Multitasking at the speed of fright

David Halberstam's traffic death makes one wonder if lower speed limits would calm our frenzied streets.
David Halberstam's traffic death makes one wonder if lower speed limits would calm our frenzied streets.

Driving in San Francisco a few weeks ago, I was hit by a car going far too fast that cut into my path from the inside lane. While my wife and I watched in horror, the car fishtailed wildly in front of us, struck a median barrier head-on, made a complete 360 and ended up facing the opposite direction. Fortunately, there was a crease in the traffic, which quickly backed up. Within moments, the young driver bounced out of her car, appearing shaken but unharmed. Her radiator had burst, her windshield was shattered, and the airbags had deployed. But she was already talking on her cell phone (which we suspected may have been the real culprit). Our van suffered only cosmetic damage. We were lucky. Author David Halberstam, a journalist whose books about Vietnam and a variety of popular subjects shaped American thinking over the past four decades, and Elizabeth Duncan, a Seattle jogger, were not. Halberstam, 73, was killed in Menlo Park, Calif., when a car in which he was riding (driven by a university student) was struck broadside by another car and hit a third vehicle. Duncan, 26, was running in Seattle's Montlake neighborhood when she was hit by a car driven by a 16-year-old. Traffic accidents happen. But our trip to the Bay Area, filled with way too many close calls in addition to our collision, persuaded us that driving is becoming markedly more perilous. Cell phones, whose hand-held use will be banned while driving in Washington beginning next year, are one reason – although one wonders if talking, instant messaging, looking at photos, and other mobile-phone activities are just as culpable as holding a set to an ear. The psychology of driving also is changing. Drivers feel more comfortable going too fast these days. Automatic braking systems, computerized stability, and side-panel air bags provide an expanded margin of error and sense of security. Moreover, a generation of multitaskers is hitting the roadways, bringing with them the confidence of being able to handle phoning, drinking, eating, changing clothes, and even watching DVDs while navigating rush-hour freeway traffic. In their minds, driving has become a rote procedure akin to typing or spinning. It's often not even their top priority behind the wheel. Then there's a phenomenon that might be called "elective regulation observance." In an expansion of the infamous California rolling stop, cars approaching intersections will slow slightly, look both ways (hopefully) and then sail on through a stoplight without waiting for it to change. I've seen this and heard about it from others, enough to believe it's becoming a new social benchmark of American individualism. As we used to put it on the pickup basketball court: No blood, no foul. Add road rage, our faster pace of living and increased highway congestion to the mix, and it's small wonder that pets, joggers, bicyclists, and pedestrians seem increasingly at risk in the rushing maze of steel and wheel that metropolitan life has become. It all makes one wonder if a return to the 55 mph speed limit, which was enacted under the energy-conscious 1970s but was quickly dispatched in the 1980s, might be in order. A lower speed limit would save not only lives but millions of gallons of gasoline and avoid expelling tons of greenhouse gases. It would help calm nerves wracked by Willie the Weavers hell-bent on saving a few seconds and speeding teenagers who think of driving as just another video game. It might even return a modicum of civility to the highway arts: If you aren't in such a hurry, you can be more accommodating to your fellow automobile inmates. At a recent Ashland, Ore., appearance for her book, Slow Is Beautiful, my wife, Cecile, was told by locals how the bucolic Shakespearean burg had decided to lower its downtown speed limit by 20 percent. At first townspeople were horrified. How would they get to work on time? Wouldn't road rage explode from frustrated tourists and traffic congeal in a day-long gridlock? After a couple of weeks, though, they found themselves liking life in the slow lane. Drivers became more polite and arrived at their destinations in a better mood. "It was actually more relaxing," one Ashlander said. The speed limit, by the way, had gone from 25 to 20 miles an hour. Remember the old Gai's Bakery truck slogan: "Drive carefully – the loaf you save may be your own!" The same can be said for driving slowly. Pass it on.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Paul Andrews

Paul is a career journalist and a self-described bike nut.