Monday, August 17, 2015

The abuse, misuse and absence of motor vehicle regulation and the problem of politics

It's been a bit over a week since Anita Kurmann was killed in a crash with a turning truck that then drove off without stopping. Few details are available but there are two things that we can be certain about: first that it is a terrible tragedy, and second that little to nothing will be done to prevent such tragedies in the future. There are possible alleviating measures that exist and could be required by proper regulation, including truck side-guards, or restrictions on the size, weight, number of axles, and length of trucks that are allowed on certain city streets. Our public street rights-of-way were laid out long before the concept of a 5-axle, 40 ton, 53-foot long truck was ever conceived. And it is difficult to imagine how a human-friendly environment could ever be compatible with such behemoths.

Although technically receiving more oversight than the personal car, the trucking industry is remarkably regulation-free compared to other transportation sectors. No other form of transportation allows size, weight and maneuverability concerns to be so radically dismissed in the same way. Air traffic control would never allow an oversized jumbo jet to land at a tiny airport. Railroad companies would never tolerate oversized freight cars that slammed into bridge abutments. Yet, for some reason, when it comes to the road, we simply shrug when oversized trucks cause death and destruction on a daily basis. It is curiously ironic that city planners have spent the past century meticulously separating people's homes away from industry, but still continue to design extremely dangerous, high-speed roads carrying heavy industrial truck traffic right next to those very same homes.

When it comes to regulation of motor vehicles, all the furor seems to focus around taxicabs vs Uber, where the regulations have no safety purpose, but are just one piece of a tug-of-war between the few dirty 1970s-style dirtbags who run the taxicab business and the slick B-school douchebags who run Uber. And when it's not about profits, it's about traffic speeds, because the only thing, besides money, that seems matter to people in power is convenience for suburban drivers. Such regulation has nothing to do with safety and everything to do with privileging the powerful. Meanwhile, some drivers manage to keep their license long enough to score four OUI offenses and kill someone. Or even when the police determine that a driver is an "immediate threat" the antiquated system cannot process the paperwork in time to prevent him from killing. Those are some real examples of problems that could be fixed with proper rules, procedures and regulations. I wonder if it will ever happen.

The trouble is, of course, that regulations are not created solely based upon merit in achieving objective goals such as safety. Regulations are a product of politics, a swirling morass of money, culture, personal vendettas, and tribalism. 149 people were killed by motor vehicle crashes in the first 6 months of this year. But no politician is going to be held accountable for that carnage. Few voters even spend much time thinking about it. So the perverse story doesn't change from year to year. I won't pretend to have an answer, but I will note that if the problem is politics, then the solution has to be too.