February 12, 2005

Hey, I’ve Got An Idea! Sorry If It’s Deadly….

Imagine for a moment that I've designed a brilliant new transportation system: Individual supersonic shuttlecraft! They can get you wherever you need to go conveniently and incredibly quickly, and they have anti-collision systems that guarantee you'll never have a crash. And, they're so cheap, the vast majority of Americans would be able to afford them.

However, there's just one problem with them: They sometimes blow up. I calculate that they'll blow up at a rate that, if people used them for all their transportation needs, they'd kill about 40,000 people a year.

Are you interested?

OK, now change the scenario. Same speed and affordability for my shuttlecraft, and they don't blow up anymore. However, they also don't have the anti-collision system. And they're kind of difficult to learn to pilot and navigate. If everyone uses them for all their transportation needs, I estimate that the difficulties in avoiding deadly collisions will kill about 40,000 people a year.

Is that more palatable?

Final scenario: A transportation device that is orders of magnitude faster than walking, but when used regularly by the vast majority of Americans, consistently kills about 40,000 people/year. It's called the automobile, and our society simply accepts these deaths as a cost of the modern era. WHY???

Says the Orlando Sentinel: "The art and science of driving safely is so overlooked these days, it seems, that despite enormous progress in vehicle safety features and roadway design, despite massive campaigns against drunken driving and for seat-belt use, we're still killing more than 40,000 of our fellow countrymen every year."

I disagree with some, but not all, of that.

We have NOT had anywhere close to enough progress in roadway design. And there's also the issue of new, larger vehicles (SUVs and others) that are proving more deadly to others -- they're more likely to kill both pedestrians and occupants of conventional passenger cars.

But I do agree that people do not take driving seriously. It's hard to kill someone accidentally when you're walking. A split-second of inattention behind the wheel, and you could be the cause of a deadly accident. But how many people are concerned enough about that so they have all their concentration on the road at all times, instead of fiddling with radio, CD player, phone, etc.?

The Sentinel article is definitely worth a read. "Bad driving has caused so much carnage that last year the World Health Organization declared it a public health issue," the piece notes. Another interesting point: The decline of civility is proving deadly.

"People have this sense of entitlement," Boston College associate professor of psychology Joseph Tecce told the Sentinel. "And when they're anxious and late for an appointment, they're going to run over their grandmother if she gets in the way."

Update: Also worth a read: What Call Is Worth A Life? in the Washington Post, where Dan Carney worries that "Phone driving is the drunken driving of the new millennium. Seemingly everyone does it, and all of them seem to believe that they are skilled in a way that prevents their powers of perception from being clouded by the fog of isolation that envelops drivers who talk on the phone.

"Everyone who isn't on the phone while driving sees evidence of it every day, as drivers weave and stutter drunkenly through traffic...."

And requiring hands-free headsets is NOT the answer. "Exxon Mobil prohibits its employees from talking on the phone while driving company cars. It did so after conducting a study finding that the braking reaction time of phone drivers is three times longer than that of drunk drivers. ExxonMobil researchers also found that phone drivers are as likely to rear-end the car ahead as drunks, and that they are unable to maintain position in their lane. As with all other studies, Exxon Mobil found that it makes no difference whether the driver uses a hands-free phone."

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