Knock It Off!

Seriously! Just cut it out.

There have been a lot of words expended on how much worse drivers have gotten since the pandemic started.

I’m going to expend a few more.

Not that I expect it to make a difference on the roads, but it’ll make me feel slightly better. Not as much as the start of professional baseball–first preseason games are Friday, World Baseball Classic starts March 8, MLB season begins March 30–but I’ll take what I can get.

Because drivers are really getting horrible out there. In the past week, I’ve seen:

  • Three drivers run red lights. I’m not talking about stretching the yellow past the point where it snaps. No, two of them were outright “blow through the intersection without even slowing down” and the third was a “stop, wait a couple of seconds, then proceed straight ahead”.
  • One case of a driver going straight ahead from a left turn lane (after flooring the accelerator to be the first through the green light, ahead of the drivers in the two adjoining non-turn lanes).
  • One driver turning right from the left turn lane. Fortunately, that was a one-lane-plus-turn-lane street and nobody was going straight.
  • One driver cutting across four freeway lanes into the exit lane, then apparently changing their mind and cutting back across to the express lane.

And then there are the innumerable drivers speeding. Not the traditional “five miles over the limit” speeding. The current standard seems to be to do forty where the limit is thirty, fifty where it’s thirty-five or forty, and a minimum of fifteen over the limit–whatever the limit is–on the freeway. Even more when it’s raining, presumably because there are fewer cars on the road to get in the way.

Lane markings have become purely advisory, and fewer and fewer drivers are taking their advice. Swing wide on turns? Sure, go ahead: it reduces your chances of running off the road when you take a thirty mph turn at forty-five. Weave back and forth from one side of the road to the other? Absolutely: it wouldn’t do to let anybody pass you–it might force you to slow down.

Turn signals? Nobody uses those. If you can’t guess what the driver in front of you intends, you shouldn’t be driving.

Why has it gotten so dangerous out there? Most of the pontifications I’ve seen on the subject say it’s all because of the COVID lockdown: fewer drivers on the road and lower levels of law enforcement leading to an “I can get away with anything these days.” And it’s probably true, at least to an extent.

But logically, if that was all there was to it, now that traffic is more or less back to pre-pandemic levels, shouldn’t drivers be getting more cautious? Or at least, not getting any worse?

It certainly doesn’t seem that way. The stoplight behavior I noted up there is new. Yes, there have always been red light runners. But they’ve been rare enough that, at least around here, one could go weeks or months without seeing it happen. Misuse of the turn lanes as passing lanes isn’t new, but that also used to be rare, even as recently as mid-2022.

So what do we do about it?

I’m forced to admit that execution seems a bit excessive.

Handing out driver access passes to local race tracks might help by giving drivers a chance to work out their unsafe impulses in a controlled environment. But how do we get them to the track safely? Besides, how to we give them the passes? If we had enough traffic enforcement going on to distribute meaningful numbers of race track passes, they could simply enforce the traffic laws with the traditional tickets, fines, and license suspensions.

What if we go back to a full lockdown? Not only would it minimize the number of potential innocent victims of their idiocy, but we might actually knock out COVID once and for all.

Nah, too much to hope for.


A Pointless Tale

No deep insights, no hidden truths today. Just a bit of fluff I hope will brighten your day a smidge.

So there’s this stretch of road that’s a key part of my commute. Those of you who know the Bay Area, it’s Richmond Parkway. For the rest of you, picture this: two lanes in each direction, a wide median whose grass is desperately in need of trimming, half a dozen traffic lights, and a posted speed limit of 50.

Yes, 50. On a city street. Okay, the street in question connects two freeways, and it’s semi-rural. But again, those traffic lights and pedestrian traffic.

About half the cars–in these COVID-19 days, maybe more than half–take 50 as a challenge. Sixty is common, and even 75 isn’t unheard of. Then there’s a large minority who figure the speed limit signs are in error, so they stick to 35, whooping it up to 40 if they’re feeling reckless.

Add in the trucks. Did I mention the trucks? Sorry. Many of the businesses along Richmond Parkway are the kind that make use of trucks. Big trucks. Tankers hauling liquid nitrogen or molten sulphur. Huge pickups with poorly anchored loads of scrap metal. Multiple anonymous trailers.

Do you know how long it takes a big truck to go from zero to fifty? Hint: it’s about the distance from one traffic light to the next along Richmond Parkway.

Forget about trying to pass. The trucks and the curve of the road make it very difficult to see who might be coming up on you from behind. The major differences in speed encourage shark packs that block lanes. So if you’re behind a truck or an over-cautious driver, you’re going to stay there.

So, got the picture?

