The Wages of Opportunism

C. Wright Mills complained of the U.S. left’s “liberal practicality,” by which he meant a tendency to sell out at the first chance, a “kind of democratic opportunism.”

quixote Ralph Nader, for all his upsides, is a major case-in-point, and precisely in the area that delivered him his fame — cars.

Consider the pathetic lawsuit just filed by Public Citizen and allies. The goal? To force car capitalists to make back-up cameras standard on all car models sold in the United States. The alleged reason? Such cameras “would prevent 95 to 112 deaths and 7,072 to 8,374 injuries each year.”

Now, let’s take 112 deaths as a real number. In 2012, a total of 34,080 people were killed in U.S. automotive collisions. 112 divided by 34,080 equals 0.003. That’s three-tenths of one percent.

And, of course, one major question is how much good a back-up camera actually does. If a child darts in front or back of a moving car, how much does the camera speed driver reaction time? It certain can’t be 100%, and might well be close to zero. Meanwhile, according to the Naderian logic of lawsuit, once the cameras are mandatory, the inherent dangers of automobiles to darting children are just fine and dandy.

Such tragi-comic flea-fucking, is, alas, the beginning, middle, and end of what passes for transportation militancy in this market totalitarian society, despite the times.

Automotive Deaths Since 9/11/2001

ossuary From 1/1/2002 through 12/31/2011, National Highway Traffic Safety [sic] Administration statistics show that 392,621 people were killed by motor vehicle collisions in the United States. So, that’s about 100 9/11s. (And it does not count those who died from automotive air pollution and physical deconditioning.)

The all-time death toll from car crashes, going back to 1899? 3,547,113.

Sources: Here and here.

The news reporting on this topic? Such as it is, it’s all just a series of terrific news, especially now that the deaths-per-miles trick has been swallowed and adopted by the corporate press. (See the typical packaging of the story in the second link above.)

Big Brother Medical School

vancrash “The International Center for Automotive Medicine.” Savor the flavor of that for a few seconds.

Bold medical scientists, having sworn “I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure,” are now dedicating themselves, with the generous support of automotive capitalists, to tweaking the bandages with which they so lucratively adorn the gaping public health wound that is cars-first transportation.

One might contrast the oath to prevention with the statement-of-purpose governing ICAM:

Our team at the International Center of Automotive Medicine is uniquely positioned to marry the exceptional medical, engineering, and educational resources of the University of Michigan with the unmatched automotive technical and industrial resources of southeast Michigan. The center’s mission is to foster synergistic research between medical specialties, and biomedical and automotive engineering-efforts that translates quickly into new technologies, medical treatments, education, and policies that prevent injuries and improve care.

Building a (slightly) better guillotine! Thank you again, you saints in surgical garb! Keep on “marrying” the Grim Reaper, and we’ll keep on shoveling mountains of cash your way.

More Murder for Money

crash In the not-necessarily-news department, guess what the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers says about its members’ move to put such vital activities as Facebook and Twitter on the dashboards of future car models, despite the well-proven fact that 10 percent of all automotive crashes, including the tens of thousands of fatal ones each year, are already caused by distracted driving:

“They’re going to do those things whether it’s through the vehicle or through a handheld electronic that they bring with them in the car,” [AAM PR agent Wade] Newton said.

Yes, and by the same logic, we know for sure that people are going to drink alcohol and then drive cars. So, what’s the harm in having a keg-cooler and drinking hose come stock in each new auto? After all, they’re going to do those things whether it’s through the vehicle or through a handheld bottle that they bring with them in the car.

Never fear, though! Our valiant regulators are busy striking pained poses as the mass murder proceeds.

“If the auto manufacturers focused as much on safety as they do on marketing their products, we would save a lot of lives,” National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman.

Yes, how true. Indeed, you might say we’d have saved 32,885 lives in 2010 alone, if, as in Ms. Hersman’s fantasy, car capitalists weren’t car capitalists.

Then there’s Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who has obviously abandoned any glimmer of principle he once possessed on this issue:

“We don’t have to choose between safety and technology,” LaHood now says, parroting the industry’s defiant Big Brotherism.

Thank the gods we have President Obama… Oh, wait.

Manslaughter is Hilarious

sync In another piece of unsurprising news, AOL Autos reports that the voice-command media-control systems that car corporations and their various partners are pushing are quite crappy.

Only the most sophisticated systems work consistently. And even the best ones have some persistent flaws: Women’s voices can be tricky for the technology to decipher, especially when using navigation, causing many female drivers to give up trying. Drivers with foreign accents say it won’t work for them. Even drivers with thick regional accents can have trouble.

Many issues with women’s voices could be fixed if female drivers were willing to sit through lengthy training, [car capitalist] Tom Schalk says. Women could be taught to speak louder, and direct their voices towards the microphone. But he admits that most customers don’t have the patience to figure it out, and are then easily discouraged. Even if a system successfully works 85 to 90 percent of the time, many drivers grow frustrated and call it a failure.

fatal crashOf course, the real problem with voice-commanding media devices is that it is a form of knowing mass murder by car capitalists, as the research has demonstrated.

