Smeed's Law: The number of people killed in road accidents rises at the number of cars on the road rises, but only up to a point. Then, the fatality rate drops.
Statistician and and road-safety expert R.J. Smeed says as the number of deaths increases, more people clamor that something be done about the problem. And the more cars there are on the road, the more people "grow up" and learn how to sort out problems with traffic.
In 1951, there were 60,000 motor vehicles in China. There were 49 million in the U.S. By 1999, the U.S. had twice as many cars as China, but twice as many people in China died in road accidents than the U.S. Why? Smeed's Law.
This is one of the revelations in Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and what it says about us) from Tom Vanderbilt, who is a guest on Tuesday's first hour of MPR's Midmorning. And guess who's live-blogging it?
Vanderbilt has uncovered some fascinating studies. Take, for example, the research into people who are constantly changing lanes. It found that drivers who do that in traffic spend more time being passed than passing. Those drivers give in to an illusion that you'll probably encounter this very day -- the illusion that the other lane is moving faster than overall traffic.
As always with these live-blogging things, write your observations and questions in the comments section below and I'll pick out the favorites for inclusion in the show.
Just don't type while you're driving, please.
Tom Vanderbilt is in the studio. Let's hear from you. By the way, the picture above is one I took on the way to work after reading in the Star Tribune this morning that roundabouts are hard.
Stay tuned in this space after the show for a slideshow on the subject.
9:09 a.m. - Vanderbilt is talking about researchers who installed cameras in people's cars. After a week, people forgot the cameras were there. I see all sorts of interesting acts of "hygiene" in other cars. People seem to think they're invisible in their car. Vanderbilt says people are "more likely to cooperate" if they make eye contact. But in a car people don't make eye contact.
9:14 a.m. - "How's my driving? Call XXX-XXX-XXXX" Do those stickers work. "The company car is the most hazardous environment for a U.S. worker," Vanderbilt says. New gizmos provide immediate feedback to the boss on how you're driving. Good or bad?
9:15 a.m. - Say what you will about PhotoCop, but someone was running red lights iin Minneapolis.
9:16 a.m. - Kerri comes clean. Says drivers in the lefthand lane who leave 5 car lengths from the vehicle ahead drive her crazy. Fact: It isn't slowing you down, though.
9:18 a.m. - Kate asks a good question below. Are "reserved" people more likely to "act out" on the roadway. Now who would she be talking about? I'll work the question in as soon as possible. My observation: Minnesotans do some quirky things, but they are not inherently crazier than other parts of the country.
9:19 a.m. - "Mike" calls to say people treat him better when he's driving his black sports car than when he's driving a van. Vanderbilt says driving a "Smart Car" is the urban equivalent of having a small, cute dog.
9:22 a.m. - Left-land hogs are getting grilled pretty good right now. Sen. Dick Day made this his big issue a few years ago at the Senate. The best he could come up with, though, were those signs that say "move over."
9:25 a.m. - Here's one of my favorite tests I've made over 16 years here. Drive in the middle lane of a highway. Drive just fast enough so the people behind you aren't going behind you. If that's over the speed limit, so be it. Just tell the state trooper I said it was OK. Now move over to the right lane. Guaranteed: the people behind you, no matter how far behind you, will speed up to pass you. Why?
9:27 a.m. - Things are feeling a little "anti-Minnesotans" here. The popularity of Vanderbilt's book, though, suggests it's not a "Minnesota" thing.
9:29 a.m. Caller: "The guy who scares me is the guy who comes down the ramp, to get on the freeway, and stops." Musing here: Has anyone ever had a driver's test where the inspector takes you onto a highway?
9:32 a.m. - I'll ask Ivan's (from comments) question in roundabouts in a moment. But the picture that goes with the Star Tribune story this morning on roundabouts suggests a really lame job of symbols painted on the roadway. Upside down triangles? What's that supposed to mean?
9:36 a.m. - We're having a lovely off-air discussion on roundabouts. We're waxing nostalgic about the Concord "rotary" in Massachusetts, which was a lot easier to navigate before they set up rules.
9:40 a.m. - Wonderful comment by Andrew:
Much of this conversation is perfectly summarized by George Carlin's observation "There are only two kinds of drivers on the road - idiots driving slower than me and maniacs driving faster."
9:47 a.m. - We're talking "the fedora effect" from Jonathan in comments. Vanderbilt says a researcher studied something like this. A researcher wore a helmet when bicycling and found drivers passed closer. "There are things going on out there we may not be aware of that are subtly altering our behavior," he said.
9:49 a.m. - We're talking merging. And, it's true, I'm one of those people who merged early. Then I saw a Good Question on WCCO a few years ago with a MnDOT engineer saying you have to go all the way to the last chance to merge, in order to merge. This is one area where we're too nice. Of course, this is when lanes decrease. I have no explanation for the inability to merge on on-ramps. I still think people use the "if I don't look at you, you're not really there" philosophy.
9:53 a.m. - Online question, does how people drive match how people act in general? Vanderbilt says one person suggested his book simply be called "Idiots."
9:55 a.m. - Shockwaves. Vanderbilt is talking about these slowdowns on the freeway that have no reason for existing. We could get rid of them, he says, simply by slowing down well ahead of them to smooth them out. But we don't. We charge right up to the "shockwave slowdown" and then stop or slow down, just perpetuating the slowdown.
10:01 a.m. - Off air, Vanderbilt says he finds it creepy when drivers on a highway drive right next to him, neither speeding up to pass, nor slow enough to fall behind. I call this the "he might be a sniper syndrome."
