Tuesday, June 28, 2005

smoking hot

My client took me outside to continue our discussion of the software enhancements we were designing. I thought it was because he wanted to talk privately for some reason; turns out he just needed a cigarette.

The funny part (to me, I mean) is that as he lights up he shakes his head sheepishly and says “Don’t tell anyone, okay? I quit a couple months ago, and I don’t want them to know I’ve started again.”

I want to say “Don, I knew you still smoked from the minute you greeted me an hour ago. Your clothes smell like you slept in the fireplace. Your breath is like a forest fire. I suspect there is not a great deal of mystery in the office surrounding your smoking status.”

But I didn’t.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Free Pass, my... eye

In USA Today yesterday, there was a front page article headlined "Speeders' 5-10 mph 'free pass' costs lives, report says".
The article went on to quote some advocacy group as saying that the cushion cops typically allow drivers contributes to "carnage" on the nation's roadways, blah blah blah. What stupidity. I *know* they have to sell papers, but this is absurd. Happily for you, however, I'm here to give you the straight scoop...

First of all, this *IS* true: Speed affects the frequency and severity of accidents; if cops enforced the law more strictly, everyone would be forced to drive more slowly, and there would be fewer fatalities.

But here's the deal: The average posted speed on interstates is (let's say) 60mph, and the average actual driving speed is 68mph. Yes, we COULD make people drive closer to 60mph if we wanted to. But there is nothing magic about the number 60. It is safer than 70 and more dangerous than 50. EVERY mile per hour of speed can be said to cost a certain number of lives. That applies to the miles between 30-35mph, between 60-68mph, and between 110-125mph. Why not make the speed limit 40, and enforce that? If we were used to driving 40 everywhere, and someone proposed driving 60, people would freak out about the "carnage" that would result.

Whatever speed we want people to drive at, we have to make the limit a little lower, and then enforce it in a way that's efficient and effective -- that's why cops do it the way they do -- the policy didn't develop by accident, or through sloth or stupidity. If cops ticketed for 2mph over the limit, then
a) people would be fighting their tickets all the time,
b) it would make us annoyed, and
c) it wouldn't allow for the realities of life, which is that sometimes it's reasonable, safe, and necessary to drive slightly slower or (gasp) faster than the posted limit (IOW, there is no limit which is exactly the right maximum speed for a particular road 100% of the time).

We just like the idea of making people drive the posted limit because we love Rules. Rules give us a sense of security in the face of the injustice, difficulty, and disorder we encounter in the great swirling chaos of life. 60MPH carries a sense of Officialness and Rightness because, hey, look at all the signs that we've posted saying it's a good maximum speed. What I call The Power of What IS is significant -- what we're used to seeing carries far more weight with us than it would command on its merits alone.

But there's no such thing as a speed limit that will keep us all safe. There was no Golden Age. There is no economic system, social convention, foreign policy, consumer protection law, enviro-friendly approach, or method of holding a pocket knife that will ensure our health, prevent accidents, defeat hunger, and make everyone live happily ever after. Everything is a trade-off, nothing is free, and life is unfair, disorganized, and often tragic.

If we were really serious about addressing the "carnage", we'd have a national 20mph speed limit; helmets, 5-point restraint systems, 360-degree airbags would be mandatory. Motorcycles would be illegal, as well as Cooper Minis. That would put a dent in the Slaughter On Our Highways, or whatever you want to call it when Newton's First Law gets applied to us even though we're good people who like ourselves and didn't want to die yet.

And there are enough people who can be swayed by articles like the one in USA today, that as a nation we might even vote for something stupid like a 20mph speed limit. Until we realized it would take forever to ship anything. When pop tarts suddenly cost six bucks apiece, we'd *run* to the polling place to vote for higher speed limits and to heck with the carnage. Which is as it should be.