Safety advocates like the Governors Highway Safety Association say drivers are distracted by a growing number of gadgets that cause them to look away from the road, such as cellphones, MP3 players and GPS devices. They believe drivers’ divided attention is behind an increase in fatal accidents caused by distracted driving: Distracted driving was a factor in 16 percent of all fatal accidents in 2009, up from 10 percent in 2005, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Six percent of 2009’s U.S. auto-crash deaths, by the way, is 2,028.

The industrialists’ response to the blatant facts?  The usual: the heroin dealer’s argument:

[S]afety advocates such as Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, argue that too often, things go wrong, leaving drivers tinkering with display screens instead of watching the road.

“Why do we need to be doing this?” asks Adkins. “Driving is a really complex task; you have to be able to react to what other cars are doing. If you’re fiddling with these systems, it can be the difference between life and death.”

But the auto industry argues that drivers will never put away their phones and other devices, so voice-activated technology is the only option to keep drivers focused on the road.

In an attempt to make the technology less distracting, software developers are trying to make the process more natural. Ideally, drivers would feel like they are talking to a passenger in the car, says Tom Schalk, vice president of voice technology for auto supplier ATX Group.

Schalk says drivers will bring technology into their cars, even if it’s legally banned. They’ll continue talking on cellphones and twiddling with their GPS systems, looking away from the road while doing it.

The federal government’s approach to such felonious excuses?

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has met with the top executives at seven car companies, including General Motors, Ford, Toyota, and Honda, to discuss what the companies can do to keep distractions at a minimum.

LaHood won’t say whether he thinks voice recognition technology will solve the problem. He’s leaving it up to the industry to figure that out.

“We’re hoping that they’ll put their creative juices to work in helping us solve this very, very serious and dangerous problem,” he said during a recent press conference.

Yes, creative juices.

If it weren’t for the refusal to pass the obvious laws banning all telephony and texting while driving, the use of things like Ford Sync would also be manslaughter, from the point of view of the driver.

As it stands, the sponsored almost-manslaughter is a source of entertainment to some:

But sometimes the mistakes just turn into laughter. Anthony Castillo has a Ford Fusion, and generally loves the SYNC system. But when he wants to make his kids laugh, he tells it to call his wife, Amy.

Instead, it calls someone from Castillo’s phone book named Peter Schkeeper.

“It gets them laughing every time,” Amy Castillo says.

Selling Violent Death

Like so much else in the market-totalitarian United States of America, Big Brother would be hopping jealous of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Not only does the agency get away with its name — as if “safety,” rather than danger, is the topic raised by “highway traffic” — but it also functions as a more or less open adjunct to the corporate car-sales effort.

Consider the issue of NHTSA “frontal crash tests,” the procedure that yields the “government 5-star ratings” that are a staple in automotive advertising. If the truth be told, these tests are merely another form of public subsidy to cars-first transportation. As a basis for making marketing claims, they are gold. As a source of legitimate information about the risks of owning and operating any particular car, however, they are close to meaningless.

This is so for two main reasons.

First, the NHTSA rates cars only within what it calls (in perhaps the only space in mainstream America where the “c”-word has legitimacy) “vehicle classes.” These are:

Passenger cars mini (PC/Mi) (1,500-1,999 lbs. curb weight)
Passenger cars light (PC/L) (2,000-2,499 lbs. curb weight)
Passenger cars compact (PC/C) (2,500-2,999 lbs. curb weight)
Passenger cars medium (PC/Me) (3,000-3,499 lbs. curb weight)
Passenger cars heavy (PC/H) (3,500 lbs. and over curb weight.)
Sport utility vehicles (SUV)
Pickup trucks (PU)
Vans (VAN)

Thus, a vehicle “class” is really a weight-grouping.

And here’s the kicker: The NHTSA conducts crash tests only between vehicles belonging to the same weigh-class. It does not conduct tests of crashes between vehicles in different classes! Hence, the number of “government stars” a particular car gets is a measure only of how it compares in a crash with other vehicles of its own mass. The stars provide zero information about the safety of cars in crashes between “classes.”

Think this doesn’t matter? Consider this photo of a head-on collision at a mere 34 miles-per-hour between a medium-sized Audi Q7 SUV and a Fiat 500, a model about to be introduced by Chrysler/Fiat in the United States.

fiat_crash

Motorauthority.com reports:

The result was worrying, for the passengers in the Fiat 500 at least, confirming the old adage that size does matter.

In particular, the testers noted that the driver of the Fiat 500 was very vulnerable as the driver’s airbag can force the driver’s head towards the A-pillar, which causes the upper body to come into contact with the steering wheel. ADAC also noted that the airbag burst shortly after deploying, and that the sheer force of the crash would have caused serious, life threatening injuries to the driver – especially in the neck, leg and pelvic areas.

In contrast, the Q7 fared much better than the Fiat 500. The injury risks for every passenger in the Q7 was low – while not even passengers in the back seats would have been spared from injury in the 500, despite it being a frontal crash.

