Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas!

And have a happy and safe New Year!

Friday, December 21, 2007

The last ride

Here's another sad sight -- crushed cars and trucks that have been loaded onto trailers destined for that final ride to the salvage yard or steel recycling center. This photo was taken less than a mile from the abandoned gas station featured in the previous story.

Remembering how it used to be...

Here's a painful reminder of how cheap gas used to be not so many years ago. This derelict Chevron station offered full service at self-service prices. The attendant sat in the little booth next to the pumps. Now the station and convenience store have been abandoned for several years and the underground storage tanks have been sitting untouched above ground. This property is located at the junction of two major US highways, so it is puzzling why someone hasn't purchased the property and opened a new business.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Another inconsiderate

A few weeks back before the leaves had fallen off the trees, my wife and I took a Sunday drive to the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah National Park just west of my home. We used the back roads at first and then headed west on US Route 33. The first photo show the view just west of Stanardsville, Virginia, after the road narrows from four lanes to two as it heads up toward Powell Mountain. At this point, the road was wide open as in the photo, with a 55-mph speed limit. As we entered the twisty section around the mountain and had to slow down, a Chrysler Pacifica rapidly closed in on us and practically hooked itself to our rear bumper (at the locations of the second and third photos).

Then in a clearly marked no-passing zone (fourth photo), this speed-crazed idiot passed us. But he soon had to brake when he caught up to slower moving cars ahead of us. When the road reached the steep ascent to the Blue Ridge and opened up to 2 lanes uphill, he passed the other vehicles. The total distance from the twisties to the 3-lane part of the road was only 2 and 1/2 miles. He passed us only one mile short of the widened road. The last photo shows what could have greeted him in the oncoming lane during his ill-considered pass. All this effort and danger just to save a minute or two at best! What stupidity!

Friday, November 30, 2007

NPR responds

I had e-mailed National Public Radio (NPR) back on November 14 after their broadcast of a story on the evening program "All Things Considered" about an alleged record-breaking cross-country road trip: "I don't understand why you seemingly condoned this 'outlaw' racer's speed run across the country. With more than 43,000 deaths still occurring annually on our highways, glorifying this sort of irresponsible behavior is totally inappropriate for NPR. You wouldn't cover the experiences of a driver who drinks alcohol to excess, would you?"

The following day (Thursday) when NPR airs some of the e-mails, I missed that segment of the program.

Earlier this week however, NPR responded by e-mail:

Dear Mike,

Thank you for contacting NPR's All Things Considered.

We regret that our programming has not met your expectations. We strive to offer the highest quality of news and information available. Listener feedback helps us to accomplish this goal.

We welcome praise, as well as criticism, and your thoughts will be taken into consideration.

Thank you for listening to All Things Considered, and for your continued support of public broadcasting. For the latest news and information, visit NPR.org.


NPR Services

Obviously, this was a canned response, but still it was more than I expected. The "outlaw" who was the subject of the story raced alone against the clock from New York City to Los Angeles. He made the run in less than 32 hours, supposedly breaking a record last set in 1983. He had to average something like 90 mph over the entire length of the trip. Being alone, he had to stay awake the whole time, stopping (infrequently) only for fuel and bathroom breaks.

So not only he did he risk others' lives due to his speed, but also he had to be greatly fatigued after the first half day or so, compounded by driving mostly at night and constantly on the lookout for the police. In my opinion, this is idiocy of the highest degree, but NPR made no mention of his irresponsibility.

Monday, November 26, 2007

They don't build them like this anymore! #4

This beauty is a 1955 Chevrolet 210 2-door sedan in a pleasing two-tone combination of blue and white. The 210 was the middle trim line in the Chevy lineup for that year, between the top line Bel Air and low line 150. The car was a smash hit for Chevy, marking the first model year of the what came to be called the Tri-Chevys (1955-57 models) and some of the most coveted classic cars of all time. A V8 engine was optionally available for the first time starting in 1955, but I believe this car has the tried-and-true 6-cylinder engine. The car was spotted along Main Street in Highland Falls, New York, just across the street from the visitor center and museum of the US Military Academy at West Point.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

I couldn't have said it better myself!

Here's a quote from "Dynamic88" commenting on this news article in The Truth About Cars:

"I don’t know what tougher licensing requirements has to do with this [getting people to drive more safely, especially in regard to controlling their speed]. People speed because they want to. If we could figure out how to do something about the stupidity factor, then we’d be making progress."

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Get your kicks on Route 66!

In the small town of Ash Fork, Arizona, a portion of historic US Route 66 still exits. Last spring during our trip through the southwestern US, my wife and I were traveling west on I-40, exited at milepost 146, and entered the old route that looped through the town. We immediately spotted these two old cars at a gas station. The one on the left is a 1957 Oldsmobile 4-door sedan and the other is a 1962 Buick Special 2-door sedan. Both are beyond redemption in terms of restoration, but they were still fascinating to behold. As is readily visible, cars rust differently in the arid Southwest, from the top down as the intense sun takes it toll on the paint. The sun also ravages the cars' interiors.

A little farther up the road, we came to DeSoto's Beauty and Barber Shop, complete with a 1960 DeSoto 2-door hardtop perched on the roof of what clearly had once been a service station (top photo). The last full model year for the DeSoto happened to be 1960; after a short production run of 1961 models, this storied nameplate passed into history.

We were about to re-enter the interstate at milepost 144 when we saw a sign directing us to an apparent continuation of historic Route 66 leading west out of town. Alas, after we traveled just a few hundred feet and rounded a curve, the crumbling remains of the road became visible, with a broken white line down the middle. (The US switched to broken yellow lines in passing zones of 2-lane highways starting in 1972.) Needless to say, we had to turn around and get back on the interstate.

This minor diversion of maybe 20 minutes or so provided a wealth of memories (see post below for more about supposedly "wasted" time). Get your kicks indeed!

Friday, November 2, 2007

Time, time, time is on our side...

This has to be one of the most absurd arguments I've seen in the controversy over the setting and enforcement of speed limits:

I am continously astounded that no one seems to value time while everyone is concerned about lives. LIFE IS MEASURED IN TIME! What’s the use of saving one life if you have to waste a million man years to do it? At some point, the government has a responsibility for balance. If a million people a year waste an hour along a stretch of highway because the speed limit is too low, that’s tragic. We need a balance, yet we continuously only look at the “safety” side of the equation (from a commenter on The Truth About Cars about England's speed enforcement cameras).

This is sheer lunacy. I can think of a lot of other ways that one's time is "wasted" in the course of a day: waiting in line at the grocery store check-out counter, waiting in the doctor's office at 4 pm for your 3 pm appointment, or even "wasting" time by sleeping 8 hours when maybe you could "get by" on five. Or how about spending day after day at an unproductive, tedious job?

Besides, every state in the US other than Hawaii has maximum speed limits of 65 mph or higher on its rural interstates or equivalent roads (Hawaii's maximum is 60). In the Midwest and South, limits are typically 70 mph, and west of the Mississippi River, the majority of states allow 75 mph. Texas permits 80 mph, the highest in the nation, on over 500 miles of I-10 and I-20. If you can maintain 75 mph for 6 hours, stopping only 10 minutes every two hours for a break, you can travel 450 miles in a total of 6 1/2 hours. This isn't good enough?

From earlier entries on this blog, you can see I get a lot of enjoyment from traveling the slower back roads, where I've encountered amazing, beautiful, or quirky sights that would be completely missed by hustling along the interstates. Equating such time wasted with human life lost is, to use this commenter's words, "tragic."

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Far from the madding crowd

Rural 2-lane roads are statistically much more dangerous than interstate highways. Still, with the constant traffic on so many US interstates including huge numbers of trucks and people in such a rush in their cars jockeying to get ahead of the pack, it can be a relief to take the older, quieter roads. It seems that the notion of "getting there is half the fun" has long been forgotten, and now everyone just wants to get there, wherever "there" is, in as little time as possible.

