The Trouble with Being the Solution to A Big Problem

cavemanAll Rights Reserved © 2014 Thomas W. Day

Pretty much all of the major problems on today’s highways are fairly obvious: according to NHTSA statistics 2012’s Big Three causes for highway fatalities are 1) drunk driving 31%, 2) motorcycles, 14%, and distracted driving, 10%. Solve all three of those riddles and you have taken away 56% of US highway fatalities. What is the miracle cure for all three of these highway safety problems? You might think that’s a stupid question.

“You’ll never stop people from being drunks or from playing with electronic toys while they drive and nobody’s ever gonna teach me how to ride or make me wear a helmet.”

Actually, I know the solution to all three of those problems and so does NHTSA and DOT and all of the car manufacturers. How do you stop people from getting drunk, satisfying their cell phone addiction, playing with their makeup or shaving on the way to work, or keep them from crashing their motorcycles? Those are the wrong questions. The right questions are how do you get the first group out from behind the wheel and how do you get motorcycles off of the public’s roads? Simple. You make cars that are smarter than the average driver.

That’s not a particularly high bar to leap, if you think about it just a little bit. The average American driver imagines himself to be a NASCAR racer, drafting the car in front of him with less than a fraction of a second of safe margin at speeds that are best described as “terminal.” From the vantage point of a motorcycle seat, where I get to see all sorts of clueless drivers, distracted to the point of unconsciousness behaviors, physics-disabled punks suffering from “the fast lane is mine” video game reality distortions, and motorcyclists and scooter pilots who have almost enough skill to get out of their own driveways uninjured but not nearly enough talent or intelligence to ride competently and safely. With typical reflexes, reacting to a hazard takes at least a second and, more likely, a couple of seconds before you’ve even decided what to do about a disaster unfolding in front of you at 70mph. At 70mph, you’re traveling 108 feet/second. If you’re tailgating at 50 feet when a wheel comes off of a truck in front of you or a blowout puts the car you were “drafting” into a spin, you are solidly entangled before you even think about applying the brakes. On a motorcycle, you’re in the air wishing you’d worn a helmet before you can even touch the brake (probably the wrong one used poorly, if you do manage to slam on the brakes and toss your bike into a sliding “stop”). On average, there isn’t enough driving talent on our highways to overwhelm the capabilities of a 1980’s Z80 processor and a MS/DOS controlled text-based program. Mostly, the folks we’re trusting our lives with on the freeways and country roads are unfit to pilot bicycles, if they could load their lard asses onto a bicycle seat without bursting the tires. With all of those facts in hand and with the motivation of “societal cost of crashes” estimated at $230 BILLION, there is more than enough incentive from all directions to do something about the solvable problems of the Big Three. The fact that the solution is likely to do some serious damage to the other 44% of highway deaths is just icing on the cake.

In TheKneeslider.com, Paul Crowe wrote an article titled “Riding Motorcycles Among the Robots – You’re Going to Need A Transponder.” He pipedreams, “The thought of blasting through that digital parade on your human controlled and non transponder equipped Electra Glide may no longer be an option.” If only that were likely. Like most of the motorcycle industry, he avoids the question, “Why would highway planners make any accommodations for a vehicle that contributes less than 0.001% to commuter traffic but 15% of fatalities?” Do you seriously believe that Harley Davidson and Polaris have that kind of economic clout? Harley Davidson’s whole product line amounted to $5.9B in 2013 sales. Polaris grossed about $4B in 2013 for all of their products combined and sold about $1B in Polaris and Indian motorcycles. Out of a $17 TRILLION GNP, that is pretty insignificant and if you include our 15% of the nation’s “societal cost of crashes” that $5B is pretty overwhelmed by the $34B motorcycles crashes cost the country. Remind me, again, why should the 99% of society who don’t ride motorcycles on a regular basis, or ever, care about our “right to the highway?” 

If you don’t think motorcycling’s awful public image, our overrepresentation in highway injury statistics, or our low tech tendencies are a long term problem, you are not paying attention. The freight train of Change is blasting down history’s tracks at revolutionary speeds. We are about to go from travelling by poorly manually piloted vehicles to a managed transportation system that makes decisions on a macro level, reducing traffic congestion, optimizing resource use, providing dramatic improvements in travel safety and efficiency, and transforms society as dramatically as giving up the horse-and-buggy did about 100 years ago. The only way motorcycles are going to get to play in this new sandbox is if we provide some value to transportation. Otherwise, the industry and population of users will resemble the tiny demographic that has clung to horses and horse sports since those animals were shuffled off of public streets. The trouble with being part of the solution to one of society’s big problems is that you get swept up in a whole lot of things that are a lot bigger than you (or your industry). In manufacturing a rule of thumb is “the best way to idiot-proof a system is get the idiots out of the system.” We are pretty tightly aligned with many of the idiots on the highway and we’re going to get swept up with the drunks and distracted drivers when our transportation system evolves. The only way I see to avoid that is for motorcycling to move away from being part of an obvious solution to highway deaths.

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