Driving the Montanabahn

Clark T. Carter

Early morning highway users have somewhere to go, and are concerned with getting there, not playing games. I have heard it said that time spent driving before dawn is not deducted from one's time on earth, but surely watching the Canadian woods emerge from the early morning shadows is charged against one's time.

I check my speed and look in the mirrors again for the approaching VW. He's gaining fast. There is an intersection ahead, and the VW driver has decided to dispense with my heavily laden Volvo wagon before we get to it. I approach the bridge that traverses the cross road with a view of the VW's rear. No brake lights flash.

Upon cresting the bridge, my view encompasss the Trans-Canada's two cleared lanes, and two snow covered shoulders. Unfortunately, the view also reveals a snowplow, out throwing salt, making about 15 kph in our lane. I cannot see if there is westbound traffic beyond the plow, but the VW is not slowing. I back out of it wondering what he's thinking—and he passes the plow on the right, snow flying.

"THAT was entertaining," says a voice in my head, as a red light flashes on the right rear bumper of the plow. He immediately pulls to the shoulder. I summon what power my Volvo has available, thinking that the nice plow driver is letting me pass. "Better keep an eye on that Scirroco" says my inner voice "he's obviously some kind of nut—OMIGOD YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO PASS THEM ON THE RIGHT UP HERE!!!!"

The only alternative is the right snowbank, high, icy, and unknown. Left rear tire on the plow? It'll have some give. The airbag works.

Another morning dawns across North America, bringing with it yet another automobile accident. Unfortunately, a routine occurrence. Since September, I have been working in the state of Montana. As I crisscrossed the wide open spaces, city streets, and mountain roads of that beautiful state, two things made my driving a pleasure, rather than a chore. The breathtaking beauty and the courtesy of those who shared the highway with me. Montana drivers seemed like well-trusted co-workers, people whom one could count on to do their jobs safely and well.

One day I heard that there would no longer be a $5 "wasting energy" fine for going over 65 in Montana. The federal government was finally butting out of the speed regulation business.

This seemed like a capital idea to me. The national press, however, did not share my enthusiasm.

A national morning television show interviewed the Montana highway commissioner about the Montana speed law, and treated him like a war criminal.

Tom & Ray Magliozzi, the Car Talk guys on National Public Radio, joined in the cacophony. They did their best to paint an alarming picture of the danger supposedly abounding on Montana highways. Not only that, they used their taxpayer funded national soapbox to try to initiate a blackmail campaign against Montana tourism. This from two Bostonians, who live in a city that, the well-known peculiar habits of its drivers aside, allows people to drive in the breakdown lanes of Interstate highways.

Yet I drove, sometimes at very high speed, all over Montana without ever experiencing the heart-stopping moments of terror that were everyday occurrences when I had to drive in Boston every day.

Societies that orient their highway safety measures to reducing the speed of impact are missing the boat. Motor vehicle safety should involve getting yourself and your passengers to their destination in one piece, not reducing force of impact. Proper speed is critical, but it is only one component in the task of avoiding accidents.

In order to take advantage of the great strides in engineering that automobile companies have made since the seventies, we as a society must train all drivers in skid control, steering, proper elapsed time following distance, and the rudimentary physics involved in moving objects.

Now that we are finally free of arbitrary speed limits from Washington, we must avoid being caught up in the old myth of "speed kills." We must do this even if it means that insurance companies will no longer be able to pad their profit margins by raising the rates of motorists that get meaningless speeding tickets on empty roads.

Enthusiasts and frequent highway users must pressure politicians to diminish the importance of speed enforcement. If we look at the cretins and boneheads who populate our roads and say "we can't let these idiots go fast," we are playing right into the safety Nazis' hands. One need only to take a ride in Ohio or New York to realize that heavy speed enforcement is not the solution to the bonehead problem.

To make driving safer, more efficient, and more enjoyable, we must concentrate enforcement on those who tailgate, fail to yield, terrorize pedestrians and motorcyclists, or have a general attitude problem. The laws proscribing this conduct are already on the books. But the police cannot enforce them if they spend all of their time staring at the readout of a radar gun.

Source: July/Augest 1996 NMA News

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