Meanwhile, on certain back roads at certain times, there is a solitude that simply can't be found on the interstates. This photo of the open road was taken last Sunday afternoon on US Route 340 just west of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the scenic Shenandoah Valley between the towns of Elkton and Waynesboro, Virginia. Oncoming traffic was light to moderate, I never had to pass a slower moving vehicle going my way, and no one approached my rear bumper for the entire 30-mile stretch.

Monday, October 29, 2007

A professional...with God on his side?

For yesterday's winner, I present this truck driver who drove up to my rear bumper at the beginning of a cloverleaf exit ramp from the bypass around my adopted home town to the main artery leading north out of town. Of course, he couldn't keep up with me around the sharply curved ramp, which is posted at 15 mph.

But later on, as I traveled up the 8-lane road (4 lanes in each direction) with frequent traffic lights, he again caught up with me. It's a little unnerving to say the least to have an 18-wheeler a car length or so behind you when at any second, one of those lights could turn red. I normally travel in the second lane from the right, because the far right lane is used by drivers entering and exiting the many businesses lining the road, and I was going the posted 45 mph speed limit.

I did decide to pull over to the right, because he obviously wasn't going to be bothered with passing me on the left where cars were going slower than I was. Interestingly when he got around me, I saw the signs on the rear of the trailer. A few miles up the road, I caught up to him at one of the many red lights and was able to snap the pictures shown here. One sign read, "This driver is a professional," with a phone number to call in his driving behavior, the other one had a quote from the Bible (Romans 8: 31), "...if God is for us, who can be against us?"

So I presume he believes God will keep him out of a smashup? Not in my opinion!

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Another crash death close to home

Back on May 19, I posted an item about highway crash deaths that occurred near my residence. Another roadside memorial recently went up for the death of Gabriel ("Gabe") Ryan Dean on August 30, 2007. He was only 25 years old and died within a quarter mile of the location where Travis Fitzgerald, mentioned in my earlier post, lost his life. According to police, Dean apparently lost control of his Yamaha R1 motorcycle in a curve while traveling at what may have been a higher speed than recommended for the curve. The motorcycle struck the guardrail shown in the photo, and the helmeted rider was thrown off his bike. The tragedy is that more than 100 deaths, on average, occur every day on US roads. But has highway safety ever been mentioned by any of the 2008 presidential candidates? Not that I can recall -- John Edwards' pricey haircuts get more attention!

Friday, October 19, 2007

Higher speed limits INCREASE safety?

I couldn't believe my eyes when I came across the above op-ed headline (without the question mark and all caps) when I saw it in a copy of The Reflector, the student newspaper of Mississippi State University. The author, Lazarus Austin, was making the argument that in all cases where speed limits are raised in the US, highway deaths go down. He cited the myth of the German Autobahn, where death rates are supposedly lower than on US interstates, despite no limits on speed in most places. (This is no longer true, as more and more segments of the Autobahn do have posted limits.) He also stated that highway deaths increased when the speed limits across the US were lowered to 55 mph in 1974 following the Arab Oil Embargo. And he didn't fail to trot out the hoary falsehood that insurance companies support lower speed limits to rake in more profits. (After all, those speeding tickets give insurers an excuse to raise premiums.)

There was no way I was going to let this one go by, so I promptly fired off an e-mail to the author:

Mr. Austin,

After I read your editorial with incredulity, I was wondering if you attend Car and Driver College or the University of Motor Trend instead of Mississippi State University. What would you say to the following headlines, "Quitting Smoking Increases Cancer Risk," or "Condom Use Increases Chances of Getting HIV/AIDS?"

I'll have more to say in my blog about your blatant twisting of the facts regarding travel speeds and speed limits. In the meantime, I'd suggest you spend your time reading more authoritative material on highway safety rather than your favorite car enthusiast magazine.

As it turned out, I didn't have to say anything more. Adrian Lund, Ph.D., the president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, had sent this response to Mr. Austin, which was published in The Reflector:

It wasn't surprising to read that a young male driver finds speed limits inconvenient ["Higher speed limits increase safety," Oct. 16], but it's unfortunate that someone majoring in history would be so lax with the facts.

The author claims that higher speed limits have led to a decrease in the overall fatality rate. Basing such a claim on the overall death rate on all types of roads makes no sense. Many factors have pushed down the fatality rate over time including safer vehicles and increased safety belt use. Correlating speed limits on some highways to overall traffic death rates on all roads is like using national precipitation figures to measure rainfall amounts from Hurricane Katrina.

You have to look at the specific roads where the speed limits changed to measure the effect. Study after study shows more highway deaths when speed limits are raised.

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety research found 400 more deaths in 1989 alone on the roads where the speed limit was raised from 55 to 65 mph.

The author also is ignorant of the facts about the Autobahn. Research shows that from 1975 to 1986, before speed limits on rural interstates in this country began being raised from 55 to 65 mph, the death rate on the Autobahn was higher than on US interstates. Germany also has more stringent laws including a 50-mph speed limit for large trucks and a driving age of 18. Young male drivers have by far the highest crash rates, so perhaps the author would consider raising the driving age to keep the most dangerous drivers in the US off the road.

The bottom line is that safety is compromised, not enhanced, by higher speeds. There are plenty of opinions about speed limits. A discussion about raising them needs to be based on the facts.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

"Advanced" driver training for teens...worth it?

A poster on the forums on edmunds.com recently posed the following questions:

[I] drove back from MA with a couple from Europe the other day - (Germany and Holland). Trip was about 250 miles, and we got to talking about driving.

Their perception was that in the US driving is more haphazard... no lane discipline, erratic speeds etc, when compared to what they are used to in Europe.

Soooo, I'd like to ask about others' perceptions, and I hope we can do it without the whole "It's my right to drive as fast/slow/in between as I want in whichever lane I want" trip.

Do you feel that we are inherently safer on the roads, are you comfortable with your own skill, do you feel that driver training does anything for our young people.... those kinda questions.

As an example, Mr. 16 just got his driver's license, and I am not happy. To put it bluntly, the kid can't drive! He had driver's ed. at school, I paid for a few sessions with a driving school, and I did a lot of seat time with him, along with conversations about driving theory... however, the hand/eye coordination is not there yet, and I am concerned.

I plan taking him to a real driving school, something like Barber, Bondurant, or the equivalent, and (as much as it will increase my stress level in the short term, I'll be teaching him to drive a stick.

What other thoughts are out there?

I responded with the following:

My advice is to forget the "advanced" driving schools (I know this is heresy to some). I attended AutoWeek's Teen Driving Safety Summit in late August in the Detroit suburbs. In connection with Dodge and the Richard Petty Driving Experience, they provided an afternoon's worth of hands-on instruction in skid control, hard braking, and shoulder recovery for the attendees.

It was interesting to be able to experience skids and learn how to correct them (although I pretty much knew what to do from when we had something called "snow" back in the old days).

What amazed me was how hard it was to get the cars to skid in the first place, and this was on pavement liberally sprayed with soapy water. This confirms why in almost 40 years of driving, I've never skidded on dry or even wet pavement except briefly in a straight line for making hard stops. And I can probably count on one hand the number of times I've had to swerve sharply into another lane or partway off the road.

Rather, it's by learning to pay attention to your surroundings, drive at a prudent speed for conditions, anticipate what other drivers may or may not do, and act accordingly. If you drive in this manner, chances are you won't have to make an emergency maneuver in the first place other than a little hard braking.

As a parent, you're in the ideal position to give your son as much experience behind the wheel with you at his side. It's only through repetition that the above skills will be learned, and one day's worth of "advanced driving school" won't do the trick.

Now it wouldn't hurt to show him how to handle skids, but this should be icing on the cake, and you'll have to wait until there's snow or ice on the ground to do it safely at low speeds in a large empty parking lot (assuming security guards won't shoo you away).

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Studebaker treasure trove

On the way back on a beautiful fall day from a family wedding in Pittsburgh, my wife and I exited the Pennsylvania Turnpike at the town of Somerset to travel one of our favorite back roads, State Route 31. Just beyond the town and within shouting distance of the turnpike, which runs more or less parallel to Route 31, we stopped at an unusual salvage yard consisting almost entirely of Studebaker cars and trucks.

