Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Opting Out of the Auto Arms Race

Decades ago I made the decision to basically opt out of the automotive world. I still live on the same planet as my car-owning, car-driving friends, but I decided that I could manage to move around on this planet without owning or driving an automobile. This has worked out better than fine for me and I encourage people to enrich their lives by getting out and about under their own power whenever possible.

I recognize that there are certainly times and circumstances where the walking shoe or the bicycle is not the optimal solution to a transport problem and in my own life some of my best adventures have involved the bus or the train, a ferry boat, an airplane or a private automobile. But that last one, the automobile, is the one I'm most wary of. I mostly don't fear the bus, the truck, the train or the plane. They are piloted by professionals, men and women who make their living by motion. But the private cars and SUVs that fill every road we build (because if you build it, they will come), those big boxes of momentum are driven by and large by folks whose job is something other than driving. We have taken fragile, error-prone, very human human beings and put them in charge of a lot of mass.

This is the equation that frightens me:

It's Newton's Second Law and it's the law that matters. It's not the speed that kills you, it's the energy of the system. Mass times acceleration as the physicists say. And we, by an large, keep adding more and more massive missiles to our system. We think we'll make our kids safe by wrapping them in a two-ton SUVs loaded with car seats and airbags. But one bus with 40 kids and a trained driver is a hell of lot safer than 40 distracted soccer moms in 40 Escalades. Making streets where kids can safely walk or bike to school? I think that's better still.

Given Newton's Second Law, am I not endangering myself by not choosing the big SUV as I go out on the mean streets of the city? I'm just bringing a knife to a gun fight. Car vs Bike, hell you can do the math, right?

Maybe not.

Here's an interesting stat:

The majority of fatal crashes involve only one vehicle (61 percent).

Think about that.

I did.

I could say that I'm a better than average driver but the odds are I'm not. By the way, a vast majority of drivers think that they are better than average but, of course, on average, they are average. And half of them are worse than average. That's the way math works.

So I'm my own worst enemy. And adding thousands of pounds to my daily motion? I'm better off if I can avoid it. And then there is all that health, well-being and exercise stuff. I like to walk and bike. I don't like to drive. So I don't.

I'm not bringing a knife to gunfight, I've given up my gun because there's a good chance I'll shoot myself with it. Or I might shoot you. Either way, this shooting people, or running them down if we want to get away from metaphor, it's not a great idea. As the computer noted at the end of War Games, "A strange game. The only winning move is not to play."

Yes, I'm just one guy. But I'm one guy not in a car. One less car on the road. And actually, I don't think I was a better than average driver back when I drove. There's at least a 50% chance I was worse. I do know this: I'm better off not driving and I think you're better off with me not driving. So I'm just one guy, but that's something.

I'm happier, healthier and safer since I stopped driving. It's not my place to tell you not to drive, I don't know you or your circumstance. But if you want to drive less, I posted some advice on that subject here.

Gandhi gave the better advice than I ever have when he said, "Be the change you wish to see in the world."

I'm not doing battle on the mean streets of the city, I'm making my way in the world at the speed that makes sense to me. I've opted out of the auto arms race, but I still keep on rolling.

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA


bikelovejones said...

Kent -- thank you for one of the most thoughtful offerings in the anti-car discussion I've ever read.
Circumstances vary, of course; and will vary more as we age -- who will be able to afford the cost of living within walking distance of all the needed amenities when they can no longer operate ANY vehicle? -- but the fact is that car culture is killing us and we need to change the paradigm. Thanks for your two extremely intelligent cents' worth.

Michael R pdx said...

Kent, You have to lose the "two ton SUV" meme. An Escalade weighs in over three and a half tons. With passengers and a full tank of gas "four ton SUV" is accurate.

Some thing like the small Ranger pickup weighs two tons. Heck, a Prius weighs in at a ton and a half.

There's a lot more mass in those distracted, non-professional hands.

CoCargoRider said...

Very nicely put Ken. There are numerous times a year, I think about giving up my license as a statement that I do need or want a license to kill, but as of yet have not.
You are an inspiration,

Chris said...

