Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Global warming: Isn't it time we stop squabbling and take action?

This is from conservative Joe Sherlock's "View through the Windshield" blog dated 3/19/07:

"Hot Topic: Thomas Sowell writes about 'The Great Global Warming Swindle', a documentary from the BBC: 'There is no question that the globe is warming but it has warmed and cooled before, and is not as warm today as it was some centuries ago, before there were any automobiles and before there was as much burning of fossil fuels as today.'

'The BBC documentary goes into some of the many factors that have caused the earth to warm and cool for centuries, including changes in activities on the sun, 93 million miles away and wholly beyond the jurisdiction of the Kyoto treaty. According to these climate scientists, human activities have very little effect on the climate, compared to many other factors, from volcanoes to clouds.'

"Here's the money shot: 'Academics who jump on the global-warming bandwagon are far more likely to get big research grants than those who express doubts - and research is the lifeblood of an academic career at leading universities.' "

Thomas Sowell is a black conservative academic in the mold of Clarence Thomas, always hewing to the far right. He's regularly quoted by white conservatives like Sherlock to show how smart blacks can be. It's interesting that when I looked for Sowell's commentary, it appeared on National Review Online, the ultraconservative mouthpiece of William F. Buckley. Strangely enough, Sowell never mentioned that the global warming "documentary" appeared on the BBC, the well-respected British telecommunications corporation, but rather on "Channel 4," an altogether different British TV station.

At the end of the commentary, I noticed this cryptic message, "Editor's note: This has been corrected since posting." Could it be that the esteemed Dr. Sowell somehow confused Channel 4 with the BBC? By accident or on purpose? Or did Mr. Sherlock get the two mixed up? I suppose we'll never know.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Traveling (legally) at 75 mph and the rogue trucker

My wife and I took a vacation last week in the southwestern part of the US. We flew to Las Vegas, rented a car there, and drove through Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and back in a clockwise loop. This took us through various national parks, monuments, and historic sites such as Zion National Park, Navajo National Monument, Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, and Chaco Canyon.

We also stopped at Meteor Crater and the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff. Most of our travels were on 2-lane highways, including historic Route 66 in Arizona, but we also used Interstates 15 and 40 in Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. Both roads mostly have 75 mph speed limits, applicable to all vehicles.

It was refreshing in a way to see the "natural order" restored, where cars travel faster than tractor-trailers, even while we maintained the speed limit. This was like the pre-55 mph days, when cars routinely passed trucks and not the other way around. It was so pleasant NOT to have truckers running up on your bumper before reluctantly moving over to pass.

In this same vein, it is interesting that the American Trucking Associations, along with several large trucking companies, have actually petitioned the federal government to mandate a top built-in speed of 68 mph for all newly manufactured tractors. Safety groups are quite pleased with this, saying that the "80-mph truck has no place on our highways." Of note, Texas recently raised the daytime speed limit to 80 mph for ALL vehicles on large portions of I-10 and I-20 in the western part of the state.

The independent truckers on the other hand are vehemently opposed to the petition, because for them, time saved means more money earned, safety notwithstanding. I apparently encountered one such trucker on westbound I-40 on the approach to Flagstaff. I had passed one tractor-trailer and was still in the left lane gaining on a second one, when literally out of the blue, this "rogue trucker" began to loom in my rear view mirror.

Well, 75 mph is fast enough for me, thank you very much, so I still had time to duck into the right lane behind the truck I was originally going to pass. The rogue whooshed by at maybe 90 mph and was soon gone.

That the government should accept the petition is a no-brainer to me.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Grammar... or the lack thereof

I find it interesting with today's "me first" attitude that use of the word "me" seems to be avoided at all costs, both in written and spoken English. For example, I have a colleague at work who always says "let Joe and I know" or similar, when "let Joe and me know" is proper. If you don't believe that, just delete the "Joe and" part of the phrase and tell me what sounds correct. Also people will even avoid using "I" by replacing it with "myself," as in "Joe and myself would like to meet with the research group at 2 o'clock."

So what is this aversion to plain old "me" or where appropriate, "I"? Is it some kind of misplaced modesty or what?

Then in written form only, everyone and his proverbial brother seems to confuse "lose" with "loose," as in "use it or loose it," or "I'm loosing my mind." Watch for this one in just about any blog or chat room you visit -- I guarantee it will show up without fail.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

What would you have done? A tale of impatience.

As I said in my previous post, I'm pretty mellow now in driving compared to my younger years, to the point that I let most things blow over without getting overly bothered.

However, on the 4th of July weekend in 2005 at the beginning of a 300-mile trip to the beach, I encountered a truly inconsiderate driver.

I made the mistake of taking a popular local shortcut between two major highways. It's a residential/semi-rural road with a posted speed limit of 40 mph. Of course, no one likes to go 40. So I was going the speed limit and what I thought was an older Honda Accord or Toyota Camry came up on my rear. No problem, par for the course, and we're coming to the stop sign at the end of the road in a mile or two.

