Peter M. De Lorenzo has already issued a righteous smackdown to Kent Sepkowitz, whose New York Times op-ed earlier this month was titled "No Need for Speed." De Lorenzo, however, preferred to concentrate on Dr. Sepkowitz's bid for membership in the Politburo of the Nanny State; my own point of view is a bit different, if every bit as unfavorable.

The problems start right in the first paragraph:

Speeding is the cause of 30 percent of all traffic deaths in the United States — about 13,000 people a year. By comparison, alcohol is blamed 39 percent of the time, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But unlike drinking, which requires the police, breathalyzers and coercion to improve drivers' behavior, there's a simple way to prevent speeding: quit building cars that can exceed the speed limit.

There was a simple way to prevent drinking, too: the Eighteenth Amendment. We all, possibly including even Dr Sepkowitz, know how well that worked out.

Despite all this, we Americans insist on the inalienable right to speed. Imagine, for a moment, if E-ZPass kept track of exactly when each car entered one toll booth and exited another, which would allow local governments to do some basic math, dividing distance traveled by time spent. If this calculation showed you to be a speeder, the authorities would send you a traffic ticket. Lives, money and oil would be saved and proof of wrongdoing would be undeniable, but the public outcry would be deafening.

This also means that someone who stops for fuel or food between exits might get a free pass, inasmuch as the stop will of necessity increase the time used. Let's say you've gotten on the Pennsylvania Turnpike at Norristown, heading for Fort Littleton. This is 154 miles; at 65 mph you're looking at two hours, 22 minutes. If you spend half an hour grabbing a snack at Carlisle you can average 82 mph during your actual driving and not get busted by an automated system. (Rule One: any system can be gamed.) Obviously a system that can't come close to guaranteeing its results isn't going to stand up worth a damn in a court of law.

Which leads the good doctor to this:

Because the ticket-them-till-they-stop approach simply would not work, we might consider my initial recommendation: build cars that can't exceed the speed limit. The technology to limit car speed has existed for more than 50 years — it's called cruise control. In its common application, cruise control maintains a steady speed, but a minor adjustment would assure that vehicles, no matter the horsepower, never go past 75 miles per hour. This safety measure should be required of every new automobile, the same as seat belts, turning signals, brake lights and air bags.

This approach has exactly the same problems as Corporate Average Fuel Economy: "[The] standards don't actually work until nine or ten years down the road when most people have replaced their guzzlers, unless you're willing to require everyone to buy a new vehicle built to the higher standards." You think there's going to be an outcry over EZPass-based ticketing? Wait until you tell Joe and Susan Sixpack that they have to spend ginormous sums for new vehicles that literally aren't as competent as their old ones. An Administration, or a Congress, who so decreed wouldn't have to wait for a mere election to be removed from office: they'd be physically ejected from the premises in a matter of hours. Meanwhile, whatever changes have to be made to the vehicles' computer systems will be swiftly unmade. Count on it. Just this year, Nissan was boasting that no one would be able to soup up the new GT-R. They were wrong.

Around more enlightened parts of the world, such as where I live, traffic moves along as swiftly as the laws of physics permit, minus whatever deductions apply for individual acts of stupidity. You're not likely to be busted for 10 over on I-44's north loop — unless you do something foolish like cut across two lanes while you're 10 over. You don't have to believe me; ask Macaulay Culkin.

And one last pair of points which cannot be made too strongly: There may be substitutes for fuel; there is no substitute for time, not now, not ever. What's more, you can't "save" lives. You can only delay the time when they end, maybe. To quote from Mr De Lorenzo's rant:

Life happens. Fast. And most of us understand that there are consequences for our actions and that bad things can happen sometimes. But we're willing to gamble it all and go out of our houses each and every day because going through the motions — or living with the "fear" that something bad might happen to us if we actually live our lives — is a risk we're willing to take.

Now if you'll excuse me — or even if you won't — I have places to go.

The Vent

  14 September 2008

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 Copyright © 2008 by Charles G. Hill