It is a given that, if you’re driving across North Texas today, you’re either going way over the posted speed limits on major freeways, or traffic congestion has you doing five miles an hour on those same roads. My e-mail box is continually flooded with horror stories from motorists appalled by the incredibly bad driving of others; myself, I often wonder if and when Darwin’s immutable law of Natural Selection will kick in. It sure would solve our problems with certain drivers, who seem to be oblivious to everything happening around them.
Like anyone reading this column today, I have been driving and had someone enter my lane without seeing my vehicle. (Yes, sometimes they are on a cell phone, but just as often they’re not.) Then again, in my younger days horns blared at me for doing the same thing. But lately it seems like more individuals have developed a sense of entitlement to ignore what’s going on around their moving vehicle, as some seem purposely to make themselves blind to the problems they are causing.
Idiot Awareness Zone
One such incident happened two weeks ago, when I was driving south from Frisco on the Dallas Toll Road. I needed to exit at Parker Road; but as I glanced over my right shoulder I could see a late-model Mercedes C Class sedan, in silver, on the freeway access road; and its driver was not going to slow down, or yield to exiting traffic. It was either slam on my brakes or the two of us could have collided. That forced the two cars behind me to do the same, and an accident was barely avoided. The other driver did not even turn his head to see the commotion he had caused.
Of course I had to see who this driver was. Once on the access road myself, I sped up to his car. First, he had Mississippi Used Car Dealer plates. Second, on pulling up side by side with him, I found the reason he was blissfully unaware of the vehicles exiting the toll road, the same ones he was supposed to yield to: He was texting with both hands, keeping his Benz in the lane with his knees. Even staring directly at him in amazement drew no response; he continued to reply to whatever pressing message he was dealing with. Well, my lane was shorter at the stop light, and by the time I crossed Parker Road, here he came again, now to the left of me; and now he’s reading a pile of papers.
He doesn’t even seem to look up as he enters the toll road — becoming someone else’s problem, only driving even faster.
Then, during the last of the rainstorm that flooded our region last Saturday morning, I was driving at 75 mph on I-30 toward Dallas just after 6:00 a.m. In my rearview mirror I could see a vehicle traveling at a really high rate of speed in the right lane, next to me — I’m guessing he’s doing over 100. The problem is that I’m already driving parallel with a car to my right, and there’s no way this other vehicle is going to be able to stop in time without hitting someone. So I put on the brakes not wanting to be “the collateral damage” when this person hits the car beside me.
Believe it or not, as the Dodge Caravan I was driving slowed down, with barely a car’s length between us that Camry coupe shot over into the lane in front of me, never touching the brakes, missing both cars by mere inches.
100 Years’ Progress
Incredible as it seems, 100 years ago things were much worse.
This past spring the Detroit News ran a story by Bill Loomis, discussing the early days of automobile ownership and their high rate of accidents and fatalities. One fun fact is that, according to the Automobile Club of America, in 1909 there were only 200,000 motorized vehicles on the road, but just seven years later that figure had ballooned to over 2.2 million. And those vehicles were not on streets marked for traffic, or pedestrian crossings — and in most cases, no one even had to have a driver’s license.
The Detroit News had run stories 100 years previously about an 11-year-old boy who drove his family around town and the 14-year-olds hired to run delivery trucks around the city. It was well known that Henry Ford built his son Edsel his own private car, so that he could drive himself to elementary school every day. As it turns out, by 1917 the Detroit region had more than 65,000 cars; that year those cars were involved in 7,171 accidents and 168 deaths. Three-quarters of those fatalities were pedestrians.
Loomis told of one woman who drove up on a Detroit sidewalk, killing several people. It would be her 26th arrest for reckless driving, and her only excuse was that she regularly suffered from blackouts.
No word on whether she won the sympathy of the judge.
Safety Equals Success
Loomis’ point is that one primary reason why Detroit led the nation in creating stop signs, marking lanes in the road, and having one-way streets and traffic signals was that the fatality and injury rates for children and pedestrians had grown so criminally high. But it was actually James Couzens, the man most responsible for the Ford Motor Company’s success, who came in to make sense of this highway carnage.
The streets were chaotic, he saw, because people were crossing wherever they wanted to cross. Streets were still the children’s playgrounds in those days, and apparently no one knew how to make a left turn properly. Oblivious streetcar riders might jump off their railcars, right into the path of an oncoming vehicle. So Couzens forced common sense into the city, lest the automobile industry’s black eye prove to turn the public’s passion against motorists. After all, up until Couzen’s involvement, all accidents were blamed on driver error.
Slowly the roads started being divided up for cars, streetcars, pedestrians, and so on. And as the years went by fewer and fewer amateurs were out driving in their new cars, which also helped lower the accident and fatality rate.
Some People’s Children …
It took a while, though, for driving and cars to become common. In the Seventies and Eighties the old timers of the auto industry, including Fort Worth’s Frank Kent, used to regale the younger salesmen with their stories that one used to have to give the customer a brief driving lesson before you could take them out on the demonstration drive. That’s how many people still had never driven a car before, and this was on the eve of the Great Depression.
In the 1920s, by government estimates maybe as many as 24 individuals died for every 100 million miles driven; today that figure is around 1. Maybe more important is that fatalities relative to the population peaked in 1939, fell during the war, rose and fell slightly in the Fifties, climbed throughout the Sixties and most recently peaked in 1968. However, the automotive fatalities per 100 million miles driven have continuously fallen since 1921.
So in two weeks I witnessed two truly scary drivers simply not paying attention in any way to the road and traffic conditions — but expecting everyone else to back off and accommodate them. They’re not helping our blood pressure; yet in spite of those drivers, I have to remind myself that statistically motoring has never been safer.
© Ed Wallace 2015
Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, given by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and is a member of the American Historical Association. He hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. E-mail: email@example.com, and read all of Ed’s work at www.insideautomotive.com