I didn't pull off while on the shortcut, because there was no suitable location, and I figured once we got to the major road with passing zones, he'd go around me. I guess I angered him some more (without realizing it) by slowing down considerably for an older, well-dressed gent who was standing on the right edge of the road retrieving his Sunday paper. I routinely give wide berth to pedestrians and bicyclists on the side of the road.

When I got to the stop sign to turn right onto the major 55-mph 2-lane road, I saw a Buick LeSabre approaching from my left. I decided to wait and let it go by. At that point, Mr. Impatient behind me tooted his horn. Turns out the Buick was going slower than I had expected, and I could have pulled out (not too surprising given that Buicks are stereotypically the car of choice for older people).

However, before the Buick even went by, I noticed Mr. I. sawing wildly at his steering wheel, and I knew he was going to try to go around me! Well, I guess male pride kicked in and I literally leaped into the intersection the instant the Buick passed and said to myself that I'm not going to let him get around me!

I accelerated my 4-cylinder Camry at full throttle, but to my surprise, Mr. I. went directly into the oncoming lane off my left rear and stayed there for maybe 1/8 to 1/4 mile trying to out-accelerate me in a no-passing zone! His front bumper could never get past my rear door handle. Yes, it was a dangerous situation not letting him pass, although the road was straight at that point and I could see that no oncoming traffic was present. Also, I was in total shock/amazement that he really tried to pull it off, since I had jumped out of the intersection so quickly and had the advantage of a shorter pathway.

Very quickly, I was up to 60 and closing in fast on the Buick. Mr. I. finally got in behind me. Beat him! Of course, at that point he was really on my bumper, but there was no way for him to go around without committing suicide, as we had entered a series of curves and of course, the Buick was still in front.

Now, I had no intention of holding him back forever, just didn't want him to pull that old stunt of going around me back at the stop sign. So when the first passing zone came, I eased off and let him go. But to get his point across, he cut directly in front of me, coming very close to my left front corner. At that point, I laid on the horn. Good thing he didn't brake-check me!

It was then that I saw he was driving a previous-gen Corolla. No wonder he couldn't out-accelerate me! I was pretty steamed though.

Well, in the next passing zone, he passed the Buick and was gone.

Later my wife told me that his entire rear end was plastered with bumper stickers. She didn't remember what they said, possibly something about rock bands. I was so mad, I didn't even notice any stickers. I guess the old joke is the number of bumper stickers on the back of one's car is inversely proportional to the driver's intelligence (after allowing for one or two freebies).

Now, in hindsight, I guess the best thing would have been to let him go in the first place at the stop sign. I certainly regret that I gave in to an adrenaline rush, male pride, or whatever it may be called. It ruined the first part of a nice drive to the beach!

But sometimes, ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. What would you have done?

Saturday, March 3, 2007

The illogical tailgater...or some people just don't think

I don't have run-ins very much anymore with other drivers, given that my daily commute is mainly on a 4-lane highway and in the opposite direction of most workers in my town. In my older, mellower years, I try not to make eye contact or otherwise aggravate anyone who shows indications to be a hothead.

Anyway, my wife last weekend was relaying the story of a very impatient young guy behind her when she had pulled into our usual gas station intending to get in line for the car wash (rather than gas as he had wrongly assumed).

And I said I don't run into idiots much anymore. Well, within 10 minutes or so, we did.

We're on a main "cut-through" that's basically a residential 2-lane road through suburbia. We're going the speed limit, 35 mph, which is reasonable given the environment -- multiple intersections, a fair number of curves, one traffic light, two schools, and several houses.

So this middle-aged guy in a first-gen Explorer comes up on our rear and starts getting really close, then flapping his arms with a disgusted look on his face. The funny thing about this is that the road widens to 4 lanes with a higher speed limit in less than half a mile from the point he began tailgating.

When we get to where the road widens, I point with my right arm to the "40 mph" speed limit sign and pull into the right lane. By this time, my wife is looking back at him, and up comes his one-finger salute. He then passes us, but keeps his right wheels over on my side of the lane lines, making like he's going to "teach us a lesson" I suppose.

At that point I lay on the horn, and he goes into the left turn lane to make a left at a light just ahead. As we pass him, my wife got out her cell phone as if to take a photo of him.

What an idiot -- couldn't wait maybe 20 seconds or so for the passing zone, and only to turn left anyway. So how much time did he "lose" by my "blocking" him?

An organization not to be trusted

The National Motorists Association operates under the guise of promoting the average motorist's best interests. It touts itself as a voice for the common man (and woman) against the arbitrary dictates of state and local government with regard to traffic laws and regulations. In reality, it is an anti-scientific organization that would like to take highway safety back to the dark ages of the 1950s when all we did was exhort drivers to behave. Didn't work then, won't work now.

Last June, when fuel prices were still on their steep upward trajectory, the NMA Foundation issued a press release declaring the month as "Lane Courtesy Month." The release urged "motorists to 'do the RIGHT thing' by moving over for faster vehicles...Vehicles consume the most fuel when they are accelerating, and they burn less fuel when they maintain a consistent speed. When motorists encounter a slower vehicle in the left lane, they have to brake and then accelerate once they are able to pass that vehicle. This wastes gas and money! Drivers that do not practice lane courtesy also contribute to increased congestion on our roads. This means that one inconsiderate or inattentive driver in the left lane is often responsible for decreasing the gas mileage of dozens or even hundreds of other vehicles..."