A few days ago, I was running a bit late on my way to work. Not enough to actually be late, but enough that I was worrying about traffic on the freeway. I’m sitting at the first traffic light, first car in line and nobody in sight ahead of me. The radio is tuned to a classic rock station.

The last vehicle through the light from the cross street is one of those molten sulfur tankers. It accelerates up Richmond Parkway–in my lane, of course–reaching a top speed of almost thirty before it starts slowing for the next intersection.

A new song starts playing just as the light changes to green for me:

You said it, Sammy.

PS: I did make it to work on time.

Small Potatoes

Some things just don’t age well.

Take songs, for instance. Have you listened to the Beatles’ “Run For Your Life” lately? It starts out with “Well, I’d rather see you dead, little girl / Than to be with another man” and goes downhill from there. I don’t know how well it went over in ’65, but today? Not good at all. Nor is it the worst offender in the “relations between the sexes” category.

Remember “Go Away, Little Girl” (co-written by Carole King, yet!)? If the singer can’t resist her, why is it her responsibility to stay away from him? Is a restraining order appropriate about now?

By comparison, my current pet peeve in the “what was the writer thinking” sweepstakes is small potatoes, but still…

The radio woke me up this morning to “Deacon Blues,” which was, as some of you may remember, a hit for Steely Dan in the late seventies.

Mostly I take issue with the chorus.

“I’ll learn to work the saxophone”. Has anyone in the 173-year history of the instrument used this phrase? Nobody works a sax. They play it, just like any other musical instrument.

Yeah, okay, maybe it’s a regional thing. I’ll let it pass, because that’s not my major complaint about the song.

“Drink Scothc whisky all night long / And die behind the wheel.”

Did we really need a glorification of someone planning on committing suicide by driving drunk? Sure, you can read it other ways: the inevitability of a pathetic death, maybe.


Perhaps it’s arrogance, but I think my interpretation is the likely one in modern ears.

I’m not boycotting my radio station, but I will change the channel or turn off the radio if that song comes on when I’m awake enough to reach the buttons.

Because there are already enough idiots on the road to give me nightmares. Weaving in and out of traffic at high speed, cutting across multiple lanes at the last second, and ignoring all traffic indicators. And that’s before they get on the highway and (probably) before they have a drink.

I know, I know. Not only have you all heard my griping already, but one outdated pop song isn’t going to make any real difference. It’s the attitude that chaps my ass. The song may have been written forty years ago, but the protagonist’s air of entitlement could have come out of today’s newspaper.

“Call me Deacon Blues”? Yeah, you can call yourself whatever you want, but “Call me Traffic Fatality In the Making” seems more appropriate. But I suppose that doesn’t scan. Too bad.

Still, there are signs of hope on the street.

Last night, the traffic lights were out at the foot of the freeway exit ramp we use. This is an ugly intersection: a major on- and off-ramp with dedicated carpool/HOV lanes meets a major commute arterial that connects I-80 and I-580.

In the normal course of things, the lights are all but ignored. Drivers don’t just stretch the yellow, they snap it in half and pee on the pieces in the cause of saving a couple of seconds.

Last night, with not a police officer in sight, everybody stopped at the intersection and politely took turns going through it. I’ve never seen traffic move through there so smoothly.

Nothing wrong with small potatoes.

That Switch On Your Dashboard

Well, it’s been almost a month since I bitched about the impending End of Civilization As We Know It as brought about by drivers. That’s long enough that I hope you’ll indulge me in another rant along the same lines.

It’s not about the idiots who weave in and out at high speed. They’ve upped their game: it’s no longer enough of a thrill for them to zip across three lanes, missing four cars by no more than six inches, on rain-slick pavement. They’ve begun doing the same thing with the driver’s door open. Yes, really. Saw it myself a couple of days ago.

Nor is it about the lunatics who believe 35 is the minimum speed on residential streets, though Ghu knows there are plenty of those.

No, today’s complaint is about the people who’ve either forgotten or never learned the rules for using their high-beams. As best I can tell, based on this weekend’s random sampling, this group amounts to roughly 90% of the drivers on the road.

The rules aren’t difficult. There are only two.

  1. When approaching the top of a hill or coming around a blind curve, turn the high-beams off.
  2. When following another car–especially if you’re tailgating–turn the high-beams off.

That’s it.

They both boil down to the same bit of common sense: don’t blind a driver who might collide with you if they can’t see.

I don’t blame video games for violent behavior. But I’ve gotta admit it’s really tempting to blame them for stupid behavior.

