When I first arrived in Tucson just about a year ago, I thought that the grid system in this city of a million people would be far less troublesome than the traffic system in my own city of London, a dense, rabbit-warren-y, roundabout-ridden place with some 15 million residents.
How wrong I was.
I became complacent almost immediately as I tootled along the wide boulevards in my Nissan Sentra. In no time at all, I was speeding, zigzagging from lane to lane and neglecting to put on my seat belt.
I passed both my theory and practical tests on the same day at the Motor Vehicle Division on Stocker Drive. I've got to be honest: The practical driving test was pure Mickey Mouse. A three-point turn into some traffic cones, five minutes on the road, a couple of left turns and three right turns is all it took.
But in no time at all, I've found myself feeling shocked, nervous and vulnerable on Tucson's roadways--being crowded and intimidated by dirty pickup trucks and designer Humvees, finding myself being willfully blocked as I tried to change lanes, and witnessing serious accidents almost daily, usually caused by red-light running or violent and reckless lane changing.
I even checked out the statistics on the Tucson Police Department Web site. In 2006, there were almost 17,000 reported accidents, 4,300 odd of which resulted in injuries, and 58 in fatalities. These numbers are appalling. Moreover, given that the laws here in Tucson are very tough, it begs the question: Why all the accidents?
On drink driving, for example, you are more likely to end up behind bars, on less consumption, than in London. But many of the Tucsonans you speak to are more willing to take risks than us Brits. The sheer horror of injuring or killing someone while drunk at the wheel does not seem to deter a great many drivers here. I have discussed it with a couple of my compatriots who live here, and we have identified a distinct cultural difference between Tucson and the U.K., which we are struggling to explain.
I am of the opinion that radical measures need to be introduced to address this major societal problem. Accordingly, here is my eight-point plan to try to reduce accidents and make Tucson's roads safer:
1. Make the driving test harder.
2. Change the law which gives driving instructors of private companies the right to sign off their clients to drive without having to pass a test at the MVD.
3. Install cameras at every set of traffic lights in Tucson.
4. Introduce on-the-spot fines for blatant abuses, including dangerous lane changing, cutting corners and driving too close to the car in front.
5. Initiate a major publicity campaign to incorporate a code of conduct, in an effort to increase awareness and encourage people to drive responsibly.
6. Award points and prizes for skillful and considerate driving. Road cameras can be used positively as well as punitively.
7. Introduce an Arizona Lottery scratch card with the funds going solely to the roads-driving issue.
8. Place maximum emphasis on saving lives and reducing injuries. The city of Tucson parking code includes very harsh fines--$150 for parking within 30 feet of an intersection, or for parking in an alley or within 10 feet of an alley entrance, and $518 for parking in a disabled space. Reduce these amounts, and increase fines for offenses that more directly endanger lives.
Although I am more comfortable on Tucson's roads now, I drive with great caution and have a more acute sense of danger than I ever did in London.