While I agree lane discipline is a good thing (and I practice it myself), this group's real agenda is too refute/repeal any modicum of regulation that would hinder one's ability to drive as fast as he/she wants. Careful tests by in the high desert of California showed that high speed is one of the most detrimental factors in obtaining good gas mileage.

The NMA is against photo radar, red light cameras, most speed limits (except those set by the fabled 85th percentile), motorcycle helmet laws, seat belt use laws, and even the 0.08 drunk driving laws! Any scientifically based study that counters their beliefs is lambasted.

This group may as well be run by shamans and witch doctors, and has the same philosophy as those wacko conservative groups that want to take the teaching of evolution out of our public schools.

If only, if only...

Enthusiasts bewail the dearth of effective driver education. Send everyone to those "advanced" driving schools, they say, where the techniques of skid control, evasive maneuvering, and finding the best line through a curve will make everyone a true expert on the highways.

Unfortunately, as much as I personally would very much like to take such a course, mandating such training is highly overrated, IMO. No one has yet devised a proven method to keep drivers from crashing. I know that Summit Point Raceway in West Virginia has recently released a study saying that their training "works" in reducing crash rates. As much as I believe the school does its best at training, I remain skeptical of their expertise in conducting a valid scientific study, a possible conflict of interest notwithstanding.

As for how drivers really behave, just look in the mirror. Many of you boast in your articles, blogs, chat rooms, and letters to the editor of driving at insane speeds, "stretching it" when traffic lights turn yellow, "brake checking," and purposely damaging others' cars (keying). You know better of course, but you do it anyway.

It's attitude more than knowledge that counts, IMO. Sure there are some truly clueless or incompetent drivers out there, but my guess is their numbers are small in comparison to those whose number one priority is ME ME ME, so get out of my way or let me alone in the left lane while I yak on my cell phone!

So...we should put our bucks where they would do the most good. Every year, over 16 million new vehicles are sold in the US. Why not continue to equip them with the latest safety features that are shown to be effective, such as electronic stability control?

As far as enforcement, we can't afford to have more police on the roads, so why not use red-light cameras and speed cameras? They've been shown to be effective as well. And before you scream "Big Brother," why is it okay to be videotaped when you're in a bank, Wal-Mart, or 7-Eleven but not on a public street? (And if you obey the law on the street, you won't be videotaped, unlike the private businesses.) No one should expect a right to privacy when you're in plain view with a means of identification (your license plate) every time you venture out of your driveway in your car.

Speed doesn't matter...or so they say.

The enthusiast media have all but "proven" that raising speed limits over the last two decades in the US has had no effect on fatality rates. They like to cite the gradually declining overall death rate, that is, the number of fatalities per 100 million miles traveled. (The death rate increased slightly in 2006 compared to the prior year.) But looking at overall death rates is inherently flawed, because these include fatalities on ALL roads, regardless of whether speed limits have been changed.

There is ample evidence that higher speed limits increase fatalities on roads where such limits have been changed compared to similar roads for which speed limits were not changed.

The problem is the enthusiast media refuse to accept the studies, done by respected organizations like the National Academy of Sciences, NHTSA, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and an academic group in Australia (which studied US roads). Some of these studies have been published in well-regarded peer-reviewed journals like Accident Analysis and Prevention and in SAE papers.

So "experts" like Brock Yates, Pat Bedard, and the National Motorists Association try with all their might to debunk such studies. One technique they use is the "Big Lie." That is, they repeat an untruth over and over to the point that the average reader will believe it's true. And unfortunately, the average enthusiast WANTS to believe it's true -- after all, fast driving is fun, and why spoil the fun with facts?

One of the worst of the Big Lies goes like this: The IIHS is supported by insurance companies. Insurance companies want lower speed limits so more drivers can be ticketed and therefore can be surcharged on their insurance policies. Thus, the insurance companies can earn more profits.

Well, the IIHS has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with setting insurance rates. This is handled by each company using actuarial statistics. Proposed rate increases or decreases must be approved by state insurance regulators. Even IIHS's crash tests don't directly affect rates. Why not? Because the severe tests the IIHS conducts are relatively rare events, and the bulk of insurance payouts goes to repair cars in fender benders and medical payments for minor injuries like whiplash.

Also, the crash tests don't reveal anything about how or where or by whom the cars are driven, which obviously also affect crash rates in the real world. The purpose of the tests is to raise the bar on crashworthiness so all cars do a better job of protecting their occupants in severe crashes. The end result, hopefully, will be more lives saved and injuries reduced.

And in fact, studies conducted thus far have indicated that cars with better frontal crashworthiness do protect their own occupants better in real-world frontal crashes. It's too early yet to tell if the same is true for side-impact crashes, since the IIHS just started conducting these in 2003.

To my knowledge, nothing written by Yates, Bedard, or the National Motorists Association has ever been published in a peer-reviewed journal.