Licensed to Drive – Canada Ranks at Bottom

Should re-testing drivers be a mandatory component of making our road safer? Do we do enough training to prepare drivers for Manitoba road conditions?

This excellent article (see below) by Kelly Taylor was published in the Winnipeg Free Press  in mid-summer and you may have missed it – I did!  It is well worth the read.

Kelly Taylor is a Winnipeg Free Press copy editor and award-winning automotive journalist. He’s been a member of the Automobile Journalists’ Association of Canada since 2001. He was named Automotive Journalist of the Year in 2002, a runner-up for the same award in 2014, and has earned numerous other awards and accolades for his automotive writing and photography.

Not so Swede – With Canada ranked third-worst in road safety, can Sweden be a model for driver training?


It took Mattias Strandberg 27 lessons, a written test and two in-car exams to get his driver’s licence.

It’s not that the 25-year-old university student is awkward or inept: he lists hockey, reading, politics and soccer among his hobbies. It’s simply the price of admission to drive on the safest roads on Earth.

Strandberg doesn’t live in Canada or the United States. He lives in Sweden.

A U.S. Centers for Disease Control study — titled Vital Signs: Motor-vehicle Injury Prevention, a comparison of data from 20 developed countries — shows Sweden is the lowest-risk place to hit the road. Canada and the U.S. were in the bottom three.

That Canada did poorly doesn’t surprise Rick Morelli, one of Canada’s top advanced driving instructors.

“The very core of driving competency is weak in Canada,” says Morelli, whose holds dozens of instructional programs a year at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park east of Toronto.

“Almost all of the drivers who attend our track novice program do not know why they have to sit correctly in their seats, why they have to hold the steering wheel at nine and three and where and when they need to look when driving.

“This alone, with today’s driver’s aids, would save many crashes and health-care dollars.”

Mattias Strandberg
SUPPLIED:  Mattias Strandberg.  Strandberg’s reaction to the study’s results was mixed. 

“It surprises me to hear that the U.S. and Canada were the worst,” the Gothenburg resident says. “That Sweden did better was not too surprising, as the country has high ambitions when it comes to reducing the number of traffic-related deaths.”

High ambitions, indeed. Sweden is the birthplace of Vision Zero, an aggressive plan aimed at eliminating road fatalities. It starts, as all plans should, at the beginning.

Obtaining a driver’s licence in Sweden as a novice driver is no easy task. As in Canada, it starts with a learner’s permit, which allows a beginner to drive with a supervising passenger. But unlike here, that passenger can’t be just any licensed driver. Only approved driving instructors can offer lessons; moms, dads and anyone else must take a special course with the novice before they qualify as supervising drivers.

The learner’s permit is available at the age of 16 in Sweden, but new drivers aren’t eligible to take the road test for cars and light trucks — which Sweden calls a Class B — until their 18th birthday. In other words, they have lots of time to prepare for the next step.

Trafikverket, the Swedish traffic authority, recommends novices alternate learning theory with practice. It’s a pattern that works in every field it’s used: learn, apply. Learn, apply.

In addition to learning the theory and how to apply it, prospective drivers must also take a mandatory course on risk. Part 1 deals with alcohol and impairment, risky behaviour and fatigue. Part 2 deals with speed, safety and challenging conditions, including introductions to collision-avoidance, skid-recovery, emergency braking and roadside repairs. The hands-on portion of the course — called Riskutbildning — occurs on a track sprayed with oil to be slippery, and students are instructed to lose control.

Applicants have a maximum 50 minutes to complete the 65-question theory test. Anything less than 52 correct answers is a fail.

While Strandberg aced that part, “I failed my first driving test after making a couple of significant mistakes, and in retrospect, it was clear I wasn’t ready.”

He has no problem with the stiff requirements.

“I find it reasonable the process is difficult because driving is no walk in the park, and a proper driver’s education could be the difference between life and death.”

In the United States, 90 people — nearly 33,000 a year — die each day in vehicle crashes, the CDC says. That translates into 10.3 deaths per 100,000 among the 20 developed countries in the World Health Organization ranking. Canada is third-worst, with 5.4 per 100,000. Only New Zealand prevented Canada from winning the silver medal of death; Kiwis die at a rate of 5.6 per 100,000 every year. Sweden’s rate is 2.7 per 100,000.

Canada ranks “dead” last in the same group of nations in the number — 34 per cent — of crash deaths in which alcohol is involved. Sweden and the Netherlands are first, at 19 per cent.

Speeding accounts for 42 per cent of deaths on Finland’s roads. At 20 per cent, Canada isn’t among the worst 10 countries listed.

Oddly, of all the recommendations the CDC makes in regards to road safety, none involves improving driver education.

John Jacobson is the general manager of the Mercedes-Benz Driving Academy for New Drivers in Canada, based in Vancouver. His curriculum was developed with a sampling of leading experts in driving instruction from around the world. Not surprisingly, it mirrors, in part, the Swedish model by alternating a program of classroom instruction and hands-on driver training.

