Fixing the Traffic Safety Problem
by Thomas Day
I woke up this morning to the babble of politicians explaining why we needed a law that would allow cops to stop motorists for “seat belt violations.” Nothing will put me in a bad mood faster than the sound of politicians pretending to care about their constituents (aka “victims”). Their argument, as lame as it is, is that forcing us to wear seatbelts will save insurance companies and the medical system money.
Absolutely no consideration is ever going to be given to the logic that says “if we’re forced to give up something, the insurance companies and medical systems should give up something, too.” That last fantasy is an example of that “magic of the market” bull-crap that pretends that corporations and their execs operate on some sort of closed-loop supply and demand system that will “automatically” adjust to accommodate improvements in operating costs.
We all know any additional profits will simply end up in golden parachutes and even bigger executive bonuses. A few bucks will end up in politicians’ pockets, but not a penny will find its way into the pockets of the folks who will experience the joy of being stopped, harassed, and robbed for seat belt “violations.” Some of us suspect that wasting law enforcement resources on piddling revenue-generating “violations” is a way to avoid doing the dangerous and dirty work of real law enforcement; an effort that would be valuable to the community. Motorcyclists know that enforcing compulsory seatbelts is a micro-step away from a helmet law. A helmet law is a few steps from banning “dangerous activities” like motorcycling altogether. I worry that we’re coming dangerously close to taking that cultural step.
However, listening to the political fruitcakes got me thinking about a solution for two critical national problems; traffic congestion and traffic safety. Back in the dark and primitive days when American companies actually manufactured things, manufacturing engineers discovered that it’s impossible to “foolproof” complex systems. No matter how clever the system, a creative fool will find a way to screw it up. The only workable solution to complicated problems is to get the fools out of the system. Unfortunately for US manufacturing engineers, that meant moving most manufacturing out of the United States, but that’s another issue.
Still, getting the fools out of the system will work for traffic problems. I’ve worked pretty hard over the years to stay out of the “Minnesotans are crap drivers” argument. Mostly, I think drivers all over the country are freakin’ awful. However, a few trips outstate lately have convinced me that we exhibit a few really discouraging driving traits. I mean “discouraging” in exactly the sense of the word. We are a state of incredibly timid drivers.
Rather than belting, buckling, bagging, armor-surrounding, and speed-limiting fools semi-safely in their cars, SUVs, and mini-vans, the solution to all of these terrible deaths, injuries, and wounded psyches is to purge the fools from the traffic lanes. Get the fools out of their single-occupant vehicles and into cabs, mass transit, padded cells, or sensory deprivation chambers. If the bureaucrats and politicians really cared about this particular section of the helpless masses, they’d remind them that driving is a privilege and that a lack of skill revokes that privilege. In case “the powers that infest” are interested, I’ve compiled a short list of eight driving habits that demonstrate skill and mental capacity deficiencies that ought to result in lost driving privileges (as if you’re surprised this was coming?):
1. A driving tactic that seems to be ingrained in Minnesota culture is the attitude that whines “my lack of planning is everyone’s problem.” Since moving to Minnesota, I’ve witnessed the origins of dozens of traffic jams. It’s almost always some dumb-ass who discovers he’s in the wrong lane and stops to make a lane change. Two out of three times it’s been a middle-aged guy doing the jamming. Trust me, it’s not that the Twin Cities are becoming too large for the existing freeway lanes. These guys are the reason our freeways have stopped moving. Someone who really was Minnesota-Nice would simply deal with the mistake and drive to the next exit to turn around and get back on track. Real drivers in every state make that sacrifice out of respect for the other occupants on the road. I think we all know what kind of person believes the rest of the world should stop revolving while he contemplates his next move.
2 . I believe this state is the first place I’ve witnessed this particular trait; people who have to pump the brakes in the middle of making a turn. While this is a dumb driving tactic, it’s incredibly dumb when they’re whacking on the brake petal a couple of feet after leaving a stop sign. How the hell can you be going too fast when you’re barely moving? Driving is a skill that requires a bit of courage. If five miles an hour is moving too fast for your cornering skills, I suggest you buy some nice walking shoes and . . . freakin’ walk, you gutless wimp!
