Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Lethal Vanity: A Personal Tirade

Sorry, Gentle Reader. Nothing on politics, economics, sociology, Christianity, or fiction today. This morning I have an overriding priority to serve, as you'll understand shortly...if at all.

On a weekday, I'm usually on the road to my place of business no later than 5:30 AM. I commute at that hour because the New York Metro traffic pattern becomes too ugly for me to bear if I wait any longer. The delays, the stop-and-go character of the driving, and the overall waste of time are more than my easily-triggered temper can withstand. Yet even at just half past five in the morning, the roads are nearly full. The traffic moves at a good pace, but there's little room to maneuver and less room for error. That's life and automotive transit in the precancerous zone around the Big Apple.

I just avoided becoming part of a multi-car pile-up on the Long Island Expressway. It's left me rather badly shaken.

I don't know what caused the accident. It could have been any of a number of things. But damned few such accidents result from causes beyond the drivers' control.


It's many years since I got my driver's license, but the experience remains vivid in my memory, mainly because my instructor was a thinker, much like myself. He didn't just tell me what to do and what not to do in a didactic, formulaic fashion; he explained why this practice is a good one and that practice is to be avoided. His tutelage left me with an understanding of traffic patterns and conditions that not everyone possesses, including a sense for what contexts are inherently safer than others and why.

Limited-access highways are potentially the safest traffic context of all:

  • Everyone is moving in the same direction at nearly all times;
  • The cars are tightly clustered around a median speed;
  • Turn signals and horns are easy to perceive and interpret;
  • In the absence of "proper motion," threats to the pattern can be confined to the entry and exit points.

For those without a background in astronomy, "proper motion" is motion transverse to the prevailing pattern. For example, a car deliberately changing lanes is in proper motion; a car that remains in its lane is not. Because it violates the pattern, a car in proper motion imposes risks and costs on cars near it, which must take special care to compensate for it.

That's not to say that proper motion is to be rigidly avoided. However, it should be soberly considered before it's undertaken. Relative speeds, the available space and time, and the trajectories of other vehicles must be respected. Anyone who's ever launched a "longshoreman's blessing" at a car that lurched spasmodically across three lanes without signaling, cutting off dozens of other drivers in a mad dash for an exit ramp far too near for more carefully considered maneuvering -- my wife calls this "driving north-south on an east-west road" -- will grasp this without further explanation.

Ill-considered or unconsidered proper motion gives rise to nearly all highway accidents.


Sources of bad proper motion are many, but the most commonplace (and worst) of them is driver vanity.

Do you know someone whose confidence in his driving strikes you as unwarranted? Who swishes back and forth among the lanes like a matador showing off before a packed stadium? Who routinely takes his eyes off the road for frivolous reasons, for example to send a text message? Who removes both hands from the wheel to grope through the snacks in his center console or the CDs on the passenger side floor? Have you ever said to yourself "He's an accident looking for a place to happen?"

You're right. The odds are that he, or someone very like him, will cause the next highway accident, and possibly a few lives in the bargain. But there's no telling that to him. He takes the mere mention of risk as a mortal insult. He probably has one of those idiotic "NO FEAR" decals emblazoned on his rear windshield, where it can conveniently obstruct his road vision.

If you are such a driver, repent of your sins and reform your ways before it's too late -- "too late" being when you cause the inevitable high-speed accident or when you encounter me, whichever comes first. I have no patience for persons who impose unnecessary hazards on unconsenting others. But sadly, if you are such a driver, the odds are that you would never, ever admit to yourself that your skills are perhaps a mite beneath those of Michael Schumacher and Jackie Stewart. The wound to your ego might cause you to bleed to death.

It's highly unlikely that the burst of proper motion that caused the accident that almost encompassed me arose from a blowout, a suspension collapse, or some other mechanical failure. Almost certainly, it was the fruit of driver vanity. It might have cost lives; I didn't hang around to find out. I can only pray that it didn't -- and give thanks that I managed to stay out of it.


So, Gentle Reader, if you'll excuse me for today, I think I'll sit and shake for a while longer before addressing the morning's tasks. Be well, stay safe, and return tomorrow for a dollop of the usual drivel.

4 comments:

  1. Traffic engineers pay particular attention to avoiding geometries or elements that "violate driver expectation." Sadly they cannot design for the vanity driver who does that.

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  2. This is really just another extrapolation of the, "we are all fine," meme.

    We are not. Life is hard. Driving needs careful attention.

    The awareness, calculations and care needed to make nearly-instantaneous decisions when tons of metal are moving at 50-70 miles an hour under human control are more complex than global warming predictors would ever trust their lives to.

    We give "license" to drivers - who get drunk, reckless or distracted - far easier than we give license to the majority of gun licensees who see the need to be armed against the current government or culture.

    A good comparison: take the number of drunk, negligent licensed drivers who cause unconsidered death or injury as a percentage of all drivers. Now take the percentage of drunk, negligent registered gun owners who cause unconsidered death or injury as a percentage of all registered gun owners.

    I'll bet my internet connection that the former is greater than the latter.

    Now, realize that not only can ANYONE get a driver's license more easily than they can get a constitutionally-protected firearm, when they get that license, they will probably be given a right to vote - with nothing more than a local water bill or a dead person's social security number.

    America has become sort of backwards. Ann Barnhardt is not wrong.

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  3. "Lethal Vanity" -- Great way to describe this behavior. These people have no concern for others, no concepts of risk, nor can they conceive of any of the long-term effects of their behavior. They will choose options that seem to benefit only them for the short term, regardless of how it might impact everyone (including themselves) in the long term.

    Unfortunately, this is the way most Americans now vote. Not what is good for the long-term health of our country, but only what they are told is good for their own short-term benefit.

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  4. The LIE is certainly an example of highways across the nation that require you to take your life in your hands. Forty years ago I traveled it almost daily, from Lake Ronkonkoma to Yonkers, visiting my father in a cancer ward at Cross County Hospital (is it still there, I wonder?). Bumper-to-bumper at 70-75 was the rule even back then.

    Some of the highways in the Bay Area move at 80-90 mph. The same with I-75 through Florida. I have no problem with the speeds involved, but it seems more and more people are incapable of driving with any skill whatsoever. Even when they aren't on their phones talking and/or texting.

    Just as when I drove a motorcycle as my primary mode of transportation, you have to drive as if you expect everyone around you to intentionally try to kill you. Only then will you experience some modicum of safety.

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