Weather-Ready Nation? Lessons from driver ed.


The previous LOTRW post touched on the idea that public schools teach kids important life skills in addition to the formal disciplines such as reading, writing, history, mathematics, and branches of science. In the past such life skills included wood- and metalworking and home economics (often by another name, such as family and consumer sciences).

The 21st century requires an additional life skill: the effective use of information technology. Note that effective use means more than mere facility – off-the-charts gaming skills or high-frequency use of social media. Rather it means the ability to harness today’s IT to accomplish one’s larger personal life goals – education, development of professional work skills and career accomplishments, spiritual formation, and more.

The LOTRW post zoomed in on one sliver of this – use of IT to build and maintain personal readiness in the face of weather hazards. Right now such readiness, or its lack, preoccupies the weather enterprise – the community of government agencies, private weather-service firms and academia collaborating to deliver weather warnings to the public. The question is: why, given that weather predictions have so improved, do death-and-injury rates, property loss, and economic disruption remain so high? Enterprise minds have concentrated on improving information delivery and messaging content.

But perhaps improved public uptake lies in another direction. It could be that awakening in each of us a sense of personal responsibility for seeking and acting on such information may matter as much or more than the quality, timeliness, and accuracy of the weather information itself.

To help see how this might work, let’s consider another important life skill young people have always been eager to learn: driving.

Think about it. Put yourself back in your frame of mind during those years. To get the keys to the car, or (if you happened to be one of those teenagers preternaturally gifted with parent-management skills) an actual car of your own? This was literally to grasp the keys to adulthood. To mobility. To freedom. And perhaps above all – to the social life you’d hungered for.

Or (lapsing into the autobiographical here), you could be a year younger than everyone else in your class, and consigned to the social outer darkness for most of high school. (Get over it, Bill. The girls tell me that wasn’t your only problem then.)

The stakes were high. So high, that you were willing to…

 …shoulder genuine responsibility. To start, you accepted the fact that before you could even take the wheel you’d have to build your knowledge and understanding of traffic regulations, roadway signage, a whole body of material on psychological reaction times, and braking capabilities, and how they played into the distance required to stop a car at different speeds. There was technology, and physical science, and social science, all co-mingled, and despite your aversion to much of the individual pieces of this material in the abstract you couldn’t master it in its totality fast enough.

You quickly made peace with the fact that you’d have to practice driving. That you would need to be licensed. That your license wasn’t a right, but was contingent on competency. That your competency would be periodically be reevaluated. That driving was governed by actual laws, not mere rules. That ignorance of any or all traffic and roadway regulations was no excuse for breaking any single one. That there would be punishments for lapses on your part – suspension or revocation of that precious license, fines, jail time, maybe even personal injury. Or, worse yet, the risk of living the rest of your life with some horrible, life-changing memory of how you’d damaged or ended the lives of others.

And again, because you were a teenager, you likely came face-to-face with the idea that you couldn’t just be responsible exclusively about driving, and solely during those hours you were actually on the road. You had to be responsible in other spheres of life. Your parents seized on this opportunity. They let you know your driving privileges would be contingent on whether you’d completed your homework, done your chores, been respectful to other family members, etc.

Years ago, you embraced all this. You’ve lived with this set of responsibilities every day since.

Given that this is LOTRW, a final observation: you and I are perhaps more weather-ready when behind the wheel than we are at home. When the rain or snow starts, we know to turn on the windshield wipers and the headlights. We know that the distance required to come to a stop increases, and that it’s time to slow down and increase the spacing behind the care in front. We know how to control the car in a skid.

Moreover, chances are good that if we’ve ever been terrified by the weather, it was in a car. The rain or the hail would start, and visibility would drop to zero. At the same time, the noise on the car roof was deafening, drowning out any audible cues of pending trouble. We were in danger if we kept moving, and we were in trouble if we stopped.

And we knew: whatever happened next, we were responsible. There would be no blaming of others in the weather enterprise. It was on us.

Perhaps, in today’s interdependent society, you and I can and should extend our understanding of our individual responsibility to include being weather-ready. When you and I make our homes on hazardous land, or construct those homes improperly, or through development practices lead others to do so, our decisions and actions in the face of weather hazards don’t just affect our safety, but those of others. Our kids and family. The neighbors downwind when the windblown debris from our house batters theirs, or when the burning embers from our house set theirs ablaze in the path of a wildfire. The search-and-rescue units who risk their lives looking for us after the hazard passes through. When we evacuate because we chose to live in places and in such a manner that shelter-in-place was not a possibility, we create incremental danger for other evacuees. When we evacuate despite being advised that our home is safe, again, we pose additional hazard to others. And when we’re complicit in development practices and social policies that contribute to poverty and confine the poor and disenfranchised to fragile construction in floodplains and atop seismic zones, we’re also responsible.

(These contingencies don’t arise daily, Bill. In fact, for most of us, they never happen. And regulations are fuzzy or lacking here, okay? Don’t expect me to feel guilty on this one. I’ve got bigger, more immediate problems.)

True enough. But it’s not about feeling guilty; it’s about responsible behavior.

Just saying.


A footnote. At some point in the future, when the Google car becomes a commonplace, and all automobiles are computer-controlled, we’ll say goodbye to yet another arena where we have unambiguous, intimate, firsthand experience of what it means to be personally responsible. Rules of the road? They’ll only be a concern to faceless car manufacturers, insurance companies, and governments. All we’ll have to do is complain. We’re drunk as a skunk? No matter. The car can still get us home. Too busy to go personally to the kids’ soccer games? Not a problem. The kids can go by themselves this time. Weather posing a hazard getting to and from school today? Again, we’ll let others pay attention to that.

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