Friday, July 25, 2003

Grandpa’s not the problem. Great-Grandpa is.

With a tragedy like what occurred in Santa Monica when Russ Weller drove through a street market striking over 50 pedestrians and killing 10 there is bound to be many knee-jerk and poorly thought ideas on how to “solve” the problem or more likely what is perceived to be the problem. What is needed to try and come up with a plan that addresses concerns raised by such tragedies, if anything can be done, is thoughtful and reasoned observations of the events. What doesn’t help are reverse knee-jerk arguments. In a recent commentary on these events Mr. Eli Lehrer slips into this by pointing fingers everywhere from mechanical failure to other drivers in an attempt to mitigate either Russ Weller’s fault, or relative impact, in the accident. While I agree in part with Mr. Lehrer’s final conclusion I have to say he has errored on every point he makes on the way.

In his opening paragraph Mr. Lehrer makes reference to possible mechanical and to the vast majority of people this seems quite plausible. Everyone wants to think that it could be a failure of the car at that would make is all such a tidy situation and those affected gat the bonus of suing GM for $37 trillion dollars. Sadly no, all that suggestion does is feed into the myth of Sudden Acceleration. Mr. Weller’s 1992 LeSaber was a good car and it did exactly what it was told. Why it wasn’t the car’s fault needs to be explained in detail to show why it was none other than poor driving. The main thing to understand is it that for mechanical failure to be the culprit you will need failures in the Engine Management Computer (ECU), throttle assembly, brakes, steering, transmission and ignition systems all at the same time.

The ECU failures are quite rare. The ECU is a solid state computer that controls fuel to the engine. While it goes by many names, Jentronic in my old Saab for example, they all modern cars have one and they fill the same basic function. The ECU in Mr Weller’s Buick needs to fail in a manner that results in it feeding to much fuel to the engine. Operating properly the computer monitors airflow and sends in more fuel as the volume of air, controlled by the gas pedal, increases. Now these computers do fail, but when they do the cars simply stops running or at best runs in a sluggish limp-home mode. For this “Sudden Acceleration” theory to fly the ECU needs to begin overloading fuel. This is a tall order for a solid state appliance that typically works or is dead but I’m no electrical engineer so while I have never heard or read of this happening I will allow it as “possible”. So now that fuel is rushing to get into the engine is the car out of control? Absolutely not. Letting off the gas pedal will shut the throttle valve closing off the air supply, causing the engine to at first run rich, bog down and then stall – no tragedy. Steering the car out of the way and through the market – no tragedy. Grab the keys and turn the car off – no tragedy. Putting the car into neutral and allowing it to coast to a stop – no tragedy. Finally you can apply the brakes and stop the car – no tragedy. I could take a few thousands words going through every possible combination of failures and state what could be done to avert disaster but the point I’m want to make is that unless everything goes is just the right manner all at the simeltaneouly – a statistical impossibility – there are safe easy and quick ways a good and aware driver can bring a car under control.

Mr. Weller may have had one thing go wrong on his car but the question is whether or not he was still a safe driver and a person who freezes in a situation causing risk to others as opposed to calmly keeping their car under control is not what I would consider a safe driver. The most likely scenario of when happened is Mr. Weller mistakenly had his foot on the gas thinking it was the brake and as the car moved into the crowd he pressed what he thought was the brake harder making the Buick push deeper and deeper into the market. This “Sudden Acceleration” where people are pressing the wrong pedal happens to all ages, through is more common among the elderly who may be more easily confused by rapidly changing situations.

Mr. Lehrer makes his greatest error with an apples and oranges age group comparison. His commentary is on an accident caused by an 86 year-old driver and in it he also mentions an incident from 1999 involving a 96 year-old driver. Then he goes on to explain how the older drivers should be left alone since the 18-25 year old group is actually more dangerous than the 55-70 year old group. I would like to ask Mr. Lehrer to please explain what the comparison of the 18-25 and 55-70 groups has to do with a discussion on those 85 and older? He never quite explains why he is rushing to the defense of the 55-70 year olds by bashing the youngest drivers when the 55-70 year old group isn’t part of the discussion.

Mr. Lehrer spends the bulk of his story making a moral equivalence argument that young drivers are more dangerous than the older drivers as a justification for allowing old drivers on the road forever and adding that it’s the young drivers that need state intervention. Crap. First the problem with young drivers is their lack of experience to handle a car properly. In the current system restricting their driving will only drag out the time it takes them to gain that experience. Make people wait until they are 35 to get a license and you will have a bunch of dangerous inexperienced 35 year olds on the roads. Where as the problem with old drivers – talking 70+ as 55 year olds being old only using AARP logic - is that they have lost the skill they once had, and once lost continued driving is not resulting in a reacquiring these skills but merely increasing the chance of an accident.

