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 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.