As we were photographing the cars, Jonathan Heiple came out of the adjacent house and explained that this salvage yard had belonged to his father James, who sadly passed away about a year ago at the age of 50. Jonathan opened the garage to show us his dad's 1962 Studebaker 4-door sedan. That car, in decent and eminently restorable condition, reminded me of my great uncle, also departed from this world, who preferred Studebakers before the company went out of the car manufacturing business, first in South Bend, Indiana in late 1963 and then for good in 1966 in Hamilton, Ontario. (He later switched to Volkswagen.)

The cars in the salvage yard span decades of Studebaker manufacturing, with a large number of the "coming or going" Studebakers of the late 40s and early 50s, the Lark compacts beginning with the 1959 model year, and even the remains of one 1963 or '64 Studebaker Avanti, the company's answer to the Corvette Sting Ray. The ravages of time have taken their toll on many of the cars here, but there are still many very usable parts available for the Studebaker collector. The business is still in operation, run by Jonathan's mother and older brother. They claim the business to be one of the largest Studebaker salvage operations along the Eastern seaboard. More information can be found here at their website.

Thank you Jonathan for spending some time with us and we wish you well in your studies at college!

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Speeding...or just going with the flow?

An interesting post came up in the forums on edmunds.com concerning gas prices. The poster was responding to an earlier comment from a Chicago area commuter who said he traveled at or slightly below the speed limit, mostly on 4-lane roads, on his drive to work. Others however drive like crazy only for him to catch up with them at the next red light -- the all-too-familiar "hurry up and wait" syndrome.

Here is the response to the commuter:

I'm not advocating that a person drive like a madman. I'm simply saying that if you drive at exactly the speed limit or a couple miles below on a road where traffic can't pass you then you are going to p___ people off. I've driven throughout most of this country and, for whatever reason, I've noticed that everywhere our speed limits are set artificially low. I've noticed that most people deal with this by driving around 6-9 mph over the limit, which is typically below what will put them at risk of a speeding ticket. Let's say the limit is 55 mph and you choose to drive 54 and have a bunch of people stacked up behind you that would otherwise be driving 63 mph. Would these people behind you really be saving all that much time? Probably not. Guess what, you're not saving all that much money [on gas].

My experience is the opposite of yours. I routinely drive a route that has a 12 mile stretch of road where it is almost impossible to pass. The posted limit is 50 mph but it is safe to travel considerably faster than that. Until a few years ago the predominant speed on this section of road was 60 mph, [but] it is now 50 mph. When you finally get to the end where there is room to pass you typically have 20+ drivers behind one guy that felt he was justified in imposing his will on everyone else.

I don't care if a person wants to drive slower to save a few bucks on gas. Just don't disrupt the flow of traffic.

I am especially amused by his saying, "for whatever reason, I've noticed that everywhere our speed limits are set artificially low." And my response would be, "in whose opinion?"

Well, I can tell you in Michigan that the speed limits aren't artificially low. Cars are allowed to go 70 mph on the metro Detroit freeways, and even major roads in the area with traffic lights like Telegraph Road have a 50 mph speed limit.

Most states west of the Mississippi have rural interstate speed limits of 75 mph for passenger vehicles. In Nevada, you can go 70 mph on the rural 2-lanes. On busy city streets in Los Angeles, the speed limit is 35. New Mexico allows 70 mph on undivided 4-lane US 550 (with conventional intersections even). The blanket speed limit in Manhattan is 30 mph. Certainly fast enough in all cases. I wonder if people driving on the parts of I-10 and I-20 in Texas that are now posted at 80 mph are complaining this speed limit is "artificially low" and bump it up to 86 to 89 mph.

If I'm "disrupting" someone's progress on a 2-lane road (one lane in each direction) by going the speed limit, my response is "too bad." However, I will encourage following drivers to pass me, if legal. If someone gets really obnoxious, like flashing his lights, flapping his arms, or getting so close I can't see his headlights, then I'll find a safe place to pull over. Or I wave them around in a legal passing zone. Funny thing, some of these people WON'T pass when you wave them around! Do they think I'm bluffing or somehow misleading them into a head-on crash?

Monday, September 24, 2007

Running with the big dogs

This photo was taken on I-275 southbound near Detroit. Lots of tractor-trailers were present on this highway on a weekday evening. The top speed limit in Michigan for cars is 70 mph, surprisingly allowed even on this roadway in the Detroit suburbs. Michigan however has a lower maximum speed limit for trucks: 60 mph. Ohio and Indiana also have split speed limits on their rural interstates. I like this idea: Even though the trucks generally do go faster than their speed limit, they generally do not travel at 70 mph, which makes it easier for cars to get around the trucks. Also on highways with 3 or more lanes in the same direction, trucks are not allowed in the far left lane. The situation pictured above was a little dicey, because there was essentially no left shoulder, but rather only a high Jersey barrier dividing the opposing roadways. Still, we got through with no difficulties.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Highway safety...1950s style!

This billboard was spotted along US Route 250 near Dennison in the eastern part of Ohio. This is a real throwback to the 50s when we exhorted drivers to do the right thing and drive safely. Back then, scientific analysis of the causes of crashes, deaths, and injuries on US highways was in its infancy, and most popular messages were directed toward the driver. Now, we have a more enlightened viewpoint, and we know that it’s very hard to persuade or otherwise “educate” drivers not to crash. We take a much more balanced approach, exemplified by the “Haddon Matrix,” developed by William Haddon, Jr, MD, the first administrator of what became the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

The Haddon Matrix considers all factors before, during, and after a crash: human (the driver, cyclist, or pedestrian), vehicular, and environmental (the road and roadside). For example, daytime running lights added to a vehicle can make it more visible before a potential crash, reducing the possibility of a crash with another vehicle in the first place. During a crash, built-in safety features in the car such as airbags can greatly reduce the possibility of death or injury. And prompt response by trained paramedics after the crash can further improve the chances of survival and recovery. Today, we practice this much more balanced approach to highway safety. Sadly however, not all measures that we know to be effective, such as mandatory motorcycle helmet use laws, are in place because of political pressure.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Monster trucks...Michigan style!

Michigan allows the heaviest trucks in the US on its highways. Most states set a maximum gross weight for tractor-trailers of 80,000 pounds (40 tons), but Michigan allows trucks weighing up to 164,000 pounds (82 tons)! As you can see from this photo, taken on I-275 near Detroit, such tractor-trailers have as many as 11 axles, with 8 of these on the trailer. When the trailer is fully loaded, all axles are lowered into contact with the road to distribute the weight over 64 wheels and tires on the trailer. (Each axle has a pair of wheels and tires on each side.) Adding in the tractor's 10 wheels and tires, you have a total of 74, the same as 18 1/2 passenger cars!

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Portrait of an inconsiderate driver

You can't see his face, but here he is, southbound on I-75 just south of Toledo, Ohio. It's not an unusual story. The speed limit is 65 mph, which I was observing when I pulled into the left lane to pass at least one and possibly two tractor-trailers traveling close together. As is my custom, I always check my mirrors for fast-moving traffic approaching from behind, and if there are any vehicles closing in fast, I slow down and wait in the right lane behind the truck until they go by. Well, sometimes you miscalculate. This young guy was probably going at least 80 and got so close to my rear bumper that I couldn't see his headlights. I did speed up slightly to about 68 mph to get the pass completed sooner.

As you can see, he's driving a rusty old Toyota Corolla, not wearing a seat belt (typical), and holding the top of the steering wheel with one hand. Also, his seat back is so reclined that the head restraint would do no good in a rear-end crash. I guess he's going so fast though it's unlikely he'd be rear-ended at this point!