People, there’s a reason why I haven’t hooked up my Atari 2600 in decades, and it’s not that I can’t find the cables. I sucked at “Night Driver“. Okay, yes, I made it through the other day’s unplanned real life version* unscathed. Doesn’t mean I enjoyed it, especially on the higher difficulty/no vision setting.

* Is Live Action Videogaming: Ancient (LAVA) a thing? If not, maybe it should be. If it gets a few of the idiots off the road and…uh…on the road, um…

Hang on, let me rethink this one.

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.”


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!

An Unsolicited Rant

Bear with me, please. I feel the need to vent a bit. And yes, I know I’m beating a dead horse and, given the quality of my readers, probably preaching to the choir. Neither fact makes venting any less satisfying.

The number of drivers doing stupid things on a regular basis continues to climb. The thing is, most of those stupid things fall into one of two categories. Fix those, and we’ll eliminate hundreds, if not thousands of accidents a year.

First, stop crossing solid lines–yes, even solid white lines. Yes, I know it’s legal in some states and in some circumstances. It’s still a bad idea.

Solid white lines, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices show places where crossing is discouraged, i.e. where it’s unsafe, or outside normal driving practices.

That’s why you see solid white lines just before a freeway exit and just before an onramp merge: drivers are concentrating on merging into or disentangling from freeway traffic; adding another vehicle disrupts the smooth flow of cars and makes the process more complicated. You may need to cross the lines in an emergency, so there isn’t a firm prohibition against it–but a traffic jam is not an emergency*. Neither is missing your exit because you were checking something on your phone.

* Unless you’re driving a police car, fire truck, or ambulance. But in those cases, you’re exempt from normal driving standards anyway.

Seriously, people, if you’re trying to get off the freeway, don’t do it by crossing the solid lines, even to get out of a tie-up. You’re either blocking people trying to get onto the freeway or people trying to exit legally. Similarly, if you’re trying to get onto the freeway, don’t do it across the solid lines: they’re probably there because you don’t have enough of a sight line to be sure the lane is clear.

Second, stay close to the speed limit–ideally within five miles per hour–or the prevailing speed of traffic. The arguments against speeding have been made over and over. I’m tired of seeing them. You’re tired of seeing them. Consider them included by reference.

But traveling significantly slower than the speed limit is just as bad. You become an unexpected obstacle to other drivers. Anywhere that sight lines are reduced, you’ll trigger abrupt slowdowns that can avalanche, causing major traffic tie-ups, even if nobody gets into an accident.

Worse yet, you become a challenge to the sort of person who exceed the speed limit. They’re going to start playing the Slalom Game: whipping around you without slowing down, and coming as close to your front and rear bumpers as they can to show you just how insignificant they think you are.

Again, there are circumstances where you might need to slow down. Snow, heavy rain, or high winds, for example. The zombie apocalypse*. In the Berkeley/Oakland area, a protest moving onto the freeway**.

* Maybe. One school of thought says you should slow down to minimize the danger to others when your passenger turns into a zombie and goes for your throat. The other school says you should speed up to maximize your ability to flatten the zombies wandering through traffic. A full analysis is, of course, outside of the scope of this rant.

** Be careful not to confuse a peaceful protest with a zombie apocalypse! Hint: protesters rarely, if ever, eat human flesh during the protest. That said, however, if zombies are carrying protest signs, you’ll have to solve the ethical dilemma yourself.

Bluntly, if you don’t feel capable of driving at least fifty on the freeway, take city streets. If you can’t drive at least twenty-five on city streets, take a cab. And if you’re incapable of driving less than eighty anywhere, get out of the car and take public transportation.

Thank you. I feel better already.

The Road to…

Civilization as we know it is doomed (again). And in some ways, that may actually be a good thing. It’s the “as we know it” that’s important here.

Modern civilization is built around the automobile.

Before I go on, does anyone have a serious counter to that statement? No? Write a comment if you think of anything, OK?

The problem is that driving has become so unsafe that it now threatens its own existence.

Consider: I drove Maggie to the BART station this morning. In the course of a thirty minute drive, I saw the following:

  • A high-speed lane change without signaling
  • A change from the left turn lane to the through lane without signaling or looking.
  • The second car in line to make a left turn make the turn before the first car in line–
  • –because the first car was waiting for a pedestrian to clear the crosswalk
  • A car stopped in the traffic lane to let a passenger out–
  • –forcing a second car to cross the yellow line into oncoming traffic–
  • –and then also stop in the traffic lane (still facing the wrong way for the lane it was in) to let a passenger out.

And you know what the most remarkable thing about this trip was? I didn’t see a single case of a car slaloming around multiple vehicles.

That particular maneuver, usually conducted at ten or fifteen mph over the prevailing speed (not the posted speed, the actual speed) has become so common that on any trip of more than a couple of miles, the question isn’t whether it’s going to happen, but how many times.

