Wheels I

Starting NowFour parts on the “rules of the road,” such as they are.

Let’s move on – from the hardware itself to the operating systems.

On reflection – of any length – I can’t put my finger on a single cause for what I perceive to be deterioration on a massive social scale in driving and related habits. (Granted, I’ve driven almost exclusively in California for the last two decades, give or take the odd rental car adventure. Our legendary and totally wrong-headed presumption that we Golden Staters speak for the rest of you notwithstanding, I hereby confine my remarks to us 37 million Left Coasters. Otherwise, if the foot fits the accelerator, adapt for your own area’s analysis.)

Is it rank ignorance, because driver education has gone the way of all other “non-essential” curricular features – like art; civics; critical thinking; dance; grammar; imagination; literature; music; physical education; public speaking; and science? Is it the general breakdown in civility and manners? Is it our growing distraction and isolation, fed by a false sense of urgency and “necessary” electronic gadgetry? It’s likely a combination of those factors, the degree depending on context, but screw further introspection – I’m here to peform my usual public service of cataloging and complaining bitterly about specific transgressions, throwing in the occasional, sarcastically genuine tip for improvement – or genuinely sarcastic remark, as the case may be..

Mindful that 95 percent of all automobile accidents are caused by driver, cycling, and pedestrian – literal noun, not figurative adjective – behavior (vehicle equipment failure and poor roadway design or maintenance make up the other five percent) and without further ado, off-center behaviors, from Life-Threatening to Mildly Annoying:


Speed. No arguments here; the data are indisputable. Some salient facts, courtesy Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety:

  • Speeding-related crashes resulted in 13,192 fatalities in 2004. (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, NHTSA, 2005)
  • The economic costs of crashes that involved excessive speed were $40.4 billion, representing 18 percent of total crash costs and an average cost of $144 for every person in the United States. (NHTSA, 2002)
  • When speed increases from 40 mph to 60 mph, the energy released in a crash more than doubles. (IIHS, 2003)
  • Research by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) found that when speed limits were raised by many states in 1996, travel speeds increased and motor vehicle fatalities went up approximately 15 percent on Interstate highways in those states.
  • The relative proportion of speeding-related crashes to all crashes decreases with increasing driver age. In 2002, 39 percent of male drivers 15 to 20 years old who were involved in fatal crashes were speeding at the time of the crash. (NHTSA, 2003)
  • Alcohol and speeding are a deadly combination. In 2002, 42 percent of drivers with a BAC of .08 or higher involved in fatal crashes were speeding, compared to only 15 percent of sober drivers involved in fatal crashes. (NHTSA, 2003)
  • In 2002, 38 percent of all motorcyclists involved in fatal crashes were speeding. The percentage of speeding involvement in fatal crashes was approximately twice as high for motorcyclists as for drivers of passenger cars or light trucks, and the percentage of alcohol involvement was about 45 percent higher for motorcyclists. (NHTSA, 2003)

If you’re more graphically visual than conceptual, on a graduated license, or simply ride the short bus to school, and none of the above mean anything to you, imagine this: a collision with a stationary object at 35 miles per hour produces the same impact and amount of damage to the vehicle and you as pushing it off a three-story building. I remember seeing a video demonstration of this, but I can’t seem to locate an Internet reference. It might have been an imaginary but nonetheless frustrated science teacher on “Boston Public.” (Do you miss that show as much as Red and I do?) Anyway, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety has developed a wonderful lesson plan on seat belt use that includes that wonderfully graphic example, and others.

Categorical excuse-killers:

  • No, you will not get there faster – well, a little, perhaps, but marginally and certainly not worth the risk to you and everyone else. Mathematically, the gain in time per mile-per-hour is statistically significant and can be proven, but everything’s relative. Why make the already high risk of death and injury more probable? Please re-read the above, noting carefully the relationship between increasing speed, energy, and vehicle mass. If you still don’t get it, find someone with tape on his eyeglasses to explain it to you. Here’s a wonderfully nerdy analysis of variables that affect one person’s daily commute. His conclusion? While adjusting actually commuting time and arranging vacation days during periods of highest congestion may incrementally save several minutes weekly, the only real solution is [drum roll] getting cars off the road. Join him in his call to action.
  • No, your seat belts and air bags will not save you. Re-read the lesson plan, Aristotle.
  • No, your superior driving skills will not carry you through safely. If you were that good you’d be wearing body armor and pushing a loud, fiberglass hulk a quarter mile or one-way, counterclockwise, for money.

Tailgating. It astonishes me every time behind the wheel that so many drivers have so little respect for Sir Isaac Newton and all those cool physical laws he identified. Are that many people behind the wheel who never took applied physics – or who slept through the best parts, if they did? Why are so many of them young and unsettlingly female? (My personal, rear-view research tells me that young males riding my back bumper are in full-on, aggressive mode; with few exceptions the chickies seem placidly attached in a Zen-like state – and that’s, like, totally scary.)

As a public service, here’s a short course on the physics involved in determining stopping distance. (Please perform all calculations outside the vehicle, at rest.) If the sight of more than one formula and associated variables in one place makes your head hurt, try this:

x² ÷ 20 + x = Overall stopping distance in feet, where x = speed

Say your speed is 60 miles per hour; here’s the solution:

60² ÷ 20 + 60 =

(60 x 60) ÷ 20 + 60 =

3600 ÷ 20 + 60 = 240 feet.

Given a (generous) average vehicle length of 20 feet, folks, that’s twelve car lengths – assuming you’re not otherwise distracted. If the sight of any formulas, numbers, or characters makes your head hurt, try this: at legal freeway speeds (U.S. interstates, not Germany’s autobahns) pick a stationary object adjacent to the vehicle ahead of you and count, using the “Gulf-Coast-State-Between-Louisiana-and-Alabama Method.” (You know: “ONE, Mississippi; TWO, Mississippi…) If you pass that same object any sooner than “THREE-Mississippi,” back off!

Categorical excuse-killers:

  • No, the fact that your vehicle has antilock brakes will not reduce your stopping distance. Google “coefficient of friction,” please.
  • No, the fact that you are young, virile, and hormonally wealthy does not give you lightning reflexes; all three of those factors, combined with a lack of experience, frustrate cognitive ability.
  • No, you will not get there faster. If you’ve ever used this excuse, shred your driver’s license and surrender your keys to a responsible adult –or a child of any age who is obviously more mature than you are – immediately.

Next Week: Gadgets and getting on and off.

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