I try to bike as much as I can - I've got a folding bike, which has made it a lot easier for me to get around in the city without a car - both on my bike and on other forms of transportation (bus/train/sometimes car) with my bike. I sort of enjoyed the image I got from bus vs. Escalade comparison - although I'm not sure it's quite accurate - since with the bus, there's 1 driver on the road, with the Escalade, there's 40. So it's not really the same situation. Perhaps this is your point? But then if most crashes only involve one vehicle? You make a lot of interesting points though, and it's definitely given me something to think about.

Anonymous said...

Kent, I can only say thank you for this great post. I can't add anything that would add value to your simply-stated post.

Bob G of GB

Doug Walsh said...

Great post Kent. Beautifully said without coming across as preachy.

You're an inspiration. I'm really proud of the progress my wife and I have made in not using the cars we own except when necessary. And I'm sure our definition of "necessary" would make Webster blush.

When I do take my car, for example, to ferry my mountain bike and dogs to the mountains for a weekend, I would like to think I offset it by working from home and biking to the grocery store during the week. Maybe not a 1:1 trade-off, but it's progress. Everyone needs to start somewhere.

Matt said...

Couldn't agree more with the sentiment of the post.

A wild pedant appears!

Energy is actually: E = 1/2*m*v^2

Energy increases linearly with mass -- a 4 ton SUV has twice the energy of a 2 ton car going the same speed.

Energy increases with the -square- of speed -- a vehicle going 40mph has FOUR TIMES the energy of the same vehicle going 20mph.

That is to say mass is -absolutely- an issue, but the damaging potential of a vehicle increases incredibly quickly with speed.

Unknown said...

Matt: thanks for posting! I actually came here to spew that very same Kinetic Energy pedantry. Mass * Acceleration = Force.

Given: my head's mass is 5 kg, the mass of the speedy mom and the Escalade is 3 Mg, the force between my face and the grill is 5 kN

mom's acceleration = 1.66 m*s^-2
(as much as an old lady standing out of a chair)

my brain's acceleration = 2 kN / 100 kg = 1000 m*s^-2
(like having 20 Mike Tysons punch me in the face simultaneously)

Anonymous said...

Another great post! That equation frightened me from day one that I was old enough to drive. I've stayed out of the auto arms race as well for 21 years now. I'll take 30 lbs of steel at 20 mph over a couple tons of metals/plastic at insane speeds any day.


Small Adventures said...

A very enjoyable read,my friend! I have not much to add that hasn't been said but this...there are,at any given time,lots of well trained,professional drivers on the roads,in their personal vehicles,but you'd never know it without asking. Some of us have driven (literally) 2+ million accident-free miles in nearly every state in this land (I've missed two,personally,though I've driven trucks through parts of both our southern and northern neighbor's yards as well).

Ironically enough,though,good training doesn't mean flawless drivers...everyone's human (including the co-driver who wrecked me 10+ years ago,resulting in my being "too disabled to support myself consistantly" 2.5 years ago,LOL!).

I ride when my spinal injuries allow it,drive when they don't. I admit,though,to enjoying some driving (like at the track with the top up,or country roads on nice days with the top down on the old Mustang ;) ). I always admire,though,those that are much more dedicated (and able) to riding and being car-free\car-lite than I.

Steve in VA

Matt said...

Great post as always. People tend to forget the violence involved in the kinetic forces involved with driving a car. You see the tired eyed police captain on the evening news. He knows, fire crews know but how many times in the average lifespan are you involved in a fatal crash and see what really happens. It's alot of force and we, as a society take it very lightly and grant the right to use it very freely. It's looking like commodity prices are the only thing that can turn the tide at this point.

Philip Williamson said...

I love the point "that's how math works." People should stop and struggle with that concept a bit.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Kent. Eloquent and to the point.

More math:

I don't ascribe blame in car crashes; it's the system that is to blame. But most drivers do think this way.

So if 61% of fatal car crashes involve only one car, then presumably you are to "blame" for it in these cases.

Suppose the remainder all involve only two cars--some certainly involve more, but on the surface it seems like a rare occurrence. Then there is a 50% chance that you are to "blame" in these remaining 39% of fatal crashes.

That means:

If you are involved in a fatal car crash, then there is an 80.1% chance you or the person driving the car you are in are "to blame" for it.


But I don't view it as a question of blame. We simply do not all have the same skill-set; some of us are simply not going to be as good at driving a car as others, regardless our own level of responsibility. As you say we are all very human humans. It ought to follow that our transportation should be humane.

