Friday, July 27, 2007

Scenic 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 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, 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!