The goal, according to Danny Kok, one of the lead instructors, isn’t to get students to pass the driving exam, it’s to teach students to drive. Passing the test is secondary. “We really don’t care how many kids pass the test. If they’re not ready, they’re not ready,” he says.

“It’s a big problem in the industry that schools are so focused on getting new drivers to pass the test.”

Ask Jacobson for a glaring omission in Canadian driver training and his answer sounds much like Sweden’s courses in risk management. Psychology — getting people’s heads in the right spot for driving and teaching them how to control impulsive behaviour — is one of the biggest weaknesses, he says.

“People don’t have crashes because they don’t understand driving, they have crashes because of external pressures: being late for an appointment, being in unfamiliar areas and searching for routes,” he says. “Those issues can be dealt with effectively with the right curriculum, the right training.”

Jacobson said the key to learning to drive is practice. But the right kind, supervised the right way.

“Mercedes recommends 120 hours of practice before they drive by themselves. Statistics tell us there’s a 40 per cent less chance of being in a collision in the first few months of driving solo.”

That practice should be actively supervised, he says. “Often, you’ll see parents sitting in the car texting or completely disengaged, and the kid is just driving them around.

“We engage our parents as much as we can in our courses — as many classroom lessons as they can come to. Then they can put our methods into practice with their kids.”

Many jurisdictions in Canada specify a set number of hours and suggest the keeping of records, but there’s little to no enforcement. Mercedes’ goal of engaging parents, and Sweden’s requirement for obtaining approved status for supervising passengers, is about countering a longtime problem in North America: if your teacher is a bad driver, you’re going to learn to be one, too.

Jacobson also expresses dismay at a lack of followup from authorities.

“In B.C., there are 600 licensed driving schools, and we have absolutely no idea what kind of job the schools are doing,” he says. ICBC (B.C.’s equivalent to Manitoba Public Insurance) has access to this information because everybody has a licence number. You should track accidents, prohibitions, violations — figure out what parts of driver training are working and what parts aren’t.”

In Sweden, having experience in slippery conditions is mandatory before a new driver can challenge for a licence, a requirement that makes a great deal of sense in any winter country. However, that’s more about teaching students to recognize when to adjust driving to conditions than it is about perfecting skid-recovery techniques. Jacobson supports that approach, and cautions that new licensees are not yet ready for higher levels of advanced driver training.

Kok, who participated in the interview with Jacobson, says he agrees, but says authorities must learn to differentiate between various levels of advanced driving education. “New drivers shouldn’t be on a race track,” Kok says. “But they should know how (anti-lock braking) works.

“We haven’t defined advanced driver training. On our Canadian course, you learn about panic stops from 50 to 60 km/h. Some people call that advanced training. I call it driver training.”

Most of what gets taught in advanced courses should really be considered the basics: seat position, hand placement, steering-wheel position. If your position isn’t correct, you’re either unable to brake hard enough or your arm movement — and thus, your steering — is restricted. Vision is also paramount, and failure to look in the right places is another oft-cited failing of those beginning advanced-driver training.

Like Sweden, Canada has moved to graduated licensing, where it takes five years before a new driver gets an unrestricted licence. But Jacobson is incredulous the mere passage of time is enough to qualify a driver to advance to higher stages. There are no requirements for having driven a certain number of hours and no re-testing to confirm a progression in skills.

Erin Sauber-Schatz, head of the Centers for Disease Control's Transportation Safety Team.
SUPPLIED:  Erin Sauber-Schatz, head of the Centers for Disease Control’s Transportation Safety Team. 

Erin Sauber-Schatz heads the CDC’s Transportation Safety Team and co-authored Vital Signs. She says the goal was to determine whether the U.S. has done a good job of reducing vehicular deaths. Turns out it did, for a while. Between 2000 and 2013, vehicle deaths dropped 31 per cent, but that’s no longer the case; the U.S. National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration predicts a 7.5 per cent increase for 2015 compared with 2014, once all statistics are tabulated.

Sauber-Schatz says in the U.S. — the land of the free, home of the brave — seat belt use remains low, which contributes to the number of fatalities. More than half of the people killed aren’t buckled in.

She says the study didn’t focus on driver education, though after reflection, she did say it could be a factor in improvement going forward, especially with vehicle crashes being the leading cause of teen death. being the leading cause of teen death.

“If that includes improvement in driver training, in supervised driving with parents, we need to do everything we can to keep teens safe on the road as they learn to drive.

“It’s heartbreaking that 3,000 teens lose their lives on U.S. roads every year.”

Colleen McCracken is a medical clerk living in Winnipeg. Five days a week, she drives from her home in East Kildonan to the Health Sciences Centre campus and back. She said she’s often amazed at the bad driving she sees, including the male driver who attempted to go straight from a left-turn-only lane, colliding with her car.