But instead, we are all somehow sold the idea that it is perfectly reasonable that everyone operates heavy, dangerous, high-energy machinery, for almost every day of our lives.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Kent. One thing to consider: I feel *far* more secure behind the wheel of a bus than I do behind the wheel of a car. In addition to the obvious weight advantages, the buses I drive generally offer better visibility than a car and people tend to be a little more respectful around a 30-ton vehicle (although not everyone, of course). The heavy steel frame and higher riding position for passengers offer a tremendous advantage. This photo of a bus after being hit head-on by an out of control car illustrates the point well. To my knowledge, the bus driver was the only person injured. She had several bruises (ribs, shin) from the impact of the steering wheel but was back at work within a couple of days. A pedestrian waiting for the bus on the curb was shielded by the bus as well.

Raymond Parker said...

I've been car free for 2 1/2 years now.

I deliberately moved to a village where everything needed for civilized living--food and wine--is within walking distance.

Sometimes I miss not being able to jump in a car and "get outa Dodge," but not often.

When I did drive, that's pretty much all I used a car for.

MzunguEriki said...

Useful stats. I commute right into developing world city. (ie Roads are a bit nuts) Everyone in cars says biking is too dangerous. I try to explain it isn't but no one listens, even the conservation people.

anyway another great post man.

Anonymous said...

Minor correction:

"And half of them are worse than average. That's the way math works."

Not really true -- you're confusing the mathematical median (the number which divides a collection of numbers in the middle, just like you suggest in that sentence) and the average or arithmetic mean (the sum of all the numbers, divided by the number of numbers). The median and average do coincide for certain data sets, but not in general.

Otherwise, great piece. I'm car-free, but I understand not everyone can be, mostly because we've spent 50 years building our cities and towns around the car. It seems that only now we are starting to realize that maybe wasn't a brilliant idea.

Anonymous said...

Nice post as always Kent. Add to single vehicle accidents is that most accidents also are related to excessive speed and drugs/alcohol. My point related to the energy side of the equation is folks should just slow down...after all speed limits are just that, limits..."Not suggested minimums".

always reading you


Captain Hairdo said...

Kent- great post, as always. I am car-free, and I get asked about it a lot. I think I should print this out and carry copies with me so I can respond handing people a copy and saying, "Here, read this." It's about the best description I've read of the hows and whys of car-free life.

Unknown said...

Well said. I feel the same way. I much prefer to bike than drive. I wish more people would try it rather than dismiss it as an alternative form of transportation. I bike 6 days a week and drive 1 day a week for my weekly grocery store and farmer's market trip. I'm also trying to get people to try to bike by hosting a weekly ride around town. Not many people have joined me yet but hopefully they will. Keep pedaling and ride safe.

rob hawks said...


Even though this reader is one of the converted, this still resonated with me.


JuliaR said...

Don't forget about the almost automatic acceleration part. The foot on the gas pedal. When you encounter something on a bicycle, and you stop pedaling, you slow down. As long as your foot is on the accelerator, you just keep moving in a car. This is the main reason we are against e-bikes on the recreational paths. If the inexperienced driver of the e-bike keeps her hand on the throttle, the bike keeps moving. Crashes between e-bikes and pedestrians are thus more likely than between regular bikes and pedestrians.

Francis Hayden said...

I'm a physics teacher and a former aerospace engineer - plus I used to cycle over a hundred miles a week going to work.

Big SUVs are an abomination for various reasons but I'm afraid the physics here is wrong. What matters when a car hits a pedestrian is how much force is applied to them and to which part of the body. The speed of the vehicle is obviously critical but oddly enough the mass is not.

Even the smallest car will be barely affected by hitting a few kilograms of human; it will carry on at almost exactly the same speed - just as if it was a 35 tonne truck.

The human will bounce off the vehicle and the force will be equal to their mass x their acceleration (the rate at which their speed is changing) during the collision. The damage is done by the sudden change of speed and the greatest damage is therefore done by very hard objects travelling very fast with sharp edges and corners that concentrate the force on small vulnerable areas of the body. It also helps if the front of the vehicle is flat and tall so that the human goes down and under the wheels - and then of course they will find that the weight does matter!