Monday, May 30, 2011

Count me in for driver-less cars

In a WaPo column entitled, Self-absorbed D.C. drivers are worst in the nation, again:

The latest report, by GMAC Insurance, measured knowledge of driving rules. A quiz included questions such as: Does a flashing red signal mean yield or stop? Does tailgating frustrate other drivers or help reduce traffic congestion? (Since many of you evidently need help with the subject, the correct answers are “stop” and “frustrates other drivers.”)

The District placed last in the study, which ranked it and the 50 states. Maryland was almost as bad, at 49th, while Virginia was in the middle at 25th.

A one-time thing, you say? District drivers did just as poorly in a separate survey last year by Allstate that measured likelihood of being in a collision. For the second straight year, Washington motorists were most likely to have an accident among those in the nation’s 193 largest cities — by a considerable margin. Baltimore drivers were right behind, at 192nd.

In fact, I think our wealth and influence, and above all our sense of self-importance, are to blame.

We think it’s so critical to finish that vital budget memo, or reach that key diplomat or lobbyist, or nail down that juicy federal contract, that we feel justified in cutting off someone when we merge. “Of course it’s okay to turn right from a left-hand lane,” we tell ourselves. After all, we neglected to slide over earlier only because we were so preoccupied with holding down health-care costs.

“People are just always in a hurry,” said Matt Berger, 27, a federal worker from Northwest. “I’m from Indianapolis. There, there’s a lot more waving, a lot more people helping out.”

Although he was skeptical of the surveys, saying complaints about driving are common everywhere, Berger acknowledged that his own habits have deteriorated since he moved here.

“I don’t help people out as much, now that I live here,” he said. “I have places to be, too.”

Thurman Matthiesen, 45, a screenwriter and playwright who moved here from Los Angeles 13 months ago, said the problem wasn’t ignorance but indifference.

“I don’t think it’s so much lack of knowledge of the rules. It’s not caring about the rules,” Matthiesen said. “We’ve become such an aggressive, disrespectful society.”

Driving in DC has me so frazzled that I would indeed welcome driver-less cars:

The benefits of driverless cars are potentially significant. The typical American spends an average of roughly 100 hours a year in traffic; imagine using that time in better ways — by working or just having fun. The irksome burden of commuting might be lessened considerably.

The driverless car is illegal in all 50 states. Google, which has been at the forefront of this particular technology, is asking the Nevada legislature to relax restrictions on the cars so it can test some of them on roads there. Unfortunately, the very necessity for this lobbying is a sign of our ambivalence toward change. Ideally, politicians should be calling for accelerated safety trials and promising to pass liability caps if the cars meet acceptable standards, whether that be sooner or later. Yet no major public figure has taken up this cause.

Further points by Tyler Cowen:

… it is an interesting question why there is no popular movement to encourage driverless cars. Commuting costs are very high and borne by many people. (Here is Annie Lowery on just how bad commutes can be.) You can get people to hate plastic bags, or worry about a birth certificate, but they won’t send a “pro-driverless car” postcard to their representatives. The political movement has many potential beneficiaries but few natural constituencies. (Why? Does it fail to connect to an us vs. them struggle?) This is an underrated source of bias in political outcomes.

… This isn’t a column about driverless cars at all. It’s about our ambivalent attitudes toward major innovations. It’s also about how the true costs of regulation are often hidden. A lot of potentially good innovations never even reach our eyes and ears as concepts, much less realities. They don’t have tags comparable to that of the driverless car.

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