Claudia Dreifus –A CONVERSATION WITH SEPT. 12, 2016
Edward Humes, 59, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist whose latest book, “Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation,” is a wide-ranging look at the planes, trains and cars that Americans have chosen to rely on. We spoke recently in Manhattan and later by phone. Here is an edited and condensed version of those conversations.
How did the book get started?
It grew out of my last book, which was about garbage. As I worked on it, I saw how the average American, myself included, is the most wasteful person on the planet. We are conditioned to waste and to see it as a plus. If we’re throwing things away, we think we are prosperous.
Now, if you look beyond the landfill, how we get ourselves and the stuff we consume around is one of the most wasteful things we do. We drive these vehicles that weigh 4,000 pounds and are built to carry five people and eight suitcases, and most of the time, it’s just one person and this giant machine going to work. We’ve got transportation overkill.
I thought there might be a book in that. From the beginning, my task was to avoid doing something encyclopedic, because transportation is such a huge part of our daily existence. What’s the first gift one gets at a baby shower? It’s an infant car seat. What’s the last ride you ever take? It’s in a hearse.
What’s the meaning of the book’s title, “Door to Door”?
In the transportation world, there’s something called the “first mile/last mile problem.” It’s a euphemism for forms of mass transportation, like the bus or the train, that require riders to go to stations or bus stops. Americans prefer to move door to door. They want to close one door and find themselves in front of another.
This is one of the reasons why we, as a society, are so car-dependent. Only a system built on trucks and automobiles can do this.
In the book, you write about the car as if it were a social problem.
And a health problem. And an economic problem.
Next to our home, the car is our single largest household expense. We’re paying for it round the clock. Yet, it sits idle for 22 hours a day. Plus, it’s horribly inefficient in how it uses energy. The average car wastes about 80 percent of the gasoline put into it. By comparison, an electric vehicle uses about 90 percent to actually move the car.
In terms of public health, the National Safety Council’s data on car crashes showed that in 2015, 38,300 people died and 4.4 million were seriously injured.
Why are the numbers so high?
Because everything we do is designed to produce them. We have fictitious speed limits, because the roads are designed to allow vehicles to travel much faster than stated. We have vehicles capable of achieving far higher speeds than the posted limits. Given this, people go too fast. And speeding, we know, is one of the major causes of fatal crashes.
A pedestrian struck by a vehicle going 40 miles an hour has a 10 percent chance of surviving, and one struck by a car at 20 m.p.h. has a 90 percent chance. So when we post a 40-mile maximum speed limit on a boulevard where pedestrians walk, we’re saying that in the event of a crash, a 90 percent mortality rate is acceptable.
These decisions matter. Each of us, over a lifetime, has a one-in-113 chance of dying in a car. That’s crazy, isn’t it? So we bolt extra safety devices onto our vehicles, seatbelts and airbags. Those are all great, but they don’t get to the fundamental problem: We drive way too fast to survive collisions. The bottom line is that speeding is one of the major causes of fatal crashes.
In your book, you never use the word “accident” to describe a crash. Why?
They aren’t. Most occur because of choices drivers made. If you’re chatting on your iPhone while driving, that’s a choice. If you get behind the wheel after a few drinks, that’s an “on purpose.” We probably neuter the language because who, at some point, hasn’t been speeding or run a red light?
In the 1920s, The New York Times referred to what we now erroneously call “accidents” as “motor killings.” There was more outrage then.
At the time, there was a nationwide push to have speed governors placed on cars. These were mechanical devices that kept them from going at high speeds. That effort was pushed back by the car industry. It was never deployed in any substantial way.
Are there any answers to our current problem?
I have a lot of hope for driverless cars. The great news about them is that life-or-death decisions will not be left to distracted cellphone users and drag-racing teens.
But even before that technology is perfected, a version of those speed governors would help. Certainly, the capability exists right now. Cars already have speed governors in them: cruise control, which permits drivers to set the maximum speed a car should go.
If you link navigation apps which know the speed limit for any given road and add it to cruise control, it takes the decision out of the hands of the driver. You use basically off-the-shelf technology, slightly tweaked with some new software, and you have cars that can’t speed.
Why hasn’t that happened?
I don’t have a good answer, other than: There’s no political will to keep people from driving too fast.
The irony is that if you keep everyone at the proper speed limit, traffic will move better. It’s an illusion that speeding and lane weaving will get you there faster. It often slows things down. And that’s not even counting the time lost from speed-induced accidents — I mean car crashes.
Even I sometimes call them “accidents.”