From drivers who race ahead in a dying lane and then forcefully zip in at the last moment to drivers who don’t pay attention to signage, the extent to which horrible behaviour behind the wheel puts others at risk is a daily frustration to McCracken, who has 31 years of driving experience.

“I don’t think it would be a bad idea to have drivers re-tested,” she says. “I don’t know if I would pass the test if I had to do it over.”

She said would support stiffer requirements for driver licensing and a system to re-test drivers as they move up levels in the graduated system.

Her own children are now at or approaching driving age, raising her anxiety level. “I think the Swedish model is worth looking into. I think it would give new drivers some confidence.

“The emphasis should be on prevention rather than after the fact.”

Change is coming in Manitoba, according to Manitoba Public Insurance, which manages driver training and licensing in the province. Spokesman Brian Smiley touts the institution’s high school program, in which some 12,000 students per year learn to drive.

The program consists of 34 hours of classroom instruction, eight hours of behind-the-wheel instruction and eight hours of in-vehicle observation, as well as 24 hours of practice driving with a qualified supervising driver.

“Program evaluations demonstrate that in addition to being more likely to pass their driving test, teen drivers who take the high school program also have less involvement in collisions and driving offences once licensed,” Smiley says.

Still, Smiley says MPI is embarking on a multi-year initiative to re-develop the program “based on research of best practices, including driver-training requirements and outcomes in Sweden and other European countries with strong road-safety records.”



The new program will include new training technology, greater focus on situational awareness, hazard recognition, challenging driving conditions such as snow and ice and gravel roads, and decision-making skills. Guardians will also be equipped with more information designed to enhance the value of supervised practice driving.

Smiley says high school participants should start to see some of these initiatives this fall, starting with in-class simulators and the addition of vehicle telematics systems.’s Morelli gives MPI’s outline high marks. “It seems inclusive and broad enough,” he says, adding he hopes it will extend to improved basic training. “I am very skeptical key driving skills are being taught correctly.”

He doesn’t buy the argument new drivers need to be shielded from proper training.

“All drivers deserve the truth and consequences of abusing the knowledge. The minimum age to drive is set to coincide with a person’s sense of responsibility,” he says. “If parents don’t think their children are responsible to drive, don’t give them the keys.”

Morelli believes knowledge is power, not danger. He thinks car control is vital to learning how to drive.

“Providing all drivers with the knowledge and practice of the fundamentals in car control will make them more skilled and thereby safer in a very short period of time, much like swimming lessons,” he says.

Unfortunately, the MPI program is available only to high school students and is not mandatory. As well, the requirements to be an instructor say that professional driver instruction training is “preferred,” but not required. It costs $1,399 to earn certification as a driving instructor at Red River College. The program consists of 50 hours of classroom teaching, 20 hours of in-car training and a final exam.

Not surprisingly, Mercedes-Benz’s Jacobson is an advocate of improved training.

“Intuitively, it seems to make sense that more training would help,” he says. “If we had ways of effectively measuring drivers’ experience — violations and crashes — before and after training, we would know for sure.”

It’s here where Jacobson and Morelli might need to agree to disagree. Jacobson advocates holding off advanced car-control skills until drivers have gained more experience at the wheel.

“For example, a driver who was given additional ‘advanced’ car-control training may just use the newfound skills to drive even more aggressively,” he says. “What he really needs is to balance that training so there is some focus on the psychological aspects, as well.

“Driver-centred, effective training would almost certainly make our roads safer.”

Sweden’s approach isn’t limited to driver training, and the results are mixed. There are still large numbers of impaired-driving offences (13,045 in 2015) and hit-and-run cases (19,553), but efforts continue to educate the public about safe driving. Still, the rate of impaired driving relative to the population in Sweden is about half of what it is in Canada.

Bad drivers are dealt with quickly and severely, says Mats Strandberg, Mattias’s father. “There are high fines, and the risk to really lose the licence for three to six months on repeated violations, or on single violations with more than 30 km/h excessive speed on 110 km/h

And there are speed cameras “everywhere,” he says.

Yet, neither Mats nor Mattias harbour any delusions Swedish drivers are perfect.

“It depends on how one defines ‘truly incompetent,’ but I can say Sweden is not free from bad drivers,” Mattias says. “However, we might be spared from the most crazy cases, such as wrong-way driving, overtakings on the roadside, and so on.”

His father credits the strict instruction. “There are careless drivers anywhere, and Swedes are not calmer drivers, I think,” Mats says. “However, the training makes people realize risks better, perhaps, and they adjust speed to road conditions.”

Mattias says the Swedish culture plays a large role in the attitudes toward driving.

“I think Vision Zero permeates the road-safety debate in Sweden, and therefore people are more likely to think more can be done to prevent injuries than simply that ‘accidents happen.’ The vision is basically about striving towards a future where no one is killed in traffic.”    Read more by Kelly Taylor.