So I've been working on my private pilot's license-- one of the many reasons this blog has been relatively quiet-- and there is a marked contrast between the ways that we license cars and the way we license pilots. Our driver licensing system is obviously insufficient, because drivers that don't know how to operate a vehicle clearly keep getting on the roads, and even repeated violations of traffic law are often insufficient to lose one's license-- even egregious lapses of judgement, such as driving under the influence and causing fatal accidents, often result in little or no suspension of driving privilege. Given the sheer amount of carnage on our roads, it is kind of astounding how little scrutiny is applied to motorists and their ability to operate their vehicles.
Consider this: when I earned my driver's license, at age 16, I was required to have four hours of behind-the-wheel professional training, and classroom training that essentially amounted to the instructor reading out of the DMV driver's handbook. My wife had zero hours of professional instruction, and zero hours of classroom instruction, as she was over the age of 18 when she earned her license. I took a simple 20-question multiple-choice exam, which I likely could have passed without any preparation, and I was observed by a DMV examiner for roughly half an hour while driving in light traffic, on surface streets, on a benign day.
And, with that, I was given the privilege to operate anything from a motorcycle with a sidecar to a massive RV, day or night, in good weather and bad, and nobody will ever scrutinize my driving ever again*. At worst, if I engage in a particularly egregious moving violation and actually get pulled over, I might have to attend "traffic school"-- which can now be completed on the Internet in less than an hour, and which will still not result in anyone actually re-testing my skill in operating a motor vehicle.
Contrast that with my pilot's license. In order to take the private pilot's exam, you need a minimum of 40 hours of flight time, of which 20 must be with an instructor and 10 must be carefully-planned solo time. Most pilots actually take 60-70 hours of instruction before being judged competent to take the "checkride"-- aviation slang for the practical exam. The written exam is 70 questions and over an hour long, and actually requires some pretty rigorous study, especially on things like weather and atmospheric conditions, aircraft performance, and flight navigation. The checkride also has a significant theoretical component-- an oral exam often lasting more than an hour, which examines both the applicant's knowledge and their judgement-- and the flight test is often 90 minutes to two hours, requiring demonstration of a wide variety of maneuvers, including simulated emergency procedures.
And after all that, a pilot is only granted the ability to fly relatively light aircraft under reasonably good weather. Flying bigger, faster planes or planes with tailwheels requires additional training. Flying seaplanes, gliders, multi-engine aircraft, flying for hire, or flying in bad weather all require another trip to the FAA examiner, along with their own requirements for flight training and accompanying written exams. And even then, to keep one's flying privilege, pilots have to be recurrently trained every other year, with a minimum of one hour's ground training and an hour's flight time with an instructor.
So, am I saying that a driver's license should be as difficult to get as a pilot's license? No. There are a lot of differences between flying and driving-- the most significant being that, once you're in the air, you can't pull over and get help-- and driving simply isn't subject to the same voluminous amount of theory as flying is. But it should be a hell of a lot more rigorous than it is now. Drivers should be required to get at least some professional instruction before getting their license, and I particularly think that recurrent training ought to be a more significant part of drivers' lives. Perhaps it would help bring down the atrocious traffic fatality rate.
*My driving was re-tested, once, because I got my motorcycle license.