ADAC concluded that the Fiat’s poor performance was due to the great mass of the Q7 and its front-flat structure which is not conducive to spreading the impact of crash energy. The results clearly demonstrate why consumers [sic] shouldn’t compare safety ratings between different classes. The Fiat 500, for example, garnered a five-star safety rating in its class from EuroNCAP, while the Q7 only managed to gain four stars.

Meanwhile, the second factor that renders NHTSA testing a joke is the fact that they are based on flat-frontal, not offset, impacts. To derive its scores, the NHTSA drives test cars straight and square into a wall. In the real world, of course, this kind of flush, symmetrical impact is extremely rare, as almost all auto collisions happen off-center and/or at angles, which has the effect of exerting the force of the crash on only a part of the vehicle, rather than through the whole frame. This, in turn, greatly multiplies the problem of “intrusion,” meaning the amount of the car that gets shoved into the spaces occupied by driver and passengers. Intrusion, of course, is one of the main risk factors for serious injury or death in car crashes.

The NHTSA star system measures neither inter-class nor offset collisions. The NHTSA star system, therefore, serves one purpose and one purpose only: permitting car corporations to make inflated safety claims in their advertisements.

Straight From the Horse’s Mouth

fatal crashIn yesterday’s edition of The New York Times, Maureen Dowd reported on her visit to the Ford Motor Company. Dowd, it seems, had previously questioned the car capitalists’ plans to further heighten the inherent danger of operating their Earth-destroying waste machines by building more personal electronic gadgetry into dashboards. Invited to come to Detroit for a dose of propaganda, Dowd went and collected this amazing excuse:

Over lunch at Ford, Sue Cischke, a dynamic company executive, argued that even before cellphones and iPods, drivers were in danger of distraction from reaching for a briefcase or shooing away a bee.

“Telling younger people not to use a cellphone is almost like saying, ‘Don’t breathe,’ ” she said.

Given that Americans are addicted to Web access and tech toys, she said, it will never work to simply ban them. “So we’ve got to figure out how we make people safer,” she said, “and the more people can just talk to their car like they’re talking to a passenger, the more useful it would be.”

Yes, and making cellphoning while driving easier and cooler and more mechanically suggested is also a great way of ensuring that thousands upon thousands of young people will indeed stop breathing, for good.

All for a profit, of course, so onward they roll. They’ve got to, after all.

“Issues of Enormous Importance”

fatal crash For reasons I will explain in my forthcoming book, Courting Carmageddon: Capitalism and Transportation in the United States, manufacturing and selling automobiles is roughly as heedless of and harmful to public health as manufacturing and selling nicotine-delivery devices.  Car crashes alone have killed more than 2 million U.S. residents in the past half-century.

Of course, thanks to their physical size and complexity and their enormous infrastructural and convenience implications, cars are far more important to corporate capitalists than cigarettes ever were.  Hence, they are also far more off-the-table in terms of public debate and defense.

I say all this as background to news that Mazda is now asking the Supreme Court to shield it from liability for disregarding state-level vehicular safety laws that exceed the federal regulatory standards administered by the always half-hearted (and oxymoronically named) National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In explaining its appearance as a friend of Mazda, the Alliance of Automobile Manfacturers explains:

“This case raises issues of enormous importance to auto manufacturers,” said Charles Territo, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. The fear, he said, is that federal regulations will be “superseded” by a patchwork of state laws on personal injury claims.

As Automotive News explains its own headline on this story, the enormously important issue is whether automotive manufacturers can continue to deploy “less-than-best” products.

Suggestion: Compare the institutional urgency of this issue against the claims about manufacturing standards and corporate concern made in car advertisements.

Slight gap there, no?

And is there any doubt what the eventual ruling will be in the age of Citizens United?

Note also:  It isn’t just car capitalists, of course:

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, food producers and makers of children’s products have weighed in on Mazda’s side.

The Unmentionable Ossuary

ossuary My great friend Douglas Pressman, who once escorted me into an ossuary located in the Czech Republic, conveyed this news item from the mighty USA Today:

Road accidents — not terrorism, plane crashes or crime — are the No. 1 killer of healthy Americans traveling abroad, a USA TODAY analysis of the past 7½ years of State Department data shows.

About 1,820 Americans, almost a third of all Americans who died of non-natural causes while abroad, have been reported killed in road accidents in foreign countries from Jan. 1, 2003, through June 2010. On average, one American traveler dies on a foreign road every 36 hours.

This, of course, is peanuts compared to the number of people killed here and around the world by cars when not on vacations or buying or spying junkets.

But it highlights the fact that our overclass simply suppresses rational public discussion of automotive death and dismemberment.

There were 2,996 people killed by the 911 terrorist attack. That is one-eleventh the number of people killed in U.S. car crashes in 2009, a year hailed by NHTSA officials and even Ralph Nader as a wondrously safe annum automobilis.

Despite their centrality to our transportation order and to ordinary people’s actual lives, the costs and dangers of cars-first transportation remain entirely “off the table” in our corporate capitalist, market-totalitarian society. Some deaths sell, and some don’t.