3. Speaking of stopping to review navel fuzz, what’s with the inability to deal with freeway entrance ramps? People who don’t know the word “merge” do not belong behind the driver’s seat. Here’s a hint, merge does not mean “stop, wait for traffic to take pity on your dumb ass, and let you crawl into the flow of traffic at one-tenth of the prevailing speed.”
4. I drove my motorcycles almost 200,000 miles on California freeways and roads, wondering who was jamming up traffic and what kind of stupid move that moron had made to create such a mess. I spent my whole ten years in California hoping to meet one of these traffic obstacles and never even got close. I was in Minnesota exactly two weeks before I witnessed a driver stopping in the far left lane (of three) and waiting for traffic to “clear” so she could crawl across two lanes to make a right turn in rush hour traffic. If I’d been issued a bike-mounted photon torpedo, I’d have eliminated that traffic obstacle, permanently. However, my only weapon was my voice and she seemed to be oblivious to everything in her environment. Since then, I’ve been present to witness dozens of similar stupid maneuvers, and every one of the perpetrators is completely amazed that someone would take issue with their driving tactics. So much for cold weather Darwin’ing out the terminally stupid. What nature would destroy to improve the species, a cradle-to-grave social net and way too much automotive safety equipment preserves for unknown purposes, I guess.
5. I’ve harped about bumper-hugging tailgaters before, but I still think these folks grossly overestimate their skills. Probably the influence of too much NASCAR and too little common sense. I still think a rational vehicle licensing system would instantly and permanently void a driver’s license after a single rear-ending accident. If you’re stupid enough to slam into the back end of a vehicle, you’re too stupid to drive.
6. Poor reflexes and inattention ought to be a licensing criteria, too. Thirty-some years ago, I visited Chicago for the first time. I was waiting in a line of traffic behind a stop light, when the light changed, the first three cars took off together, the fourth car’s driver was not paying attention, and the fifth car simply pushed the fourth dim-bulb across the street until that driver decided to take control of his vehicle and got with the program. Nobody stopped to whine about minor bumper damage. Later, I learned that this was a common traffic maneuver in mid-1970’s Chicago. If you’re not capable of paying attention, someone else would do it for you, just to keep traffic moving smoothly.
7. Today, we have the opposite kind of intersection activity. The slowest witted drivers in a shallow breeding pool miss their light change, so they waddle into the middle of the intersection, turn their wheels into the flow of traffic, and wait for the light to change so they can jam up traffic in the cross-direction while they crawl through the turn. That’s assuming a cell phone call doesn’t interrupt the turn, requiring the idiot to continue blocking the intersection for at least one more light change. In civilized states, “stopping in an intersection” is a traffic offense. In California, I used to love seeing flashing lights following some dimwit who’d misgauged a turn and ended up stopped in the middle of an intersection. This is just another example of uncivil behavior; the belief that your incompetence should be everyone else’s inconvenience. If you can’t make the turn, starting from the pedestrian line on your side of the intersection, you are either too late or too pitiful a driver to deal with traffic. Live with it.
8. Cell phone users simply take every single tactic listed above and incorporate them into their everyday driving style. Personally, I’d rather be surrounded by drunk drivers than cell phone users. Cell phone users are more aggressive and arrogant and no more skilled than drunks. And, no, I can’t hear you now. I’m sure anything you have to say will be less important to me than staying on the road and avoiding other nut cases like you. Last fall, I saw a biker, stuck in freeway traffic, take off his helmet and attach it to an elbow, whip out his cell phone, and start a conversation in the middle of rush hour traffic. The woman in the mini-van behind him was also jabbering at her phone. When traffic started moving, she took off without looking and ran into the biker who hadn’t, apparently, found a convenient point to interrupt his conversation. When I left, they were both still dealing with their phones, but the bike was about half-way under the mini-van. If poetry and justice ever met, this would have been the moment.
It’s not uncommon to experience every one of these driving faults in a single driver making a single, simple traffic maneuver. Personally, I think any one of these offenses should result in permanent revocation of driving privileges. If we pared the traffic down to people who have the skills to drive, the capacity to know when to pay attention, and those possessing simple common courtesy, 99% of the state’s need for wider freeways would vanish. That would resolve the need to give up personal rights to protect the stupid.