Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Not this time, baby!

For the first time since 1964, Virginia has gone Democratic in a presidential election, for Barack Obama! Amazingly, our seeming Congressman-for-life, Virgil Goode is locked in a tight battle for the 5th district of Virginia. Right now, Democratic challenger Tom Perriello has a slight lead.

Meanwhile, on Virginia's Eastern Shore, the small peninsula separate from the rest of the state, signs for McCain were very prominent in the fishing-turned-vacation island of Chincoteague. But there were a few supporters for Obama, as the photos below indicate. It turns out that Obama won the lower of two counties on the Eastern Shore, Northampton, while the upper county of Accomack, which includes Chincoteague, went for McCain. But Democrat Glenn Nye defeated incumbent Thelma Drake for Congress, and statewide, Mark Warner (D) trounced the hapless Jim Gilmore (R) for US Senator.

As the late Jackie Gleason would have said, "How sweet it is!"

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Unfortunately, it took a death...

The bureaucracy of the Virginia Department of Transportation swung into action after the death of a teenager on a stretch of road near my home (see blog item dated May 11, 2008). Earlier this month, the speed limit was reduced from 55 mph to 45 mph on a 2.3-mile segment of this road where the death occurred. The change was long overdue, because development is rapidly growing along this stretch, including a huge residential and commercial site that first opened about 2 years ago. There are also now 5 traffic lights on this segment, and the road has been widened from 4 to 6 lanes near the large development. It's too bad a teenager had to be killed before the speed limit was finally lowered.

Friday, July 4, 2008

It's the Fourth of July! Time to celebrate America's birthday!

And this being America, it's no big deal to combine a little salesmanship with the message, right?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Smart car does well in IIHS tests...with caveats

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) announced the results of its Smart Fortwo crash tests today. The car earned a good rating (the highest score) in both the 40 mph frontal offset test into a stationary deformable barrier and the side-impact test where the driver's side of the car is hit by a simulated pickup or SUV moving at 31 mph. In the test for rear crash protection, the seat/head restraints of the car earned the second highest rating of Acceptable.

However as Adrian Lund, president of the Institute stated, "All things being equal in safety, bigger and heavier is always better. But among the smallest cars, the engineers of the Smart did their homework and designed a high level of safety into a very small package." The Institute's test results generally show how well vehicles compare against others of similar size and weight. Frontal ratings can't be compared across weight classes, which means a small car that earns a good rating isn't necessarily safer on the road than a large car that's not rated as highly in the test.

The Smart has a very short "crumple zone" ahead of the occupant compartment, which means the seat belts and airbags must take a bigger share of the load in protecting the driver and passenger in a frontal crash. In fact, the head of the driver dummy hit the steering wheel through the airbag with enough force to indicate the possibility of head injury.

In the side-impact test, all forces recorded on the driver dummy were low, indicating little risk of injury. The car has standard head/torso side airbags, which pop out of the seat during severe side impacts to cushion the head and chest. However, just as in the NHTSA side impact test, the driver door unlatched, posing the risk of partial or complete occupant ejection, especially if the seat belt isn't used. The structure was therefore downgraded to an acceptable rating.

The entire IIHS press release can be found here. A more humorous take entitled "Smart Deemed Safe. Kinda." was posted in The Truth About Cars.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Friends don't let Smart!

The tiny Smart Fortwo is all the rage now that gas prices are closing in on $4 per gallon for regular unleaded in many parts of the US. As you can see, the Smart takes up only about half the space of my 2004 Toyota Camry, a typical modern-day midsize car. The Smart holds only two passengers in relative comfort (there is no rear seat), but there is a fair amount of space behind the front seats to hold cargo.

However, the car didn't do so well in the NHTSA frontal crash tests, with only a 3-star rating for the front passenger (and a 4-star rating for the driver). Almost every car today earns 4 or 5 stars in the frontal test, so 3 stars isn't particularly encouraging. In the NHTSA side impact test, the car earned the maximum of 5 stars, but the driver door unlatched, which increases the possibility of partial or complete occupant ejection if the seat belt is not used.

The car has a rear-mounted 1.0-liter 3-cylinder engine, and is rated by the EPA to achieve 33 mpg in city driving and 41 mpg on the highway. However, premium gas must be used (regular unleaded is allowed only in an emergency, and even then, the tank should only be partially filled). The car weighs only about 1800 lbs and is only 106 inches long, shorter than the wheelbase (front to rear wheel centers) on the Camry!

The Camry, by contrast, holds 5 people in comfort plus has a very roomy trunk. It is 189 inches long and weighs 3142 pounds, with a wheelbase of 107 inches. The 4-cylinder model was originally rated at 23/32 mpg for city/highway driving (since lowered to 20/29 mpg according to the new rules for calculating mileage). However, my mileage is much closer to the EPA's original estimates, and on long highway trips, I achieve a bona fide 35 to 38 mpg. Even in my normal day-to-day commuting, I've been averaging about 28 mpg lately.

