity to ignore signs prohibiting left-hand turns?

The drivers who were on their phones and didn’t realize the lights were out until they almost caused a collision?

No, it had to be the pickup truck that stopped at one intersection, waited and passed through, only to blitz through the next one at what looked like 60 km/h, almost t-boning a minivan. That’s the prize-winner.

Everyone should know that the best way to navigate an intersection when the lights are out is to treat it like a four-way stop. The law, at least in Ontario, says that drivers are to treat lights out as an “uncontrolled intersection.” Yield to the vehicles that are already there. Yield to the vehicle on the right if you both arrive at the same time. You don’t have to stop but you should. It’s easier and safer.

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How is it possible then, that so many drivers are confused?

Simple. Our high-tech cars have made us feeble. A vast majority of us have no idea how they run. All we need to know is how to press a button. I count myself among the ignorant. I know how to change a tire, but I haven’t done so in years.

This was not always the case. Both my grandfathers, for instance, could not only change a tire, but they could do their own roadside maintenance. It was just like in the movies. You know, the car breaks down and the hero pops the lid, and after some work says, “Try it now.” Then the engine starts. They could do that. They had to know how to do that. Driving was a skill. Cars were relatively simple, broke down frequently, and there was no roadside assistance to speak of. The ability to fix a car (at least well enough to get it to a shop) was a part of driving. I can recall my grandmother telling me I should take auto mechanics in high school. “What if your car breaks down?” she explained.

Our vehicles are the most sophisticated ever made. Comparing a car from 1990 to one of today’s breed is like comparing a First World War biplane to a Cessna. They park for us. They drive for us. They are connected to the web. They have heated seats. Many cars are more luxurious than the average Vancouver or Toronto bachelor apartment. Shouldn’t this allow us to be the best drivers ever?

Yet we still crash them at an alarming rate. In 1998, according to Transport Canada’s National Collision Database, there were 145,615 personal-injury collisions. In 2017, there were 112,479 personal-injury collisions. That’s only a 23 per cent [33,136] reduction. Given our highly advanced automobiles, our better awareness of the dangers of drunk driving and other serious offenses, shouldn’t that difference be a lot higher after almost 20 years?

No wonder we’re flummoxed when we meet a traffic light that doesn’t tell us exactly what to do. That’s the state of driving in the 2020s. Never before in the field of human endeavor have so many done so little with so much.

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