When it Comes to Safety, Let's Hear it for the Nanny State

The little black box that might just take a few idiots off the road! 

In a recent trip to Italy we joined a tour group for the Amalfi Coast, as it’s a pretty hard region to navigate privately. Organized tours have their tribulations, but one of the joys is hopping into an air conditioned bus and being chauffeured to one’s destination. Particularly if the driver is as skilled as our driver, Vittorio. (He parked the bus in spaces I might not have attempted with my Corolla.) Vittorio was always cheerful and alert; he also scrupulously obeyed traffic laws–and that’s the point of this piece.

Here in Massachusetts, our former lieutenant governor, Timothy Murray, crashed a state-owned car back in 2011. At first he called it an accident, but the story changed to “I fell asleep,” when it was revealed that he was traveling at over a 100 mph and wasn’t wearing a seat belt at the time. The smash-up ultimately sandbagged Murray’s political career and resulted in a $555 fine, because it wasn’t Murray’s conscience that revealed his first story was a lie; it was the little black box recorder recovered by investigators.

Nearly all new cars have recorders in them that are akin to the ones in use for decades in the commercial airline industry. This being the United States, the existence of such monitors has the privacy fanatics up in arms. At present just 14 states allow law enforcement or anyone else to mine the data, but this is another (of many) areas in which it would be a very good idea to embrace the Nanny State–that is, unless you think it’s perfectly okay for morons to operate massive motorized machines for as long and as fast as they wish.

Let’s go back to Italy for a moment. Vittorio struck me as a very conscientious guy, but it wasn’t his inner angels that made him obey traffic laws; it was the little black box. If you are alarmed by the data your car collects on you, try this on for size–in Italy, that box records one’s route, the speed correlated to the legal limit within each stretch of it, and how long one is behind the wheel. Vittorio was cheerful in part because he was well rested. (Italian law requires that drivers must take a break after every three hours they drive.) All of a bus’s data is stored on a CD, which records up to six months’ worth of driving. Here’s the kicker. A police officer can stop a bus at any time for any reason and request the CD, which is then placed into a computer. If, at any time, the driver has been speeding, not wearing his seat belt, or violates the mandatory rest law, he must pay a fine on the spot and points are added to his license. The same laws apply for truck drivers. You’ll see the big rigs hugging the right-hand lanes in much of Europe.

Imagine such a law in the United States! The track record for bus companies here is pretty awful, starting with the fact that it’s actually legal to drive up to 70 hours per week and we only find out someone has violated that pathetic rule when there’s a horrible accident like the one that killed nine in Oregon, or the one that snuffed out seven in California. More than two dozen bus companies, including Mi Joo Tour, Scapadas, and Sky Express–have been taken off the road since 2012, but the reality is that cut-rate firms such as Bolt and Megabus have troubling safety records as well. Check out the accident reports and you’ll see that speeding and fatigue are the cause of most accidents. Jumping on a curbside bus to save a few bucks is a game of highway roulette. And who among us hasn’t been nearly blown off the road by a semi traveling at warp speed with some amphetamine-fed dude with eyes the size of trashcan lids behind the wheel? Or stuck in a crawl behind semis illegally traveling in the third lane as they seek to pass other semis on an uphill grade? Think this behavior would change if we had Italy’s laws? You bet it would!

But isn’t it true, you protest that truckers have lower fatality rates than passenger vehicles? Yes it is. In terms of overall accident rates, SUV drivers are the most dangerous, followed by bus drivers. That’s why I think we should expand, not limit, the use of vehicle black box data. I wonder what we’d find if cops pulled over speeders and made them hand over their data discs along with their license and registration? I also wonder what would happen if, like Europe, there were generals on the odometers that controlled how fast a vehicle can go, or if there were simple fixes such as breathalyzer-ignition systems? (Think about it. If you enable a car to attain a speed of over 100 mph you can rest assured that some fools are going to test that limit.)

Expanding public safety laws will, of course, set the privacy hounds a-baying. There are those that think regulating anything smacks of a Nanny State and government intrusion. Stay home, then, I say! The idea that one’s vehicle is one’s private castle is patently idiotic. Bad drivers–whether they are behind the wheel or a bus, a truck, an SUV, or a Corolla–endanger the public and the moment they pull out of their driveways and onto public roads, they abrogate their right to privacy. If you fear the Nanny State, you’re haunted by a false boogieman. The death rate on U.S. highways is 124 per million. That’s 300% higher than in Europe, where drivers tend to have smaller, lighter cars that theoretically are less “safe” than our gas-guzzling behemoths. Why is the rate lower? Because Nanny is watching and you never know when she’ll spank your behind!

PS--As this article was being written, a horrible bus accident in southern Italy claimed more than three dozen lives. As sad as this is, eyewitness accounts affirm that the bus was neither speeding, nor operating erratically–a blown tire was the likely culprit.

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