Merging Visions of Highway Safety

Television’s favorite faux newscaster Jon Stewart is leaving his Nerf-style anchor chair on August 9. I wonder what he’d think of pending Oregon legislation proposed by Beaverton Democrat, Rep. Ken Helm.

Salem is in the middle of what some Capitol-watchers call “silly season.” Lawmakers converge in Salem ready to make laws. Usually the important laws take time and negotiation, so the early months are filled with smaller matters — naming the official state soil, stuff like that.

Many of these small bills often seem an odd mix of vanity and common sense, and Helm’s tweak for highway driving habits is no different. Helm believes highways will be safer if we punish “left-lane hoggers” — drivers who stay in the left lane, preventing others from passing. Traffic flows best — when it’s actually flowing and not congested — when drivers use the left lane only for passing slower vehicles.

Stewart might notice Helm’s effort because highway driving figured prominently in what may have been Stewart’s apex appearance in the role he’s played for the last 16 years. Shortly before the 2010 national election, Stewart and Comedy Central colleague Stephen Colbert co-hosted their Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in Washington, DC.

A quarter million fans showed up on the National Mall and Stewart had the last word. He used it to chastise lawmakers for not compromising on behalf of the American people. Stewart drove home his point with a video clip showing people driving home. Every day, drivers enter highway traffic, peacefully merging — yielding, compromising — with fellow highway drivers.

It was an intentionally modest and unglamorous image. He was channeling Rodney King’s famous plea: “Can’t we all just get along?”

Sadly, the answer seems to be, more and more, “No. We can’t.”

Lane County now has half a dozen on-ramp metered traffic lights to relieve drivers of just the sort of self-judgment that Stewart applauded. Left-turn arrows on traffic lights have been with us as long as we’ve had traffic congestion, but lately we’ve added blinking yellow left arrows at certain intersections.

When drivers have to be reminded to use caution before turning left in front of oncoming traffic, there’s reason to despair. No wonder Jon Stewart is walking away from The Daily Show.

So we may need Helm’s bill. Or maybe we need just part of it.

Helm’s bill would provide $80,000 for educational signage, reminding highway drivers about the law. But the same amount could be used to remind drivers of the current law and have nearly the same effect. State law already prohibits drivers from impeding “the normal and reasonable movement of traffic.” If only we had broader agreement of what’s “normal and reasonable” — that’s the oncoming traffic that Helm’s bill is attempting to turn left against.

Highway driving is in fact a complex task. Individual safety is optimized by adhering to two rules that sometimes conflict. Drivers should not drive faster than the speed limit, while also making room (on their left) for those who do.

This is the formula for individual safety. System-wide safety is higher if nobody speeds, but it’s literally optimized if everybody just walks to wherever they are going. Highways inherently represent a conflict between safety and speed.

Why does a driver need to be reminded to not be a jerk? It’s a fair question, but there’s a fair answer.

Automakers market their products based on more and more creature comforts. Drivers of late-model cars have near-total control inside their vehicle. Air flow, temperature, seat tilt and firmness, cupholder position, music, lighting — they all are controlled by the driver. Meanwhile, surrounding this cocoon of comfort, “objects are closer than they appear.”

Drivers feel increasingly detached from external conditions — including other drivers. If a driver is honking his horn, just turn up the volume of your sound system. If he’s blinking his lights to get your attention, simply dim them in your rearview mirror. If a driver displays anger at you, play your favorite happy music.

Drivers are more likely to become careless when their driving environment is designed to give them fewer cares.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.