Let’s look at the numbers. Mr. Lehrer takes 18-25 year olds vs. 55-70. I have no idea where he is getting statistics for 18-25 year olds as he provides no reference and NHTSA breaks the ages into 16-20 and 21-34. The numbers for the 16-20 are just awful but I have been complaining about how bad our drivers training is for years so I am happy to conede that. The corner stone to Mr. Lehrer’s equivalence is comparing the death rate. The death rate is a simple calculation based upon the number of dead vs. the over all population. So 16-20 has the highest at 30 followed by 70+ at around 23 and 21-34 a close second at 22. That means for 2001 (the most recent year NHTSA has stats for on the web) 30, 23 and 22 people from the respective age group perished in wrecks per 100,000 in each group. Based solely on that it would seem the 70+ and 21-35 group are about equal in safety but this couldn’t be further from the truth because the real number to conceder is deaths per miles driven. For example if I tell you I had one accident last year while Bob had two, who would you feel safer with? Now what if I tell you I’m 82 years old and drove a total of 3,500 miles last year never venturing off the same roads from my house to the church, store and senior center, while last year Bob, a 22 year-old college student, racked up over 30,000 miles between spring break, heading out of town for concerts and his job as a pizza delivery guy, then who would you feel safer with? I can find no data that breaks down the miles driven by the different age groups but there is no way anyone can convince me that the 70+ crowd as a group drive more than a small fraction of the kids out exploring the world.

So with the young drivers, who’s inexperience, immaturity and feeling of invincibility all impact their poor driving are still only dying at a slightly higher rate than the 70+ even though they driving many more miles and at higher rates of speed. If one was able to find the date breakdown on miles driven it would no doubt reflect that each time behind the wheel it is the 70+ group most likely to crash and not 21-34. But even if my supposition is completely false it doesn’t make the, “but they do it too” defense sufficient to allow older drivers carte blanch on the highways.

As for Mr. Lehrer’s asscertion that younger drivers are more dangerous because the for profit rental industry shies away from them all I can say is, come on man! While I will give you that accident rates play a factor in rental cars being denied to younger drivers there is a lot more involved. Again younger drives drive more. A young renter is likely to want to drive all over town to “get their money’s worth” where the 70+ driver is going where they need to go and no further. Younger drivers are more likely to damage the car outside of accidents spilling a Supersize soda on the back seat, cigarette burns, etc. but the big one is financial liability. The kids screw up your car what are you going to do? Great-gramps on the other hand has all those hard earned assets laying around you can take if he screws your car up. Rental companies blackball younger drivers because - they can’t make an easy profit from them – the reasons for which poor driving is only one.

When Mr. Lehrer concludes,

“No regulation will ever make it perfectly safe for anybody to drive a two-ton hunk of steel at 65-miles-per-hour. Some older motorists, particularly those with health and vision problems, do warrant extra attention from the government, but driving records and diagnosed medical conditions, not age alone, should help policymakers decide who should get off the road. A handful of tragic deaths, in other words, do not justify revoking the driving privileges that millions of seniors depend on. ”

…it comes across to me as saying there is nothing we can do outside of taking freedom away from an entire segment of society, a that freedom is worth more than a few lives. Now I do agree that freedom is expensive but there is something we can do about it, not only for the elderly drivers but for the young drivers as well. Simulators. Simulators are used to teach airline pilots, tank commanders a whole host of things where if you screwed up in the real world people die. Well that’s what’s going on with our highways. Kids drive poor due to lack of experience and the elderly due to lose of both physical and mental reflexes. Now imagine a setup where you didn’t get a full license until you had logged so many incident free miles on the simulator or one were older drivers where faced with different fast changing situations and had to react accordingly? Custom tailoring the simulations would be easy. Give the kids a bunch of slow drivers they have to learn to deal and the older drivers cars zipping that they need to react to or no license. Younger drivers would for the first time have real incentive to learn good driving habits. Older drivers would have real incentive to do what they can to maintain their reflexes. And everyone in the middle can breath a little easier. Win, win, win.

Mr. Lehrer says that there is no problem with older drivers by trying to distract you with mechanical gremlins and poor teenage drivers but even so there’s nothing we can do about it short of squashing freedoms. Mt Lehrer is wrong, there is a problem and a solution. The real question is whether we as Americans are willing to pay the money to increase road safety while maintaining our individual freedoms? I think we should but most likely Mr. Lehrer’s fears of knee-jerk legislation that does nothing buy blindly label an entire age group unsafe is what will come to pass.

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