In case you are wondering, my wife took the photo from the passenger seat. And no, I wasn't holding up the traffic flow by going the speed limit. Large trucks in Ohio are limited to 55 mph on most Interstates. They may not go 55, but they do keep it under 65, the speed limit for cars. Most cars weren't going much faster than about 70 mph that evening.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Median crossover crashes a problem in Kansas

I noticed a small news story in USA Today about a recent spate of deadly crossover crashes in Kansas. Highway engineers were quoted as saying they designed the medians of divided highways to be wide enough to enable drivers to regain control if they strayed off the left side of the road. There was speculation that rising traffic volume may have something to do with the increase in these crashes and also talk of the need for some kind of barrier down the center of the medians.

I've noticed that even on many Interstate highways that the typical grass median is not wide enough, in my view. For example, West Virginia allows 70 mph travel on I-64 west of Charleston, but the median is only about 2 lanes wide (if even that much). Worse, it is V-shaped in cross section, with the center of the median well below pavement level. This means that almost any vehicle angling into the median at legal speeds would be likely to flip over. Imagine being rammed head-on by an upside-down car!

Some states including the Carolinas have taken steps to alleviate the problem. Even on highways with wide medians, cable-type guardrails are installed in the center to prevent cars at least from crashing through. I doubt that tractor-trailers would be stopped by these, however. Data from South Carolina show that deadly crossover crashes have been reduced.

Locally, there is one older freeway that raises eyebrows for me. It has a rather narrow level grassy median for most of its length, but on one half-mile segment that passes beneath a highway bridge and a railroad bridge, the median narrows down to a cement curb only about two feet wide. In this day of Jersey barriers (the ubiquitous curved concrete dividers where there is no space for a proper median), I am surprised that the state of Virginia has done nothing about this roadway segment. I even more surprised that apparently very few deadly crashes have occurred at this spot during the 15 years I have lived in the area.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

They don't build them like this anymore! #3

This 1950 Dodge Coronet sedan was found behind a restaurant in the small town of Nellysford, Virginia. The Coronet was the top-of-the-line model, and this particular car had a "Gyro-Matic" automatic transmission. There is a badge on the front fender with this name. Most early automatic transmissions had catchy names like this, and they took America by storm in the 1950s. This car looks decent on the outside, but the interior was in very rough condition. Still, it's nice to look at with all the real chrome-plated metal adorning the exterior, quite unlike the "plastichrome" today's cars use.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Car dealer slang...not always nice!

These are some of the terms used by car salesmen (and maybe a few intrepid saleswomen), according to both a longtime poster and a newbie in the forums on Edmunds.com. (Thanks, "mackabee" and "greenpea68" for the list.) A lot of these words are not very complimentary to the putative customer; that's for sure.

in the box = finance office or business office

the tower = sales manager’s office

squirrels = customers with no loyalty to one salesperson

bumblebees = customers that can't decide between three or more cars

Disneyland shoppers = same as bumblebees

strokes = time-wasting shoppers

bogues = same as strokes

ghost = customer with no credit score

roach = customer with bad credit

a player = customer with strong credit

fairy = pipe smoking, folder carrying, internet customer

mooch = customer that wants floor mats, alloy wheels, satellite radio, etc, "thrown in," usually on a mini-deal

laydown = customer that walks in and pays sticker for a car

grape = same as laydown, as in "I stepped on a grape"

mini-deal = salespeople eating cheese sandwiches with no cheese (low-commission sale)

cherry = a very nice trade-in

rough = the opposite of cherry

sled = a beat-up trade-in (same as rough)

clam = same as a sled

skate = salesmen or women who steal customers from fellow salespeople; commonly known as thieves

snake = same as a skate

hand shaker = manual transmission

get me done = customer with terrible credit but can be financed, usually at very high interest rates

mop and glo = paint sealant and fabric protection

rust and dust = rust proofing and undercoating

delivery coordinator = woman with a big smile that sells mop and glo, rust and dust

"club them like a baby seal" = selling a car for full sticker!

grinder = “negotiates” for hours down to the last penny

pack = just another way for dealers to take money away from salespeople

front end gross = gross profit over invoice price less pack and shop fees

back end gross = gross profit in the box (finance or business office)

spiffs = daily or weekly bonuses for salespeople

stuff holders = storage bins

CSI = customer satisfaction index, inversely proportional to the amount of gross profit on the deal (that is, happy-go-lucky emotional buyers pay more; miserable analytical people pay less)

double nickels = $5500

pounder = $1000 front end gross: How many pounds was that? = a deal that has 2 or 3 thousand front end gross

home run = 4 pounder or $4000 or more front end gross

third base coach = someone at the negotiating table who is telling the buyer they don't have a good deal

spoon = a salesperson who gets a done deal from a manager

hook = same as a spoon but you might have to do some work

house mouse = a salesperson who gets all the spoons or hooks

veteran = a salesperson with more than 6 months at a store

greenpea = novice salesperson

rat = a trade that is a clam or a sled

$1 car = any trade that is worth $1000 or less; usually in real money only worth a dollar

team player = the only person who goes and gets coffee and lunch every day

"RUNNER !!!" = what is yelled when a customer gets up from the negotiating table and proceeds to walk out the door. The customer gets up and the salesperson says, "We got a RUNNER," one of my favorites...

Actually, I have found through reading Edmunds and the other car-buying sites that you ought to plan to be a RUNNER. That is, there is a plethora of information on the Internet (including detailed online dealer inventories) that should enable you to confidently walk into a dealership and offer YOUR price. Then if the salesperson comes back with a rejection from the sales manager, you head for the door. If you're not emotionally tied to the idea of buying a particular car from that dealership on that day, you are likely to have someone run out to intercept you accepting your offer!

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Joe Sherlock quotes Ann Coulter

I've stated before that I like Joe Sherlock's views on cars in his blog The View Through the Windshield, but I definitely don't agree with his politics. My respect for him has just dropped a couple of notches though with his recent salutory words for that hate-mongering self-absorbed far right-winger Ann Coulter.

As he puts it in his August 3 blog, "A Priceless Paragraph ... from Ann Coulter: 'CNN commentators keep telling us how young and hip the audience was for last week's YouTube Democratic debate, apparently unaware that the camera occasionally panned across the audience, which was the same oddball collection of teachers' union shills and welfare recipients you see at all Democratic gatherings. Noticeably, Gov. Bill Richardson got the first "woo" of the debate - the mating call of rotund liberal women - for demanding a federal mandate that would guarantee public schoolteachers a minimum salary of $40,000.' "

I'd never think of quoting Michael Moore or Al Sharpton for example, and I don't think either of these men has anywhere near the amount of venom to spew as the infamous Coulter. Responsible conservatives should have nothing to do with her. Shame on you Joe!

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Race car drivers: More skilled, fewer crashes on public roads?

The enthusiasts' call is unceasing, "If only we made driver licensing more stringent or trained drivers more thoroughly, we'd have fewer crashes." Well, I dug into some "archives" and unearthed an interesting study that relates directly to this issue. In the early 1970s the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) sought to compare the driving records of the general public with “national competition license” race drivers certified by the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). The SCCA consented to participate because it was sure of the outcome: the “trained” drivers would certainly have superior records.

Surprise! Not only did the SCCA members have more traffic violations (well, not really a surprise), they had proportionately more crashes than the control group of drivers. This was true even when mileage driven by each group was taken into account.

Needless to say, the SCCA never again agreed to participate in further such studies. I’ll say it again: in driving, attitude trumps knowledge (that is, you can lead a horse to water, but you can't force him to drink). And of course, you have the overconfidence factor — the SUVs in the ditch scenario in that first winter snowstorm — but this too is part of attitude.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Scenic highways...in one's own back yard!

You don't have to go far for scenic views, at least where I live. These scenes were taken last spring, after a rare snowfall in April, after the trees had started to bloom and leaf out. The road, State Route 231, is a scenic byway in Virginia. This portion runs some 22 miles between the town of Madison in the county of the same name to its junction with US Route 522, just south of Sperryville, in Rappahannock County. The road parallels the Blue Ridge Mountains and features spectacular scenery any time of year, but especially in the fall, when the mountain sides become "flaming hills" from all the turning leaves, and in the spring, when the valleys and then the mountains begin to "green up."

