September 9th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Safe

I'm not particularly surprised that Steve Irwin, the naturalist and zookeeper who earned his fame mis-handling poisonous snakes and wrestling crocodiles, died the way he did. Even when he was dangling his newborn child in front of a hungry crocodile, he knew the one thing that kept him alive. Not merely alive, knowing this one thing kept him intact, with all his original fingers and toes and other extremities: this is frelling dangerous. The most dangerous animals he ever handled could occasionally surprise him enough to issue a mild epithet. Which shows that he wasn't really surprised at all; when a guy who grew up working class in Australia is startled, he doesn't yell "crikey." Nor, obviously, did any of them ever surprise him so much that he didn't know, in advance, what to do when they did whatever it was they did. What it took to kill Steve Irwin was for him to be doing something that he felt safe doing. He was skin diving. That's never safe, period, but it can be made safe enough to lull most people and routine enough to lull the rest. He was closely following an animal that only mildly injures a few people a year, that kids actually handle in zoos and aquariums all over the world, and that has so far as I can tell never actually successfully killed a human being ever before. But that combination of feeling safe doing what he was doing, plus substantial bad luck, plus perhaps a poor judgment call made on the spur of the moment because he wasn't expecting to be doing anything dangerous that day and hadn't planned ahead (but if you get a major impaling chest wound, yanking the weapon out should not be your first thought)* killed him deader than King George.

So, how was your drive home?

Unless you're reading this from inside Iraq during wartime, you will probably never do anything in your entire life that is as dangerous as driving an automobile on the highway. An automobile is a very heavy machine. It has only the flimsiest connection to the ground, and therefore very impaired ability to steer. It is almost certainly not maintained continuously by professionals; many of the interior engine and braking and steering parts can't even be inspected for impending failure and will eventually catastrophically fail. And it moves very, very fast relative to human reflex speeds; trained athletes can't respond to an unexpected change in their environment in less than about a fifth of a second, and in that span of time an automobile on the highway travels about 19 feet. That's not the distance it can be stopped in or turned in, that's the distance it will travel before you even notice that something needs to be done. But if you're an American, you do it for at approximately 40 minutes at a time at least ten times a week, usually many more times than that. It's impossible to do something more or less the same way for roughly 7 hours out of every 126 waking hours every week of your life for 50 years and maintain the same attitude, every time, that let Steve Irwin handle venomous snakes ... even though what you're doing is, statistically, much more likely to kill you than handling poisonous snakes would be. Because eventually you feel the same way driving to and from work that he felt while swimming leisurely in shallow water with a stingray: perfectly safe.

Well, you're not. So pay attention, dammit. I'm losing my temper over this subject lately, and I'm not the only one. In less than two months, almost once per week, we in the St. Louis area have seen four yuppies and one drunk run down highway construction workers. All five of them were speeding in a construction zone. Not one of them was paying the least attention to the road. And all of them probably felt perfectly safe roaring through a construction zone at speeds so high that (for example) the yuppie bitch in the red SUV who ran into that most recent construction crew, ran into a construction dump truck with a heavy commercial suspension and one of those huge 20-foot-long shock absorbing cushions on a boom arm behind it, ran into it so hard that she crumbled the right rear giant steel wheel on it and had to be cut out of her SUV with heavy shears, never even slowed down, never even tried to change lanes, even though that truck with its giant flashing amber arrow on the back was visible for at least a quarter mile.

With any luck, she's going to get the book thrown at her, because after the last couple of such accidents, the Missouri state legislature lost their last vestige of any patience with this kind of thing and lost their tempers, too. We now have several new laws, rushed through as emergency legislation. Let's start with a couple of week old law that sticks the minimum fine for speeding in a marked construction zone at $1,000.00. More importantly in her case, they created the crime of vehicular battery of a construction worker, with a minimum $10,000.00 fine and a one-year suspension of her driver's license. (That is, of course, on top of whatever it cost her to total her SUV, and any damages the injured highway worker sues her for if any.) In fact, I worry a little bit about how draconian that penalty may seem to a jury, and will certainly seem to her. Put me on record as predicting that nobody will be convicted of actually violating that law any time in the next two years; they've made the penalty so high that offenders will have very strong incentives to try to lawyer their way out of it, to plead it down to something else. I hope I'm wrong about that, though. I don't think the penalty's too strict; I'm disappointed that negligence as close to homicidal as hers can't result in jail time.

Other than the tendency of drivers to get complacent, the other problem that's making this so bad lately is that the damned yuppies have moved so far away from their jobs in order to put their kids in 99% whites-only "good" schools (like the ones down in meth-lab country in impoverished rural Jefferson County) that the richest of them are now commuting two hours a day each way -- by the tens of thousands of them -- on roads that haven't been upgraded enough yet to carry their traffic. That means that to keep their kids in almost entirely whites-only "good" schools they're sacrificing an extra three hours a day in the car. But since these also tend to be people who put in a lot of overtime, plus shuttling their kids around, they just don't have the extra 15 to 18 hours a week to spare. So they're trying to "get some use" out of their commuting time: shaving, getting dressed, putting on makeup, eating breakfast and dinner, reading reports that have to be finished before work, and of course, talking endlessly on their cellular phones.

Put that crap down and pay attention to the road, damn you all. Stop playing with the car stereo, and pray to your god that I don't catch you watching TV in the car. There is no such thing as a safe time for you to be pawing through your CD wallet reading labels, or thinking at length about which station this is and what kind of music they're going to play this time of day, when the car is in motion. Nor do I want to hear justifications about how talking on your hands-free (let alone handheld) cell phone isn't any different than talking to somebody in the car. That's a lie, an honest mistake at best but an indefensible one when the proof to the contrary has been out for five years now. No study has refuted yet the reports that talking to someone on the phone, unlike talking to someone in the car with you, impairs your driving equivalently to a blood-alcohol content of roughly one and a half times the legal limit. When you're talking to someone who's in the car, your brain knows who you're talking to, and steals glances at them from time to time for reassurance. When you're talking on the phone, your brain diverts substantial attention to visualizing the other person, and you don't have that attention to spare.

So just drive. If you can't spare that many hours a day on doing nothing but driving, you screwed up and need to move, as fast as possible, closer to your job(s). Otherwise, get off of the damned roads. The rest of us, especially those of us who are trying to maintain the road grids that connect your exurban job sites to your semi-rural white enclaves, did not volunteer to be significant collateral damage to your lifestyle decision.

* Footnote Added: Several people corrected me on a few things that I, and the early press reports, had wrong. Rays are infinitessimally more dangerous than I stated (17 people in all of recorded history), Steve Irwin would have been dead even if he'd left the barb in from paralysis of his heart muscles, and the early reports that he yanked out the barb were mistaken. None of which changes the point of this article, but the corrections should be noted in case you were going to pass on the same mistaken sources I used.