As a teen growing up in the early 80s, I was a huge fan of the Canadian “math rock” band RUSH. Among my favorite songs: Red Barchetta , which takes place in a future world where the “motor law” prohibits driving older “unsafe” cars on public roads. In the song, the protagonist visits his uncle to drive his old Ferrari Red Barchetta sports car. “Alloy air cars” then give chase to run the Ferrari off of the road. The wonderfully evocative lyrics and music transported me to a future where freedom can still be found if you knew where to find it.
“Red Barchetta” was inspired by a short story in the November 1973 issue of Road & Track entitled “A Nice Morning Drive.” Author Richard Foster predicts a future where safety requirements for new cars results in huge “Modern Safety Vehicles” (MSV). Way back in 1973, Foster wrote, “Cars became larger, heavier, less efficient. They consumed gasoline so voraciously that the United States had had to become a major ally with the Arabian countries.”
“People became accustomed to cars which went undamaged in lO-mph collisions,” the story continues. “They gave even less thought than before to the possibility of being injured in a crash. As a result, they tended to worry less about clearances and rights-of-way, so that the accident rate went up a steady six percent every year. But the damages and injuries actually decreased, so the government was happy, the insurance industry was happy and most of the car owners were happy.”
In Foster’s world, some MSV drivers would purposely run older, smaller cars off of the roads simply because they could get away with it.
In our real-life 21st Century, cars have indeed become much safer, and in fact they are somewhat less likely to be in an accident because of safety improvements beyond just adding bulk to a vehicle. There has been one deleterious side effect, however: people drive faster and more dangerously so that the more vulnerable road users — pedestrians and bicyclists, for example — are now dying at a higher rate while overall road deaths have dropped. We’ve all heard that “the laws of physics” mandate that we keep our bikes off of the road, and that if we’re hit and killed it’s our own fault.
I’m amazed at Foster’s anticipation of the psychology of “mass rules” 35 years ago, but these things ought not so to be. ABS, traction control, stability control, rollover protection, adaptive cruise control, airbags, crumple zones and all the other advanced safety features of modern automobiles are great to have, but often these things only enable motorists to behave even more like boneheads when they’re behind the wheel. And of course, when I say “bonehead” I include myself in that category, because better control almost naturally leads to faster driving.
Cycling still has about the same relative risk of serious injury or death as driving, but the risk seems to be trending upward for some areas. A real solution is to increase the number of bicyclists so that all road users expect to see us on the road and adjust their driving accordingly. I’m not convinced that tougher or new laws (such as the fad for 3-foot passing laws) is entirely the answer, though enforcement of existing laws would be a tremendous help. I’m also a fan of road diets and traffic calming, though these measures are generally appropriate for slow traffic areas such as residential neighborhoods.
I’m not clever enough to come up with the solution to this safer vehicle paradox. What are your ideas? What have you seen in the media or blogosphere on how to mitigate risk compensation?