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!