Good show. Great comments. Keep the discussion going today.(58 Comments)
Every time you turn around, it seems, there's another story about how easy it is to "play" the media.
Here's one circulating today: The return of Schlitz beer. MSNBC, featuring an AP story, bit on the obvious press release-fertilized story this week.
Schlitz' owner, Pabst Brewing Co., is recreating the old formula, using notes and interviews with old brew masters to concoct the pilsner again. The maker of another nostalgic favorite, Pabst Blue Ribbon, it hopes baby boomers will reach for the drink of their youth, otherwise known as "The Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous." They also want to create a following among younger drinkers who want to know what grandma and grandpa drank.
Swell story. Bad beer.
It's also stale as the ad industry newsletter Advertising Age points out. The Schlitz folks tried the same thing in 2006.
It didn't work.
Posted at 12:43 PM on August 5, 2008
by Bob Collins
Another headscratcher from the world of high security.
The Transportation Security Administration says a laptop containing the sensitive personal information of 33,000 applicants to an airport security prescreening program has gone missing, the Associated Press reports today.
Agency officials say the unencrypted computer was discovered missing at San Francisco International Airport more than a week ago, though the agency was not notified until Sunday.
The TSA has suspended new enrollments in the program, known as Clear, which allows passengers to pay to use special "fast lanes" at airport security checkpoints.
The Web site where people sign up for the Clear program is pretty unclear about what happened.
"We're updating our software" sounds a tad better than "we accidentally let someone steal your Social Security number, credit card number, home addresses for the last five years, and driver's license number." All of those are required to register for the program.
If only the laptop were a two-year old suspected terrorist.
Posted at 2:47 PM on August 5, 2008
by Bob Collins
What are your chances of being on an airline flight that's late? About 30%, the government reported today.
June's performance numbers were better this year than last year, but only slightly.
Weather is the most common reason for delays. In June, 47.21 percent of late flights were delayed by weather, up 5 percent from June 2007.
Here are some Northwest Airlines' and Minneapolis-St. Paul performance tidbits from the report.
On her blog, Baghdad Observer, Leila Fadel writes today:
Every day I pass by the same buildings destroyed during the U.S. led invasion in my neighborhood in Baghdad. Every day they look exactly the same, a pile of rubble. The electricity problem seems to be getting worse; Iraqis have an average of about four hours of electricity a day. While there is talk of reconstruction, a bridge here, flowers planted there the people don't feel a change.
She then links the situation to a report today from the General Accounting Office on Iraq oil profits (pdf version here), suggesting that money is pouring into Iraq but not making it to whatever level it takes to provide basic essentials.
Here are some factoids I've pulled from the report:
It's amazing the turns that a newsroom conversation can take. A few minutes ago I was engaged in a conversation about Twitter and technology and the next thing I know, editor Mike Mulcahy and I were excitedly recalling the phenomenon of the Amphicar.
The Amphicar, in our youth, was what Twitter is today -- the next big thing. In my hometown, the old guy who owned the local radio station (where I would later work) regularly drove around town in his Amphicar, which allowed people to drive down the road, and into the lake if there was any sort of good reason to do so.
The Amphicar never caught on because (a) Other than for a few months in the spring, when's the last time you really needed your car to splash into a river or lake? And (b) there weren't enough crazy old guys in America's small towns interested in showing off their latest technology.
An MIT student has an aerial version of the Amphicar in mind. Carl Dietrich wants to be able to fly a plane to an airport, convert it into a car, and drive away, BusinessWeek reported a few years ago.
But, it's already been done.
In the 1940s, the Aerocar was developed and sold for about $25,000. It never caught on. Go figure.
A testament to the continuing spirit of America is there's always a "next big thing," that has no prayer of actually becoming the next big thing, that some people will always want to buy simply because for that brief moment in time, it might be.
We saw this last week at the big AirVenture show at Oshkosh. Virtually every flying machine in the world shows up each year at Oshkosh. But what was the big draw this year? The jetpack:
The company that is trying to develop the jetpack had the biggest crowds at the show. As envisioned, it'll fly on regular old gasoline for about a half hour. At a public demonstration, the "pilot" got about 3 feet off the ground, and then thanked everyone for coming. That might be enough to separate a few crazy old guys from their money.
It was a defining moment, perhaps, for the jetpack. And a familiar one for followers of the Amphicar. A Web site dedicated to the beast carried this story:
We lived in Hoboken NJ from 1960-68, and the Amphicar importer was about 10 miles west in Moonachie - acres covered with Amphicars. We had a 1959 Triumph TR10 (Standard, predecessor of the Herald) at the time, nearly the same engine.
The Amphicar importer decided to market the vehicle as an ideal way to beat the rush-hour traffic across the Hudson River from NJ to NYC. They announced that they would show how the Amphicar could simply drive to the river, cross it as a boat, and drive up into Manhattan. Lots of folks from the Press were at the ramp in Weehawken NJ when 2 guys from the importer drove down a boat ramp and sailed east. The problem is, even on a calm day, the Hudson has about a 1' chop, and the water began to splash over the windowsills. About 50 yards out, the driver made a u-turn, drove back out onto the boat ramp, and kept going. There was no further promotion of the Amphicar as a cross-Hudson commuter vehicle.
The demise of the "next big thing" has a universal underpinning: They don't work and have no practical purpose.
Beat that, Twitter.