The universal standard disclaimer about anecdotes not being data certainly applies here. The stretch of freeway I travel is always in the top five “worst commutes” lists. But I see the same behavior everywhere–and let’s not forget that all but one of the stupid, dangerous, and illegal activities I saw were on city streets, not the freeway.

In short, driving is risky. And it’s only going to get worse. Consider this item that showed up on Kickstarter recently: “Pain-Free Sociable Headphones“. Leave aside the question of whether the world actually needs “sociable” headphones (you can broadcast whatever is playing through your headphones to any other set within 100 feet). The two purposes of these headphones are to eliminate the “pressure and…heat” generated by normal headphones so you can wear them longer and to allow “you to interact with your environment while listening to your audio”.

How long after release will it be before somebody decides to wear his “pain free” headphones while driving? My bet is less than an hour.

I’m in no position to complain about people listening to music while they drive; I almost always have the radio on when I’m behind the wheel.

But headphones are a more immersive environment. Even if they’re designed, as these are, to allow environmental noise into your ears, just by virtue of placing your head in the center of the sound stage, they’re going to command more of your attention than speakers.

More attention on the music, less on the traffic means more dangerous behavior.

I’m not suggesting that the crew behind this particular Kickstarter are deliberately setting out to cause traffic accidents. I’m sure they’re not. But I’m also sure that they, like pretty much every other tech company isn’t giving enough attention to the consequences their products will bring.

The near-universal push today is to make it easier for mobile devices to claim more and more of the users’ attention. And I’m not seeing anyone giving much thought to what their attention had been on before.

Self-driving cars? Well… Until fully autonomous cars are universal, it’s not going to help. The evidence suggests that the people who most need their car to take over the driving are going to be the ones least likely to let it. Not when their unsafe behavior is the result of impatience with slower-moving, law-abiding vehicles.

Things I Learned

Warning: Some NSFW language in this post.

Things I learned during the holiday season.

  • There are a lot of stupid people driving cars. Weaving between lanes at ten miles per hour over the speed limit really doesn’t save you much time. Unless your commute is over a hundred miles, you’ll probably wind up spending more in increased fuel costs and vehicle wear and tear than you’ll earn in the few extra minutes you’re at work. And the less said about accelerating in an attempt to cross intersections in front of oncoming ambulances the better.
  • It’s not just drivers. Kudos to Caltrans for reaching new depths in planning. If you were going to close a major connecting street for three months and detour thousands of cars to an alternate route, wouldn’t you re-time the traffic lights so traffic on the detour route can move? Yeah, me too. Not Caltrans, though.
  • Tradition is not dead. Parents finding their kids’ toys obscene is nothing new. In 2002, there was the Harry Potter vibrating broomstick. Every couple of years since at least 2000, there’s a furor over a swearing Furby. And now parents are in an uproar over a phallic toy from the Play-Doh Sweet Shoppe Cake Mountain Playset. (If you’ve missed the uproar, there’s a picture of the object in question on Gawker–and probably a few million other sites.) I’m a little disturbed by the number of reports that say the toy looks “exactly” like a penis. Have the reporters ever seen one? Let me tell you, I’ve seen several, and none of them had screw threads. Nor do they come with those stimulating bumps behind the head and at the base. At least not as delivered from the factory; those are typically third-party aftermarket add-ons.
  • America is losing the candy war. It’s an R&D problem. Major manufacturers are content to rest on conventional wisdom, cranking out endless combinations of milk chocolate, peanuts, caramel, and wafers. Outside the US, however, candy makers aren’t afraid to try new things. Consider these offerings from Nestle:
    That’s right. In Japan, Nestle offers a green tea KitKat. And in the UK, it’s dark chocolate. Dark chocolate, people! And not the wimpy 50-60% the US sees on the rare occasions that the major manufacturers dabble in dark chocolate, but a solid 70%!

    In the interest of Science!, Maggie and I tried both variants. The experiment wasn’t entirely successful. We enjoyed both, but probably wouldn’t buy them again. The dark chocolate completely overwhelms the delicate flavor of the wafers. Contrarily, the flavor of green tea is a little weak, present mostly as an aftertaste.

    But the success of Nestle’s experiments is beside the point. What is important is that, first, Nestle is continuing their attempts to identify an ultimate candy bar, and second, they’re trying to hide their work from America.

    What, you don’t believe me? Take a closer look at that sticker on the Japanese candy.cg3
    That’s right. “…not a product authorized…for importation…”

    In the immortal words of General Buck Turgidson, “Hershey and Mars, we must not allow… a candy gap!”