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Karl gets a speeding ticket

I like Karl Brauer, the Editor-in-Chief of the popular edmunds.com website. However, the other day he was grousing on his blog about a speeding ticket he received on his daily 50-mile commute from Ventura County to the Edmunds' offices in Santa Monica, California, next to Los Angeles. He was traveling in a new Mini Cooper S test car and had been stopped for going 72 mph in a 55 mph zone. He took some photos of the road after his stop, and they didn't look too different from my photo of US 6 in the east central part of the state near Bishop, close to the Nevada line. US 6, however, has 65 mph speed limit.

As Karl put it, "... it's been about 2.5 years since my last ticket, so I was due. Considering I drive approximately 30,000 miles a year (much of it on cop-addled Pacific Coast Highway) I don't feel a smidge of guilt at that rate of citation collection. And like nearly every speeding ticket I've ever received, this one had nothing to do with public safety. How do I know? Because...where I got the ticket -- a deserted stretch of road through flat, deserted farmland where you can see forever and there are no cross streets for a good 10 miles. The speed limit is 55, but Officer Williams says I was doing...(dramatic pause)...72.

"I didn't intend to do 72, but I was playing with the radio in our new Mini Cooper S, and the turbo engine (especially if you've hit the "Sport" button) has a habit of creeping up in rpm if you don't watch the speedo. I'm sure that in another 10 seconds or less I'd have scanned the gauges, seen my speed and eased back on the throttle. This is assuming that it was really me doing 72 mph. There were three cars in front of me, but when I pointed this out to the officer he insisted his radar could ferret out my speed from the others'.

"...Let me just clearly state that, in my opinion, 72 mph on that road, under those conditions, is still not unsafe in any way, shape or form. And if you think it is, then, also in my opinion, you're an idiot. The careless part was not using my radar detector to avoid a purely revenue-oriented speed trap.

"As I've said many times before, the concept of citing people for bad/dangerous driving doesn't bother me, but the concept of citing people for revenue generation does. The reason police patrol these areas isn't for public safety but because they know speeding is still a possibility. In much of Southern California speeding isn't a problem because traffic makes it a non-issue. But on certain stretches of PCH, as well as much of Ventura County, people still have the potential to speed. Of course, this is where speeding is least likely to actually cause a problem...but that's beside the point...right?"

Ironically, I was speaking with a co-worker the same day Karl posted the above rant. The co-worker had recently lost her 95-year-old dad. She mentioned he always rued the one day in his long life that he was ticketed for speeding -- 2 or 3 mph over the posted 35 mph in a small town in his native Virginia on a Sunday morning. Now THAT's patently unfair! Car speedometers even today, let alone years ago, were not that accurate.

But 72 mph in a 55 mph zone on a 2-lane road? Inexcusable. In Virginia, where I now live, the maximum speed limit on ANY 2-lane road is 55 mph, due to topography, population density, and a lack of those nice paved shoulders on most such roads. And radar detectors are illegal. So if you get stopped for speeding, and the cop sees your radar detector, you get busted with another fine.

Even in the tiniest VA towns, the speed limit often drops to 25 mph, yet within the Los Angeles city limits when I was there in December 2005, most speed limits seem to be 35 mph. On that trip, my wife and I flew out to meet our son and drove back east across the country. California allows 65 mph on US 395 (almost all 2-lane) once you leave the L.A. megalopolis, with only a few slowdowns through the infrequent small towns.

We went north past Lone Pine to Bishop, and then headed northeast on US 6 to the Nevada border. The road again was 2-lane with a 65 mph limit. In Nevada, the limit went up to 70. But one big difference is that the road is nearly deserted in parts of Nevada. There was one approximate 150-mile stretch east of Tonopah (beyond the split with US 95) where we encountered only THREE oncoming vehicles, NONE going in our direction, and none entering from mainly unpaved side roads!

I haven't been in Ventura County north of L.A., but from Karl's frequent description of road conditions, there's a lot of commuter traffic, much busier than US 395 or 6, and therefore evidently has lower speed limits on its 2-lane roads for safety reasons. So his photo may haven been a tad misleading. There's only a thin yellow line separating you from oncoming disaster. It's a lot easier to handle an emergency at 55 than at 72 mph, and the odds are stacked against you in a Mini if you were hit by oncoming traffic. This isn't like south central Nevada where you really do have the road to yourself!

Karl brings up a point so often raised by enthusiasts. They claim speeding tickets are revenue generators, but police pay no attention to true examples of "bad/dangerous" driving, such as tailgating, weaving through traffic without signaling, and (the horror!) "camping" in the far left lane of multi-lane highways, blocking speeders' progress. As I have said much earlier on this blog, the go-fast crowd has pretty much convinced themselves that speeding, in and of itself, is harmless, and police should be concentrating their efforts on all these other lawbreakers! The irony is that the blatant speeders, who insist radar detectors are needed for their adventures, are in my experience also the ones who commit these other "bad" behaviors: tailgating, weaving, improper passing, and not giving slower drivers who happen to be in the left lane adequate time to move over to the right!

Monday, July 16, 2007

"Moskito Junction"

Pictured is a colorful row of Moskito mopeds for rent on the small resort island of Chincoteague, on Virginia's Eastern Shore. These are popular with the tourists, at least those who don't want to pedal a bicycle. Chincoteague and the nearby barrier island of Assateague, which fronts the Atlantic Ocean, are ideal places for bike or moped riding, because the terrain is flat (except for the short bridge connecting the two islands) and the top speed limits are 25 mph on the entire island of Chincoteague and 25-30 mph on the beach access road across Assateague.

The downside to the mopeds is that they are noisy like giant mosquitoes and their two-stroke engines emit smelly exhaust fumes, obviously more polluting than any modern passenger car or light truck.

Ironically, real mosquitoes are also ubiquitous on both islands. Chincoteague tries to keep the mosquitoes in check by frequent spraying from roving pickup trucks, but Assateague, being a national wildlife refuge and a national seashore, has no such control measures. It's best to wear repellent at dusk or stay on the beach where the wind is almost always sufficient to keep the pests at bay.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Aloha! Hawaii reports record seat belt use

A recent article in the Honolulu Advertiser newspaper stated that seat belt use by front seat occupants had climbed to a record 97.6% in the Aloha State. This boggles my mind when I see so many people not using seat belts in central Virginia where I live. One important factor is that Hawaii has a so-called "primary" seat belt use law, where unbelted occupants can be cited directly by the police. Virginia by contrast has a so-called "secondary" law, where the car can be stopped only if some other violation, such as speeding, is first observed by a police officer.

Studies have shown that states with primary laws have greater belt use AND have fewer vehicle occupant deaths when population and other factors are taken into account. This is not surprising, because seat belts when used are very effective in saving lives in car crashes, and the unbelted tend to be the riskiest drivers and passengers. So getting these holdouts to wear belts brings the greatest benefits.

There is a rather interesting pattern as to whether a state has a primary or secondary law. Most of the coastal states (excluding New England) as well as the deep South, have primary laws. The plains and mountain states tend to have secondary laws, and the midwestern states are mixed. California, Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii all have use rates above 90%, the highest in the country. New Hampshire (the only state with no belt use law), the Dakotas, and West Virginia bring up the rear, with only about 50% belt use.

New England with its tradition of individualism has secondary belt use laws, except for Connecticut (primary) and of course New Hampshire (no law). Maine just recently adopted a primary law, slated to go into effect in September. Massachusetts and the upper New England states were among the last in the US to adopt mandatory belt use laws.

Thus, there isn't too much of a liberal vs. conservative pattern on seat belt laws with the "conservative" South having tougher laws than the "liberal" Northeast for example.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

George W. Bush: a failed president?

Before and shortly after George Bush took office, he repeatedly said that he would run an ethical, "adult" administration and restore dignity to the office of the presidency. He also said that he would not allow his administration to become involved in "nation building."

With regard to all of the above, he has failed.