In the tougher Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash tests, the 2004 Camry was rated Good (the highest score) in both the frontal offset and side impact crash tests, the latter when the car was equipped with optional side airbags, as mine has. (The side airbags became standard beginning with 2007 models.)

The Smart is slow to accelerate, and one of its most annoying features according to many reviewers is its automated manual transmission. This is basically a manual transmission that shifts for itself (there is no clutch pedal). The problem is that each shift occurs in a herky-jerky fashion, with the result that occupants' heads and necks are thrown back and forth. Apparently, you can smooth out the shifts by trying to anticipate when a shift will occur by lifting off the gas pedal. This can be hard to predict when a tachometer is not standard equipment and if you aren't familiar with driving a car with a manual transmission!

It seems the best use for this car is in congested city centers where parking is very tight. In New York City, for example, many Manhattan streets have no meters or marked spaces, so if you can squeeze your car in, you're fine (just remember to move it when it's time for street cleaning).

Better small car choices, which offer seating for four or five are the Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa, or even the Mini Cooper. If getting the highest possible gas mileage is your priority, then a Toyota Prius is the hands-down winner, with city/highway ratings of 48/45 mpg, on regular gas.

Here are two articles from on the Smart, one from Karl Brauer, editor-in-chief, on the day-to-day foibles of the car and the other from Lee Scott of the "Strategies for Smart Car Buyers" blog on the safety issue.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Tragic death of a teenager

Sydney Aichs, a 16-year-old local high school student, died at the scene early on Friday, May 9 when a tractor-trailer broadsided her car as she made a left turn onto US Route 29 on a green light from the road leading out of her subdivision. She was on her way to school. There had been a heavy rain the night before, and the roads were still damp. As you can
see from the photos above, the northbound lanes of the highway head down a steep hill and then upward at the traffic light for the "T" intersection on the right. The speed limit on US 29 is 55 mph. As trucks come barreling down the hill, it is difficult for them to stop when the light turns red (or their drivers choose not to stop because of the amount of energy needed to get going again on the steep upgrade at the light). The latter seems to be the case here, as police said their investigation will be reviewed by the commonwealth’s attorney to determine if the truck driver should be charged.

This intersection, constructed about 12-13 years ago, was poorly designed. As one commenter noted on a local website, "This is so awful. Please, let’s find a way to make the state fix this intersection." Another said, "The intersection at FL [Forest Lakes] South should have never been approved until either VDOT or the developers did something about leveling out the road on either side of it. Any reasonable person looking at the traffic history there since would surely agree that not only was it a poor decision, but the state (VDOT) has been negligent by not addressing this problem area sooner. Now we’ve lost a life as a result. How much longer?"

Indeed. This is the first death I'm aware of here, but crashes at this intersection or at the the northbound or southbound approaches to it seem to be an almost daily occurrence. On the following Monday afternoon, I had to detour around the location because of stopped traffic and flashing lights from police cars in the distance.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A Micro-Microbus!

This customized, tiny VW Microbus was spotted in New Orleans from the old streetcar that runs along St. Charles Avenue. I wonder with the recent run-up in gas prices if there will be more demand for such smaller vehicles.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Death of a Beacon, New York man

An Associated Press story dated April 4 stated that a 56-year-old man from the Hudson Valley town of Beacon crashed his new motorcycle in the parking lot of a nearby town. He'd just bought the bike when he lost control and hit a parked vehicle in the dealership lot. He wasn't wearing a helmet, and police were told he hadn't ridden a motorcycle in about 30 years.

What a tragic way to go; I'm the same age incidentally.

Monday, March 24, 2008

An invitation for trouble?

You'd think by now that people would know better than to pull a stunt like this. In a crowded parking lot, this is an invitation for vandalizing someone's precious vehicle when he or she hogs more than one space. I personally always try to park away from other cars or at least find an end space where I can hug the curb or the line on the side away from adjacent cars.

Friday, February 29, 2008

It couldn't be done, he said...

On this leap day, I'm excited to announce I've made it: 602.1 miles on one tank of gas in my Toyota Camry! It was a little anxiety-provoking at the end, but success was achieved.

You see, there's this character in the Edmunds forums who thinks he's so smart (with PhD as part of his user name). Because his 2003 Camry 4-cylinder can only achieve 27-28 mpg on California highways, even when he keeps his speed below 65 mph, he's very skeptical of anyone who claims their Camry can get over 30 mpg, let alone near 40 mpg as some have asserted. His ultimate challenge: Make my day, go 600 miles on one tank (18.5 gallons) of gas.

My run was done on mostly all interstates on the way back from New Orleans, posted mainly at 70 mph, in my 2005 Camry 4-cylinder with a 5-speed automatic. This car gets lower mileage than my nearly identical 2004 Camry (the main difference is that the '04 has a 4-speed automatic). I put in 18.53 gallons when I filled up in Knoxville, Tennessee, the capacity of the tank. The car was tilted downward to the right at the station, and the pump nozzle was an "easy squeeze" type, making it easy to top up without risk of spillage.

