Thursday, December 01, 2005

Road Rage

LONDON (Reuters) - Deaths from car crashes in developed countries are nearly 400 times greater than those resulting from international terrorism, according to a study published on Thursday.

As many people die every 26 days on U.S. roads as were killed in the September 11, 2001, attacks, and politicians should bear this in mind when allocating resources to combat two "avoidable" causes of death, researchers said.

I have been driving for what seems like *forever*. Actually, it is 30 years, or thereabouts, since I first donned a bright yellow crash helmet and wobbled precariously down Bybrook Road on a second hand moped.

In the years that followed, I estimate that I have driven between three and six hundred thousand miles, on both sides of the road, in about ten countries and on two continents. I have taken, and passed, driving tests in cars, vans, mini-buses, motorcycles, forklift trucks and on a tractor.

At the same time I have been involved in five minor accidents. Only one of these was my fault (the most recent one) all were minor, and only one involved an injury (to me). I have ten years no claim discount with my most recent insurance company.

I consider myself to have an average driving record, and I think I am an average driver. I am actually aware that I am not quite as good as I was ten years ago, and have responded by generally driving a little slower, and more carefully. Ironically this probably makes me a safer driver than before, and doubly ironic is the fact that the only accident I have ever had that was my fault, was the most recent. This was a minor *rear-end* on a wet Interstate 40. The cars in front were stopped, I *very nearly* stopped too, but the Teflon Tyres on the pickup didn’t want to cooperate …. Such is life.

So, with my experience of a variety of driving conditions, vehicles, roads and countries, I have reached a few conclusions.

The first is that the worst driving I have ever encountered is here, in the United States. Not everywhere, y’understand. I had no issue at all in Maryland and Washington DC, but *here* here …. Oklahoma. Yes, by the way, I have driven in both France and Italy!

I need to be mindful that *I* am the newcomer, the one unused to local customs and traditions. Like the one that says that *weaving in and out of fast moving traffic in a bright red Chevvy pick-up with *spinners* on the wheels* is not only appropriate, but positively life-enhancing. Let us neither forget the charming habit of joining a highway, from a minor sideroad, by pulling straight out into the off-side lane and proceeding to drive along at 30mph, just a few yards in front of cars bearing down on you at anything up to 90mph. Don’t worry, they’ll swerve round you. Seriously though, the practise of *under-taking*, that is, passing on the inside of slower vehicles is the norm. It takes some getting used to. Try it in the UK and you’d expect a blast from the guy you passed at best, and a prosecution for dangerous driving if you were seen doing it.

I am not suggesting that *under-taking* is inherently dangerous, but it is when you aren’t expecting it; and Limeys just don’t expect it ( From what I see daily, many Americans don’t expect it either.

As I drive the streets and highways around here, it’s surprising there aren’t more accidents. People on phones (every other car it seems). Folk reading the paper, putting on make-up (British women, and some of the men, do this too), chastising the kids, not strapping kids down, dogs jumping around ……. The worst feature though is simply a general lack of awareness of what is going on around, coupled with a few complete lunatics who, quite frankly, shouldn’t be allowed to drive. Not in a million years.

I have long held the suspicion that every new safety and comfort development the car makers comes up with, further isolates the driver from the road, and other road users to the point that some of them don’t seem to realise that others actually exist. When I started to drive (first motorcycles, then cars), drivers were constantly made aware of the limitations of their vehicles, and had a much greater *contact* with the road and other road users. There was also a good deal less traffic to contend with, and speeds were lower.

These days, all that is reversed. Crumple zones, side impact bars, anti-lock brakes, seatbelts, airbags ….. you actually have to work quite hard to hurt yerself in a modern car, although try and remember that other road users don’t benefit in the same way. At the same time, better heating, audio systems, sound-proofing and, especially here, suspension set so damned soft you wonder if there is a road at all; all serve to encourage a belief of *quiet invincibility*.

Why else would a guy, with his wife and kids in the car, tailgate an 18-wheeler at about 80mph on Highway 75? I mean, he can’t see past, he couldn’t possible stop in a hurry. If the truck brakes hard, this nice family is dead. The guy doesn’t want to kill his wife and kids so I can only assume he simply has no concept of the danger he just put them all in. I know a degree of tailgating by aggressive drivers has always happened, but this is different. It’s routine! Commonplace and frightening.

Washington DC (like the UK) has already outlawed the use of a handheld phone while driving. If it’s a good idea in DC, where the important people (sic) live, then surely those in the *flyover* states deserve the same level of protection? I know there are those who will wish to defend their (probably Constitutional) right to call their Mom while driving, but the UK banned the practise and hey! the world as we know it did not end. It’s just a small example.

One thing that I do like here is the idea that a State issued drivers license is a privileged, not a right and, in some States, it can be suspended for not being a *good citizen*. There are, however, serious issues of double jeopardy in the way this idea is implemented.

It does seem to me that one of the ways we can reduce the accident rate is to help drivers regain their awareness of their surroundings, in a much more meaningful way. If we can drastically reduce the vast number of minor accidents caused by inattention, etc, then the way is clear to identify the real abusers, and get them off the road.

To the brain dead moronic tailgaters there is an easy answer. The problem appears to be one of their neanderthalic belief in their own invincibility. This is a cause for concern because it’s always some poor innocent they kill, someone who had no choice but to stand in the bus queue they ploughed into …. You get my drift …..

After the first offense I suggest they are made to drive *adapted* cars. It can be a model of their choice, but here is the rub. All the safety devices are removed. No anti-lock brakes, no airbags or seat belts. Remove the side impact bars. Then, bolt a 10 inch steel spike to the centre of the steering wheel.

That should slow the buggers down.

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