Saturday, July 7, 2007


These are the closing words from the 1957 movie, The Bridge on the River Kwai. In the movie, the insanity of war was being described. Today we have another form of insanity: the horsepower war.

The enthusiast media are gushing over the latest product of this craziness: the 2008 Mercedes-Benz CL63 AMG, a high-performance model of the Mercedes' smallest sedan sold in the US, the C class. The CL63 follows the time-honored muscle car tradition of stuffing a large, powerful engine into a relatively small, light car. Only this engine is a 6.2-liter V8 pumping out 457 horsepower. According to this road test on edmunds.com, the car accelerates to 100 km/h (62 mph) in 4.5 seconds, has a governed top speed of 155 mph, but can reach 174 mph if an optional Sport package is ordered.

In contrast, the Hemi V8 in the Chrysler 300C sedan and Dodge Ram pickup is sized at 5.7 liters and makes 335 hp in both vehicles. The new large V8 in the Toyota Tundra pickup is also 5.7 liters and makes 381 hp. However, the 300C weighs 4046 lbs, while 2wd quad or double cab versions of the Ram and Tundra weigh about 5200 lbs. I was unable to find the curb weight of the new CL63, but the top-level 2007 C350 Sport weighs a relatively svelte 3,495 pounds with an automatic transmission.

Why we "need" such extreme power in a car today is beyond me. It's not just Mercedes that's engaged in this form of oneupmanship, but every car manufacturer is in the game. Still, the German luxury makers, including BMW, Audi, Mercedes, and Porsche, have taken it to a new level.

With oil prices now over $72 per barrel and gas cresting a few weeks ago at well over $3 per gallon in the US, one wonders just how long this "madness" will continue. After all, it is 2007, not 1967.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

It's America's birthday!

Celebrate the 4th of July!

Lewis Libby and Independence Day

My son e-mailed me yesterday about the Lewis Libby pardon:

Got to be the second-worst awful moment of the presidency. Really makes me sick.

My list, in fact:

1. Mission Accomplished
2. Libby Pardon
3. "Out of the rubbles of Trent Lott's house -- he's lost his entire house -- there's going to be a fantastic house. And I'm looking forward to sitting on the porch" -- September 2, 2005, while blacks are trapped on rooftops in New Orleans.
4. Presidential Medals of Freedom awarded to Tenet, Franks, and Bremer
5. Reading "The Pet Goat" on Sept. 11, 2001

Iraq invasion doesn't make the list, on technicality. When is this nightmare over?

I responded:

I really can't believe he had the gall to pardon Libby, especially right now. This has really been a horrible presidency – worst since Harding? Certainly it is in my lifetime despite Nixon's shenanigans.

I'm sure you've seen the bumper stickers: “01-20-09 -- Bush's last day.” It can't come soon enough.

By the way, I like your list.

He then replied:

He did not pardon him--he commuted the jail sentence. It's worse--Libby can still plead the Fifth in further investigations and he now has no incentive to spill the beans about the CRIMINAL activities the White House has undertaken. Hopefully Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld will be prosecuted in the future, not just on war crimes charges.

I would say the worst president ever. No one, not even Nixon, has claimed such king-like powers. This is what our system is designed to prevent, the whole reason the founders did what they did--this is an abrogation of the principles of American freedom, pure and simple. There is nothing more contemptible.

Hang in there America, only 565 days left for the Bush presidency. Enjoy the 4th!

Saturday, June 30, 2007

A terrible way to die

Pulitzer-prize winning author David Halberstam was killed in a car crash in April in Menlo Park, California. He was being driven by a 26-year-old graduate student from the University of Berkeley when the student made a left turn in front of oncoming traffic. The older Toyota Camry the student was driving was struck on the right side of the passenger compartment where Mr. Halberstam, 73, was sitting. Halberstam died at the scene; the student suffered a punctured lung and the driver of the other car had only minor injuries.

Now the facts of the crash have been established. The crash occurred at the intersection of the Bayfront Expressway and Willow Road, just west of the Dumbarton Bridge across lower San Francisco Bay. The driver of the other car had a green light and was proceeding toward the bridge straight through the intersection. The graduate student, driving the opposite direction on the expressway, was facing two left turn lanes which had a red arrow, indicating of course that no left turn could legally be made at that moment. The student though was in the third lane from the left, a through lane coming from the bridge. Instead of going straight, however, the student made what possibly was a last-second left turn toward Willow Road, placing the Camry on a collision course with the oncoming late-model Infiniti, driven by a 64-year-old man.

From what I recall reading earlier, the graduate student had two prior driving convictions. He may have been a habitually careless driver, or perhaps he was so excited by the prospect of ferrying Mr. Halberstam that he wasn't paying enough attention to the driving task. Regardless, Mr. Halberstam had to pay a terrible price, and we as a society lost a gifted author who was still very much active. On the day of the crash, he was on his way to an interview for a book he was planning about the famous 1958 NFL championship football game between the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts.

There is a chance that the outcome might have been different if the Camry had been a 2002 or later model equipped with better side structure plus head- and chest-protecting side airbags. I have not seen photos of the damaged Camry to judge if such an outcome may have been possible.

The graduate student faces a charge of vehicular manslaughter, which carries a penalty of up to $1000 in fines and one year in jail. The Infiniti driver was not charged.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Chincoteaue Island, Virginia swing bridge

This photo shows the only bridge into the little resort island of Chincoteague on Virginia's Eastern Shore. It is a swing bridge and is shown in the open position (at a right angle to the approach road) so that boats may pass through the Chincoteague Channel. The bridge marks the start of a 4-mile causeway across saltwater wetlands and channels that links the small island to the mainland.

Chincoteague is famous for the wild ponies that have lived for centuries on the adjacent barrier island of Assateague. Each year since 1925, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department, which owns the ponies, raises funds by having the ponies swim the narrow channel separating the two islands during low tide and auctioning off the young foals. The Pony Swim always occurs in late July. The ponies were also made famous by Marguerite Henry's 1947 children's book, Misty of Chincoteague.

The decades-old swing bridge has deteriorated to the point that a new bridge into the island was proposed many years back by the Virginia Department of Transportation. The various proposals were quite controversial for island residents, so the VDOT was forced to go back to the drawing board. Finally, a new bridge is under construction a few blocks to the right of this photo and is scheduled for opening in the fall of 2009. It will also be a low-level bridge, so it will also have to be opened periodically to allow boats to pass through the channel. The new bridge will align directly with the main road across the island that links it to Assateague Island. Assateague, the home of the ponies, is both a wildlife refuge and a national seahore, with beaches on the Atlantic Ocean and a beautiful brick lighthouse built in 1866-67.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Noteworthy anniversary in auto safety today

According to the New York Times, " 'Today [June 24, 1983] was a very bad day for deregulators,' one lawyer insisted after the Supreme Court rejected the Reagan Administration's attempt to dump a 'passive' safety restraint rule for autos. It would be more accurate to say it was a bad day for regulators who ignore the will of Congress. The Court's stunning, unanimous ruling should signal a fresh start in the long-delayed effort to reduce traffic deaths with modern 'airbag' technology."

As we remember, Ronald Reagan was famous for his support of deregulation of big business and his distaste for what he called big government. Early in his administration, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) repealed a planned regulation to require automakers to install "passive" restraints (airbags or so-called "automatic" seat belts). This rule was to phase in with the 1982 model year and be completed by the 1984 model year.

Insurance companies, led by State Farm and the National Association of Independent Insurers, sued the government, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. On this date in 1983, the court ruled 9-0 that the Reagan administration's repeal was "arbitrary and capricious" and that the auto industry had waged "the regulatory equivalent of war" on the airbag, a war the industry had "lost -- the inflatable restraint was proven sufficiently cost effective."

This decision paved the way for the Department of Transportation, led by Elizabeth Dole, to propose an ingenious new rule that had the salutary effect of prompting states to pass mandatory seat belt usage laws AND requiring the automakers to begin installing airbags or automatic seat belts in cars starting with the 1987 model year.

