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Sleepwalking while spending

DALLAS (BP)–A column in the April 2009 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine suggests that high tech highway and automobile design, aimed at making driving easier and safer, may actually make it more dangerous.

The magazine’s contributing editor Glenn Harlan Reynolds, draws from a new book by Tom Vanderbilt entitled, “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says about Us)” An accompanying picture illustrates Reynolds’ premise: A straight, wide superhighway is strewn willy nilly with vehicles in multiple multi-car pile-ups. In contrast, on a narrow winding road with hairpin turns, cars are moving along one behind the other in an orderly fashion.

Reynolds writes, “The decades-long effort to make highways straighter, wider and better-marked, with more guardrails and rumble strips, has eliminated one class of dangers only to foster another: the complacent driver with a cellphone in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other, steering the vehicle with a knee while occasionally glancing at what’s ahead.”

There’s evidence to show that when roads and intersections are modified in ways that make drivers, perhaps less comfortable, but more vigilant and attentive, safety is enhanced. Vanderbilt says traffic circles and squares are safer and can better handle lots of volume than four-way intersections with traffic lights. He describes a case in which lights were removed from a traditional four-way intersection, and a traffic square was created. The accident rate dropped because, as Reynolds quotes from Vanderbilt’s book, “The responsibility for getting through the intersection was now up to the users, and they responded by communicating among themselves. The result was that the system was safer, even though the majority of users, polled in local surveys, felt that the system was more dangerous!”

This principle also applies to automobile design. Automobiles are quiet and powerful, the writers note. They grip wet curves. The resulting sense of confidence often means we drive faster than we should. We “consume” safety devices, like anti-lock brakes and airbags, by driving more aggressively.

Reynolds and Vanderbilt are not recommending dumbing down cars and roads or making them less safe. But there are ways of helping drivers take cues from their cars, perhaps making them feel faster at lower speeds instead of the opposite. (Reynolds wonders if we should take a cue from video games and perhaps have vibrating steering wheels.) When I drive my husband’s stick shift car I feel I’m going faster than I really am.

Reynolds extends this approach beyond transportation to the economic mess. Subprime mortgages and risky financial instruments felt “safe and ordinary.” Most people didn’t understand how they worked, but these things were so easy to obtain, they felt routine. Rather than pay attention, people dozed off like they sometimes do on wide highways in quiet cars. It’s been too easy to spend, borrow and invest without understanding the risks. Reynolds recommends that we guard against our tendency to “replace situations that call on the use of our wits with situations we can sleepwalk through.”

Newsweek’s Anna Quindlen picked up on the same theme and actually made a good conservative recommendation recently: Talk Economics 101 with your kids and encourage that personal finance be taught in schools. Sometimes we get into trouble because it becomes too easy to live life without even a clue about the way things work. Our current economic problems are sending us back to basics.

Proverbs 23:23 says: “Get wisdom and instruction and understanding.” We’d do well to apply this to personal transportation — and to our finances.
Penna Dexter is a conservative activist and frequent panelist on “Point of View” syndicated radio program. Her weekly commentaries air on the Bott and Moody Radio Networks. She also serves as a consultant for KMA Direct Communications in Plano, Texas.

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  • Penna Dexter