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rules of the road

Among the myriad TV shows aimed at those who derive pleasure from watching others make fools of themselves is, Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?

The show is a hit because people love to see 10-year-olds outsmart grown-ups, which is child's play, because no matter what lofty heights we have reached, few adults can remember much of what we learned in Grade 5. Most have enough trouble remembering what we had for lunch, never mind the details of the Peloponnesian War.

Less amusing, though, is that this tendency to forget the basics also applies to steering a 1,000-kilogram vehicle on high-speed roads filled with other 1,000-kilogram vehicles.

While most of us probably aced the written driving test back in high school, odds are that few could score anywhere near as well decades later. The longer you drive, the more you forget.

It's not because our memories are failing – did I already say that? – but rather that we slide into habits, good and bad.

If police conducted pop quizzes on the rules of the road, many of us would be taking a bus home.

To illustrate this, I recently enriched my life by leafing through the Ontario transport ministry's drivers' handbook and discovered things that I have either forgotten or never knew.

The first thing that jumped out was a passage on making left turns at a controlled intersection, a move I thought I had mastered so well I considered putting it on my résumé. "When waiting to make a left turn, keep your front wheels straight," the book said.

I knew that, although I cannot remember the last time I actually thought about it. I'm pretty sure my wheels have been turning left for years, if not decades, despite knowing that they could turn me into a hood ornament if I were rear-ended.

Then there's the the U-turn, a manoeuvre that requires the use of turn signals. I have to admit guilt on that one, having somehow completely forgotten about signalling – the way many people apparently have on all left and right turns.

But forgetting is one thing. Then there's the matter of complete and utter ignorance, such as what to do when pulling over for an emergency vehicle while on a roundabout.

Now, the fact that I – like most Canadians – will detour to Kapuskasing before entering a roundabout probably explains why I didn't know that you're supposed to exit the circle of Hell before pulling over.

While I felt badly about the gaps in my knowledge, I take solace in the knowledge that my failings are minuscule compared with those of my fellow motorists. Based on observation, legions of drivers have forgotten to "drive in a courteous and considerate matter," not make U-turns on red lights, not pass snowplows or school buses with flashing lights, give pedestrians the right of way and "leave room for merging vehicles" on expressways.

Maybe manufacturers should place a copy of the drivers' handbook in every glove compartment, like those hotel room Bibles.

They'd probably do a lot more good.

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