As we know, airbags won out ultimately over the automatic belts (some of which were poorly designed), and all cars and light trucks are now required to have driver and passenger frontal airbags. Seat belt use in the US has risen dramatically in the past couple of decades from something like a dismal 12% for front seat occupants in 1982 to over 80% today (and 90% in a few states).

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Limit the horsepower and top speeds of cars?

This interesting and courageous post was made by "xrunner2" in one of the http://www.edmunds.com/ forums on General Motors this past Monday:

“GM could take the lead in manufacturing and marketing sensible sized and powered cars and suvs. They could pronounce that they are doing their part to help US cut down on use and need for foreign oil by biasing future production of vehicles toward smaller, more efficient designs that need less fuel. They could also claim that they are doing their part as a responsible US company to help cut down on highway crashes (not accidents) by not putting high-powered or fast vehicles into the hands of immature drivers (which could be earth aged 16-80).

“Except for police cars they supply, they could even plan to build all of their vehicles say 5-10 years out that do not exceed 80 MPH and are totally tamper proof from those wanting to increase HP and or speed potential of vehicle. Can anybody justify the need or reason to go faster than 80 MPH? Can anybody justify having a car (3000-4000 lbs as example) with 300, 400, 500, 600 HP? Analogy of needing a 600 HP car is same as a whacko gun owner/collector claiming he needs a machine gun/gattling gun rather than a handgun only to protect his house and family from intruders.

“Now this would truly take great leadership. Does GM high management have the ability to take these steps? I believe that the vast majority of responsible driving Americans would agree with GM for making a commitment to sensible sized and powered vehicles. Other mfrs, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota would then do likewise."

I'd have to say I agree with xrunner2. Why do we need cars with such high-speed capabilities when the highest speed limit in the US is 80 mph? Even on the fabled German autobahn, which has no posted speed limits on certain sections for passenger vehicles, the recommended speed limit is 130 km/h, or 81 mph.

Interestingly, the US government proposed a maximum top speed for cars of 85 mph around 1970-71 (under the Republican Nixon administration). But this trial balloon was quickly shot down by the enthusiast media and their supporters.

Today, such a proposal still wouldn't get very far. But it makes so much sense in my opinion. I realize that making something truly "tamper proof" isn't possible. Still, a lot of high speed "flings" would be avoided with their attendant high risk for death and injury, AND carbon dioxide emissions would be lowered because fuel consumption rapidly increases at very high speeds.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Why do its detractors hate the Prius so much?

This is a recent example of what I'm talking about. I won't even "dignify" the author (if that's even the correct word) by providing his name.

“The millionth Prius was sold last week. A cross between a Mazda and a miscarriage - IT'S embraced by celebrities, environmentalists, and the nexus of evil: the celebrity environmentalist. Leonardo DiCaprio helms a hybrid hackeysack, allowing his conscience to remain clear while [having sex with] truckloads of broads who may or may not have been born before the Lillith [sic] Fair.”

The Toyota Prius has been vilified like this since the second generation model, introduced in the US as a 2004 model, was met with great success in the marketplace. It seems right-wingers like to emphasize Toyota's seeming "hypocrisy" in producing such a fuel-sipping car and projecting a "green" image while at the same time building a new assembly plant in Texas to crank out huge Tundra pickup trucks. Would they say the same thing if General Motors, for example, had produced such a car while simultaneously selling Silverados, Suburbans, and Hummers?

But the reality is that Toyota took a huge gamble on this car. It has paid off handsomely, especially in light of the recent spikes in gas prices. The car is simply the most fuel efficient vehicle sold in America, with EPA city/highway estimates of 48/45 mpg, under the "new" testing regimen for 2008 models.

Critics had pounced on the fact that few Prius drivers could attain the "old" city rating of 60 mpg. However, this was not the fault of the car, but rather the testing procedure which was developed long before gas-electric hybrid cars were on the drawing boards. These naysayers also liked to point out that the supposed extra initial cost of the Prius would take many years to recoup in fuel savings. This of course assumes that buyers would get a base model Corolla for thousands less and the price of gas will drop back to 2 bucks a gallon or so. Yet the Prius compares favorably with the larger Camry, as I'll explain below.

Prius haters also are fond of generalizing that Prius drivers buy the car in huge numbers because it alone has distinct styling among hybrid vehicles, and this allows the world to see how environmentally conscientious they are. Such balderdash!

My son and his wife bought a Prius one year ago as their first car. They were attracted by the fuel efficiency and the low emissions. Living in New York City, they are textbook examples of people who can make the most of the Prius's parsimonious fuel use. They also thought they'd get a huge federal tax credit of $3150, but this turned out to be a hoax due to the pernicious reach of the alternative minimum tax (a story for another day). Still they are quite pleased with the car, and they've been able to achieve average fuel economy in the 50+ mpg range. They are totally unconcerned with the image they project.

I can also state that the car has essentially as much headroom and legroom inside for 4 adults as our Camrys; the only dimension in which it is smaller is width, so 3 adults in back do not have as much hip or shoulder room. As a hatchback, the Prius actually has a larger cargo area than the Camry, and this is with the rear seats not folded down!

So let the ranters go on and on, while Toyota (and Prius owners) take their money to the bank and the rest of the automakers struggle to catch the leader!

Saturday, June 16, 2007

They don't build them like this anymore! #2

This 1957 Buick Special 2-door hardtop was spotted alongside US Route 13 in Nassawadox on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. "Nassawadox" means "the land between two waters" in Native American, because the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean are only a few miles away in opposite directions.

The car appears to be in pretty good condition considering its age. It was under roof with a wire enclosure surrounding it. The Special was the base model Buick, but like all of its brandmates, it had a standard V8 engine. Note the unusual 3-section backlite, used on certain body styles of Buicks and Oldsmobiles in 1957-58. Another unusual styling feature for the time was the fully exposed rear wheel, when most cars had partially covered or even "skirted" rear wheels. This feature gives the car a look of power, even when standing still. Other Buick styling traditions include the swooping chrome "sweepspear" side molding and the "portholes" in the front fender. Most cars of this era had wraparound front windshields and optional wide whitewall tires.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

The (not so) good old days

As is well known, all of the former "Big 3" domestic automakers are in trouble currently, losing money in spades, and possibly heading toward bankruptcy. Although the present tailspin began very recently with the runup in gasoling prices and falling sales of traditional SUVs, it's common knowledge that legions of former domestic car buyers have switched their loyalties to the so-called "import" automakers, especially Toyota and Honda, over the last three decades. These companies as well as Nissan, Hyundai, Mercedes, BMW, Mazda, and Mitsubishi have assembly plants here in the United States. Many of these companies build their engines and transmissions here as well, and stamp the body sheet metal.

We're all familiar with horror stories regarding the Big 3's lack of quality and reliability. Most seem to think the downturn in these areas started in the 1970s. However, there were problems well before that; for example in their April 1965 annual auto issue, Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, complained that their batch of mostly American cars selected for testing exhibited the poorest workmanship in a ten-year slide starting with the 1955 models.

In regard to build quality and reliability, we Americans tolerated a lot back in the 1960s before the imports could compete in the medium and large car field (unless you paid a king's ransom for a Mercedes, and even that was only "compact" size). This was before the often documented maladies of the 70s with the "Rube Goldberg" emissions controls that lowered gas mileage and made cars hard to start and keep running.

My mother's 1967 Chevy Bel Air 2-door sedan was rife with build quality issues, including numerous dents in the body work, a missing dome light bulb, and a driver door that scraped against the A-pillar trim when opened. There was also a "jingle bell" sound that some years later was discovered by my brother to be a loose bolt in the starter.

As for cheapness, granted we didn't have a mainstream Impala (pictured above in idealized splendor) or top-line Caprice, the trunk was totally devoid of any carpeting or trim -- all speckle-painted metal -- what was the point of the bottom of the line Biscayne?

I distinctly remember the automatic choke failing to shut off and the engine backfiring going up inclines within a couple of years of ownership. Rust started to bubble through the quarter panel behind the right rear wheel after just two Pittsburgh winters.

