Ray LaHood’s automotive fantasyland

We all have an automotive fantasyland — or at least we all should.  Mine varies depending on what I’ve been reading lately, but right now it’s a private test day at Virginia International Raceway with a KTM X-Bow GT4.  Of course, this fantasy is vastly unlikely to come true — in part because KTM won’t export X-Bows to North America.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has an entirely different automotive fantasyland, which is similar to mine in the sense that it’s vastly unlikely to come true.  It differs from mine, however, in three crucial respects:

  1. While I spend most of my time thinking about other things, Ray LaHood seems to be living in his fantasyland on a 24/7 basis.
  2. My automotive fantasy is heavily invested in the laws of physics — if changing the roll couple on my imaginary X-Bow doesn’t do what Milliken and I expect it to, I’m gonna be annoyed.  Secretary LaHood’s fantasy, on the other hand, is heavily invested in petulance, emotional reasoning, and the always-popular good intentions.
  3. If I want to bring my VIR fantasy a bit closer to reality before its time, the best I can do is fire up rFactor.  LaHood, on the other hand, can mess with regulations and (attempt to) influence policy in ways that’ll make people arbitrarily miserable well before anything he wants is remotely practical.

Secretary LaHood, being a diligent sort of fellow, is concerned about safety.  And despite evidence that such a thing is futile, he figures that if only he passes enough laws he’ll be able to make people safer by banning cellphone use in moving vehicles:

Obama Transportation Secreatry Ray LaHood is now formally pushing a federal law banning texting while driving. LaHood has already banned texting for commercial truck and bus operators and federal employees on the job, but applying the ban to regular motorists would presumably involve blackmailing the states with federal highway funds.

But LaHood isn’t stopping there. According to US News, LaHood also wants “a device to shut down phones and BlackBerrys when the engine is started.” And he’s not a fan of GPS, satellite radio, and other enhancements that make time in the car more enjoyable, explaining in curmudgeon dialect that “I’m concerned that some of these car manufacturers are putting all these gadgets and bells and whistles in cars that are going to distract people.”

LaHood, technocrat extraordinaire, has written his own just-so story about Why People Crash Cars — it’s those damn dirty distractions what’re doin’ it — and he won’t be distracted from his point by such peripheral intrusions as facts.  Balko explains:

Since 1995, there’s been an eightfold increase in cellphone subscribers in the United States, and we’ve increased the number of minutes spent on cellphones by a factor of 58.

What’s happened to traffic fatalities in that time? They’ve dropped—slightly, but they’ve dropped. Overall reported accidents since 1997 have dropped, too, from 6.7 million to 6 million. Proponents of a ban on cellphones say those numbers should have dropped more. “We’ve spent billions on air bags, antilock brakes, better steering, safer cars and roads, but the number of fatalities has remained constant,” safety researcher David Strayer told the New York Times in July. “Our return on investment for those billions is zero. And that’s because we’re using devices in our cars.”

Strayer would have a point if he were looking at the right statistics. But we drive a lot more than we did in 1995. Deaths in proportion to passenger miles are a far better indicator of road safety than overall fatalities. In 1995, there were 1.72 deaths for every 100 million miles traveled. By 2007, the figure had dropped to 1.36, a 21 percent decline.

(Antilock brakes, I’m compelled to mention, are wonderful things.)

So the number of reported crashes per mile driven* has decreased in the same time span that those notionally distracting gadgets have propagated.  But never mind — maybe if new cars didn’t have onboard GPS, there would be even fewer crashes per mile.  Given that this is at least glancingly related to human factors research in airplane control layouts, on which there is a lot of existing research, LaHood must have a pretty robust case for his proposed phone-killers.  Right?  Balko again:

But LaHood has met with the families of people allegedly killed by distracted drivers. And he has said that cell phone-toting drivers in D.C. annoy him. All of which suggests enforceability, practicality, perspective, and the possibility of unintended consequences aren’t likely to factor into his decision, nor into whether Congress decides to follow his lead.

Well, maybe not.  See, the borders of LaHood’s automotive fantasyland extend far beyond just-so technocracy into a frightening place where, like the extra dimensions from H. P. Lovecraft’s The Dreams in the Witch-House, the laws of Newtonian Physics no longer apply.

Ms. McArdle’s vignette begins with LaHood waxing eloquent about how automotive “safety” must be the top priority of his agency — and automakers — with no tradeoffs permitted for utility.  That’s easy: take out the engine and gas tank.  A car that doesn’t move is one that you can’t crash into oncoming traffic whilst answering your cellphone, and if it’s grounded it’ll even offer some protection against lightning strikes while you sit in your driveway making “vroom, vroom!” noises.  But back to LaHood’s polemic:

This sounds wonderful, of course, but it is not actually true; as [Rep. Mark] Souder pointed out, lowering the speed limit to 30 mph would save a lot of lives, but we don’t do it.  Aren’t there tradeoffs, he asked.

At which point Secretary LaHood achieved liftoff and rapidly departed reality.  He responded that lowering the speed limit to 30 mph would not save any lives, which is why we have minimum speeds on highways.  Representative Souder looked just as flummoxed as I was; did the Secretary of Transportation really not understand that the minimum speed limit exists to ensure that traffic is travelling at basically the same speed–which is indeed safer than allowing wide speed differentials?  Could he possibly believe that it was actually safer to drive 40 mph than to drive 30 mph?
Yes, apparently he could.  When Souder pointed out that the minimum existed in order to minimize speed differentials, LaHood proclaimed, “I don’t buy your argument, Mr. Souder”.  Secretary LaHood seems to be arguing that the laws of the United States override the laws of physics.  I spend a fair amount of time hanging around isolationists who take a pretty hardline stance on US sovereignty, but even for me, this was novel.

(Bon mot emphasis added.)

So taking LaHood at his admittedly cherry-picked word, it’s safer to drive at speeds above 30mph while pawing through a road atlas on the passenger seat than it is to drive at, say, 15mph while paying attention to the voice prompts from your GPS.  Let’s hope this jackass doesn’t take it upon himself to adjust the “school zone” section of DC’s traffic code.

McArdle commenter “downfall” brings us back to reality:

I hope and trust all of our politicians and appointed officials are aware that the optimal number of highway deaths is not zero, and the same is true for terrorism-related deaths, food-borne bacteria related death, and so on. They simply can’t afford to say it. And I can’t blame them for it; acknowledging that reality would cost them their job and no good would come of it.

(Emphasis again added.)


* I’m abusing Balko’s statistics a little, but I don’t think I’m screwing up the results


2 Responses to “Ray LaHood’s automotive fantasyland”

  1. March 3, 2010 at 10:55

    you sound like the type of guy who has a garage full of interesting tools and tidbits for cars.. not to mention a poster of a beautiful woman :)

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