So, my miles per gallon came to 32.5 -- typical for this car on highway trips, but the first time I risked running out of gas to see if I could make the magic 600-mile mark! Usually when I fill up, I end up putting in only 16 or so gallons at the most (550 miles driven), when the gauge reads exactly at the "E" mark, so I figured I could go another 50 miles. Note in the first photo that the gauge reads well below "E," and the yellow "low-fuel" warning light is illuminated.

By the way, my odometer reads 2.3% slow according to the highway mile markers, so if I correct for this factor, I actually went 615 miles.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

My, what big teeth you have!

Not so very long ago, it seemed that cars were becoming more aerodynamic, with lower, sloping hoods and streamlined styling. On some cars, like the 1992 Honda Civic and Ford Crown Victoria, the traditional radiator grille had disappeared, replaced by slots in or underneath the bumper. This was before the SUV craze had reached its boom years in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The SUVs had blocky styling with rectangular grilles. Now that gas prices have shot up and traditional SUVs and pickups have lost some of their popularity, their styling has gone over the top, with huge showy grilles with chrome-plated plastic that dominate their front ends Here are a few of the most outrageous, from top to bottom: Ford F-250 Super Duty, Lincoln Navigator (aggrevator?), GMC Yukon Denali, and finally a passenger car from an automaker that always has featured prominent grilles on its "motorcars," the Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe. This last one looks like it has "Groucho Marx" eyebrows over its front lights!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Highway hijinks

On the way to work a few days ago, I was minding my own business in the right lane of a 4-lane divided highway. I became aware of a bright green late-model Ford Mustang (pre-2005 model) behind me in the left lane slowly catching up. Directly behind the Mustang was a Chevrolet Express cargo van from an electrical supply company. I noticed in my rear view mirror that the Mustang suddenly slowed down for no apparent reason. Then I saw the van whip into the right lane and cut off a BMW X5, whose driver flashed her high-beam headlights at the van.

Then as the van started to pass the Mustang on the right, the Mustang accelerated. I realized now that the Mustang driver had deliberately slammed on his brakes to frustrate the tailgating van driver. Now the two were in a race of sorts to get ahead of one another with me dead ahead in the right lane. Fortunately, the van backed off and passed me on the left behind the Mustang. Then after passing me, the van driver returned to the right lane and this time was able to go around the Mustang.

I caught up to the Mustang at the next red light. The car looked to be in immaculate condition with shiny aluminum wheels. The driver appeared to be around 50 or so, with a beard, and casually dressed. The kicker was the car's vanity plate. It read 1 NT2PSH, that is "one not to push!" So does this guy purposely "camp" in the left lane just to annoy drivers who get on his rear end?

Signs, signs, everywhere a sign (continued)

On the way home from work on Friday, I decided to count the number of road signs on my usual route. The trip length is about 12.5 miles, including 10 miles on major 4-lane divided highways, 2 miles on residential or rural 2-lane roads, and a half mile on the driveway at my place of work.

On the first stretch, after leaving my employer's driveway, I counted only 6 signs -- 2 speed limit signs, 2 stop signs, and 2 "stop ahead" signs. Once I entered the 4-lane highways, it was a very different story. I counted 97 signs! This does not include standard street name signs, commercial or business signs, or double-counting the same signs when they appear on both the left and right sides of the roadway. I encountered everything from speed limit signs and "signal ahead" and "crossroad ahead" signs to silly signs like "littering is illegal" (does anyone not realize it's illegal?) and "keep Virginia green." I did not count signs not facing in my direction, such as the numerous red and white "wrong way" signs or the "one way" signs facing vehicles entering from side roads or business parking lots.

When I turned onto the residential/collector road leading to my subdivision, I encountered only 8 signs, including speed limit and bridge load limit signs, a "neighborhood watch" sign, and a curve/intersection warning sign. In my subdivision itself, there are no signs heading in the direction toward my house.

All I can conclude is we really ought to consider cutting the clutter and retaining only the most meaningful signs. Otherwise, one just tends to tune out ALL of the signs, especially if you've been traveling the same route for over 15 years like me.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Only one more year!

It's now only a year before George W. Bush leaves office! It looks like his infamous legacy will now include a recession.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Signs, signs, everywhere a sign!

Here's a great example of way too many signs. This photo was taken near my home in central Virginia, but some states like Pennsylvania are even worse. Look at the confusion caused by having so many highway and commercial signs in very close proximity. One of my "favorites" is the "slippery when wet" sign -- isn't every road more slippery when wet OR if this segment is particularly slippery, why doesn't the state department of transportation fix the pavement? I also love those "signal ahead" signs placed just ahead of the traffic signal. If you can't see the signal, you're certainly not going to notice the sign! And this signal is in an obviously congested area and only 2 miles from the last signal. Talk about unnecessary expense and clutter!

See this for another take on the same subject from the BBC.