How Lucky!

I’m starting to think Larry Niven was right.

One of the subplots in his Known Space stories involves, in short, breeding humans to be lucky. He postulates strict birth control laws combined with a lottery to distribute one-child exceptions to the laws. After several generations, there will be people whose ancestors are all lottery babies.

Whether that constitutes luck, I’ll let you decide.

But in the context of the stories, the eventual result is a group of people who are so lucky that nothing bad can ever happen to them. Even things that seem unfortunate will ultimately prove to have been the best thing that could have happened to the person.

With me so far? Okay, now consider this quote from “Flatlander,” one of Mr. Niven’s stories set before the rise of the lucky. The protagonist is watching a group of hobbyists who restore and drive old internal combustion engine cars on a stretch of freeway (which they also have to restore and maintain).

They were off. I was still wondering what kick they got driving an obsolete machine on flat concrete when they could be up here with us. They were off, weaving slightly, weaving more than slightly, foolishly moving at different speeds, coming perilously close to each other before sheering off — and I began to realize things.

Those automobiles had no radar.

They were being steered with a cabin wheel geared directly to four ground wheels. A mistake in steering and they’d crash into each other or into the concrete curbs. They were steered and stopped by muscle power, but whether they could turn or stop depended on how hard four rubber balloons could grip smooth concrete. If the tires loosed their grip, Newton’s First Law would take over; the fragile metal mass would continue moving in a straight line until stopped by a concrete curb or another groundcar.

“A man could get killed in one of those.”

“Not to worry,” said Elephant. “Nobody does, usually.”

“Usually?”

You know where I’m going with this, don’t you?

We don’t need no steenkin’ breeders’ lottery to breed ourselves for luck. We’re already doing it. Every time you get into a car, you’re taking your life in your hands.

The Interstate Highway System has encouraged drivers to drive faster and faster, generating impatience with anyone who doesn’t get with the program. Merriam-Webster claims the first known use of the word “gridlock” was in 1980. Certainly the phenomenon, along with “road rage” (1988), has been around longer than that.

But even if we go with 1980, that means roughly 130,000,000 Americans have been born only because their parents were lucky enough to survive on the roads long enough to breed. By now, we’re into at least the third generation.

And it shows. People keep finding new ways to ramp up the danger level.

Drivers are no longer content to honk if the car in front of them doesn’t move fast enough when the light changes. Now they honk and pull around the laggard, using the shoulder, adjoining lanes, and even the oncoming traffic lanes. In the rain, regardless of the presence of pedestrians, and despite the drivers in the adjoining lanes doing exactly the same thing.

Somehow, most of them survive. How lucky!

The next couple of decades are going to be interesting, but at this rate, by the time the kids born in 2050 are old enough to drive, they’ll be too lucky to ever have an accident. Think of all the money they’ll save on insurance, vehicle maintenance, and transit infrastructure!

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