On a cross-country trip in 1971 (starting at 25,000 miles), the water pump failed on the way out and the alternator on the way back. Luckily back then, service stations still provided service; they weren't primarily gas, junk food, and cigarette outlets like today.

Detroit has mainly itself to blame for losing so many of its former loyalists. Let's hope the situation can be turned around, because competition is good for everyone.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Live free or die...right?

New Hampshire is the only state in the US without a mandatory seat belt use law for adults riding in the front seats of cars. It's been the sole holdout for more than a decade. Even "macho" states like Texas, Wyoming, and Montana long have had mandatory belt use laws. Yet New Hampshire persists; after all the state motto "live free or die" appears on every NH license plate. Does this mean "live free" of belt use only to die by being ejected in a car crash?

For the first time since the 1800s, the Democrats took control of the state legislature after the elections of 2006. The New Hampshire House of Representatives narrowly passed a bill in April to require belt use. However, the bill was defeated by the Senate last week, failing on a vote of 16-8. Instead, the senators voted in favor of a measure to establish a "study commission" to consider ways to get more people to buckle up.

This seems a little silly in light of well-documented research that shows persuasion alone, such as "education" through public service ads, is ineffective in raising seat belt use. No, it seems the threat of a ticket by breaking the law is the most effective method, provided enforcement is well publicized and highly visible.

One enlightened senator, Democrat Peter Burling, countered the "nanny state" or "big brother" arguments against mandatory belt use by citing another important New Hampshire tradition -- that of the self-reliant community dealing with its own emergencies. He recalled a recent car crash in his district, "The social compact that binds us together kicked into gear," describing volunteers coming from all parts of the town to help. "You don't [buckle up], you're telling every one of those people, 'I don't care how much it hurts you to see me spattered across the road -- it's my individual liberty. And your job is to fix it.' "

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Deaths on US highways down ever so slightly in 2006

According to a press release issued by the US Department of Transportation last Friday, Secretary Mary E. Peters said that traffic deaths on U.S. roads were down slightly in 2006 according to preliminary figures, but warned that far too many lives continue to be lost.

While the number of road deaths is projected to have declined slightly nationwide from 43,443 in 2005 to 43,300 in 2006, “even one death is too many,” Secretary Peters said. Also, more than half of the
occupants in passenger vehicles who were killed were not wearing their seat belts.

“Bad things happen when people don’t buckle up, and no one is immune from the damage and devastation that comes from not wearing a seat belt,” Secretary Peters said. She also praised New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine for his efforts to educate people about the need to buckle up, noting that “perhaps his pictures and his words about his crash will inspire people to buckle up every time they get in the car, no excuses.”

Crash-related injuries dropped 6 percent from 2.70 million in 2005 to 2.54 million in 2006, a rather remarkable decline. The preliminary figures also show that between 2005 and 2006, overall alcohol-related fatalities increased 2.4 percent from 17,525 to 17,941, continuing a worrisome trend in recent years as progress against alcohol-related fatal crashes has stalled. In better news, pedestrian deaths dropped slightly, from 4881 to 4768, and fatalities from large truck crashes dropped from 5212 to 5018, a 3.7 percent decline.

Unfortunately, motorcylist deaths increased for the ninth straight year, up 5.4 percent last year and rising a staggering 125 percent from a 3-decade low of
2056 in 1997 to 4798 in 2006. States really have to quit knuckling under to the motorcyclist lobby that proclaims, "let those who ride decide" to wear helmets. Helmet use must be made mandatory across the US. Slogans and calling for "education" won't get the job done.

The press release notes that the final 2006 report, pending completion of data collection and analysis, will be available in late summer.

We've still got a long, long way to go in getting the fatality count down.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Corzine crash...the aftermath

"I'm New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine, and I should be dead," begins a new public service ad promoting seat belt use released ahead of the Memorial Day weekend. The governor was critically injured last month when his state trooper-driven SUV was clipped by a pickup truck on the Garden State Parkway. His SUV was traveling 91 mph in a 65 mph zone. Corzine wasn't wearing a seat belt and sustained fractures of his leg, collar bone, sternum, and 11 ribs. The trooper driving the SUV was wearing his belt and had minor injuries.

In the ad, Corzine states that he lost more than half of his blood, spent eight days in intensive care, and had to use a ventilator. He continues, "it took a remarkable team of doctors and a series of miracles to save my life when all I needed was a seat belt...I have to live with my mistake. You don't. Buckle up."

On your way home from Memorial Day activities today, remember his words. And control your speed. These can save your life!

Saturday, May 26, 2007

They don't build them like this anymore! #1

This postwar Dodge sedan was spotted in front of an old store near Nellysford, Virginia on Mother's Day. Notice the words "Fluid Drive" on the bumper. The reference is to a gussied-up manual transmission with supposedly no direct metal-to-metal contact between the engine and transmission. There are still three pedals in front of the driver's seat -- gas, brakes, and clutch. The green appears to be the original color, but evidently someone is restoring the car and repainting it brown.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Shortcut through the Chuska Mountains, Arizona

When my wife and I were planning our road trip through the American Southwest a couple of months ago, I noticed an apparent shortcut through the Chuska Mountains in the Navajo Nation of northeast Arizona. Unfortunately, the 2007 atlas we were using showed the road, State Route 13, as unpaved. Remembering the fate of the family who took a wrong turn in Oregon a few months back with fatal consequences for the father, I was reluctant about using this road, especially after I checked Google Earth. This showed the road rising to elevations of around 8500 feet and very twisty.

Still, if the road was usable, it would cut off many miles from our journey from Canyon de Chelly National Monument over to northwest New Mexico and then southeast to Chaco Culture National Historic Park. (Interestingly Chaco Canyon lies due east of Canyon de Chelly, but there are no roads connecting them directly.)

While stopping in the Canyon de Chelly visitor center (near the town of Chinle) on our second day at the park, I asked one of the park rangers about this road and showed her the map. She said the road had been paved about two years before. That was music to my ears!

After we toured the northern leg of the park, we continued on State Route 64 to the small town of Tsaile. There, we got a little something to eat at a convenience store. I had become uncertain at that point if I had inquired about the correct road at the visitor center, so I asked the clerk at the store about this shortcut. He also assured me it was paved.

We then headed north on State Route 12 until we got to the turnoff for Route 13 at the small town of Lukachukai (the name sounds strangely Russian, but it really must be Native American). The first photo shows the view northeast on the outskirts of the town. As we started climbing into the Chuska Mountains (also sounds Russian), we came to a sign that said "road closed ahead." Oh no! Well, there was another car in front of us that had turned into the driveway of a Native American family that was getting ready to leave their home by car. I figured I may as well ask them also about the status of the road. They were very friendly and informed me that they had come through the mountains just two days before, and that of course the road was open. They mentioned that snow had narrowed parts of the road to one lane, but that it was definitely passable.

So we started climbing the twisty road with the natural orange-colored arch formations off to one side, and we encountered Ponderosa pine forests replacing the desert and snow in the forests and sure enough, on the road as we reached higher elevations. The Native American family was right though in that one lane was always dry and completely usable. Near the summit, there was a wayside with a picnic table, so we decided to stop. When we got out and reached the table, we saw the beautiful view spread out before us (last photo). We could see the Four Corners area, so 4 states were visible at one time. Of course, in the foreground was Arizona, while straight ahead with the "volcanic necks" visible was New Mexico. To our left in the distance was Utah and straight ahead on the horizon were the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado.

The most famous of the volcanic necks is Shiprock, the largest one visible in the photo and so named because it resembles a 3-masted sailing ship. These volcanic necks are the remnants of upwelling lava from the cores of active volcanoes in prehistoric times. The solidified hard black lava is much more more resistant to the forces of erosion, so long after the volcanic cone has been eroded away, the hard lava "neck" remains, along with long "walls" of hardened lava radiating out from the neck.

This was such a treat, and I'm glad I persisted in asking about this road. It does show that it pays to inquire locally about any shortcut.

Posted by Picasa