Cars, Highways, and Horrific Crashes

One of the most important inventions in history was the idea of making a steel wheel roll on a steel rail.

“If the railway had not already been in common use, its invention would be heralded as a great breakthrough!” (J.William Vigrass, Special Report 161, Transportation Research Board, National Academy of Sciences, 1975, page 20).

This breakthrough was enhanced by what is called “Light Rail” (i. e. the streetcar and the interurban train). As evidence to support this claim, about the importance of this invention, one could mention that: “From 1916 to 1922, one could have traveled from eastern Wisconsin to central New York [more than 1,000 miles] completely by interurban railway. Southern California’s Pacific Electric Railway, centered in Los Angeles, operated nearly 1,000 route miles and reached 125 cities and communities, However, by 1939 [see below], only 2,700 miles of interurban line remained in the United States…[In 1917] more than 1,000 street railway companies were carrying 11 billion passengers/year.” (James R. Mills, ibid, p.3).

Most of us know the dictum: “What is good for General Motors is good for the country”. This highly moral opinion was uttered by Charles Wilson, a General Motors executive (later, secretary of defense), in 1953. The country, of course, is the US. However Mr. Wilson did not clarify if by “country” he meant the geographic area of the US and the ordinary people that inhabit it (according to Noam Chomsky) or himself and his elite friends.

“When General Motors and a few other big companies created a transportation oligopoly for the internal-combustion engine… they conspired. They broke the Law. This was all proved at a little remembered trial in a federal court in Chicago, in 1949. After more than a month of sworn testimony, a jury convicted the corporations and several executives of criminal antitrust violations for their part in the demise of mass transit. The convictions were upheld on appeal… The transcript and other evidence… are in two battered packing cartons in a federal warehouse in Chicago.” (Jonathan Kwitny, Harper’s, February, 1981, p. 14).

So, the private car “conquered” the earth. Which resulted: in (contributing) to “warm” up the earth through CO2, in a Hiroshima of dead people per year and many Hiroshimas of people crippled-for-life per year, in psychological “pollution” (with the rather extreme case of killing for a parking space), in the creation of “asphalt nations” (according to Jane Holtz Kay, author of “Lost Boston”), etc, etc.

The covering of part of the planet with asphalt was the “collateral damage” of the attack against the railways by the General Motors “empire”. However, to “accomplish” this it was necessary to introduce a scientific tool: the “Test Road”.

Although, the first (rather primitive) “Trial Road” in the US was the “Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike Road”, built in 1796 with the first long-distance stretch of broken-stone and gravel surface, it was only after the “murder” of mass transit that “test roads” were used as means to construct highways to serve the private car. Such “test roads” were constructed in Kansas (1936), in N.Y., Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, etc (1938), in Indiana (1939 and 1949), in Idaho (1952) what is known as the WASHO test, in Illinois (1958) what is known as the AASHO test, and so on. Thus, the world was offered the technological marvel of he “highway”.

[Note: Of course, trains, streetcars, and interurbans, themselves, produce CO2, indirectly, by using electricity (by burning oil). However, the amount of CO2 is a fraction of that produced by the private cars which in average carry one person, while a streetcar with 3 railcars in tandem carries 450 persons, that is it takes 450 cars off the road. Also, the electricity plants are situated away from cities and do not pollute them directly.]

Finally, the car-highway system has one more negative effect: waste. Especially, the hours spent commuting to work and the meaningless driving (for petty reasons). The latter can be compared to the meaningless use of the mobile phone (especially by teenagers). It might be that this waste is worse than the municipal solid waste that humans produce on the earth (e.g. the US solid waste of 246 million tons in 2005; an increase of 20 % from 1990).

[Parenthesis: It is reasonable to wonder what will be the view of men, say 100 years from now, about the private car and the highway, given the "Hiroshima" numbers of dead and crippled, the CO2, etc.]

“It was then (in WWI) that I began my first reflections about the importance of the form of propaganda…the war propaganda of the English and the Americans was psychologically sound” (Adolf Hitler, “Mein Kampf”, Houghton Mifflin, 1971, pp. 145, 181). It was not only the American propaganda system that impressed Hitler. He was impressed, also, by the American highway. So, he adopted the “autobahn”. “Driving fast… is deeply rooted in the German psyche – a form of expression that survived even the ruin of World War II (Hitler had been a fan of the autobahn, vastly expanding it)”.[Mark Landler, "The International Herald Tribune", March 16, 2007, p. 8]. In fact, “[T]he Nazis… designed the autobahn highway network as a way of bringing Germans closer to nature.” [This quotation comes from the book "How Green were the Nazis?", by F-J Bruggemeier (a German), M. Cioc (of UC/Santa Cruse), and T. Zeller (of U. of Maryland)!?]

The Germans on the autobahns reach speeds up to and above 180 miles per hour (about 1/4 the speed of sound or about the speed of an aircraft of the 1930s).

So, putting aside the theory about the German “psyche” etc, why do the Germans drive so fast? [By the way, what is a "psyche"? Of what I know the Greeks of yore used the word to denote the breath, i.e. the exhalation or inhalation of air from or into the lungs.]

Do they drive so fast to… save time? And, how do they spend the time they… save? Do thy drive for…fun? Do they drive so fast to exhibit their… dexterity? And so on…?

One of them says: “This is a dream we are selling to the world. It is a tradition we have to defend.” [Landler, ibid]. Of course the “dream” is custom-modified Porsches.

“For years, advocates of a speed limit tried to argue their case on safety grounds. The autobahn, though, is statistically safer than highways in many countries, even if its crashes are significantly horrific.” For decades, my US colleagues in engineering have been striving to statistically prove that the faster you drive on the highway the safer it is. My question is: How does the Divine deal in Heaven with people that have undergone a “horrific” death? Is there a special section?

One answer to the enigma of the German “psyche” may be found in the French acronym T.G.V. (Train a grande vitesse, train with great velocity). It seems that the right word for “grande” would have been… “grandiose” (showy, bombastic)! The T.G.V. lately went so fast that it almost… took off in the air. So both nations are “proud” of the feat that their citizens are moving “horrifically” fast. Yet the question remains: what for?

[Note: The French (and the British) already have a proud moment in their grandiose history: the horrid fiasco of the Concorde airplane.]

Thus, while the Iraqis are murdered by Bush, Wolfiwitz “dictates his girlfriend’s raise”, Hillary prepares to save the world, etc, there are people who have fun in their SUVs, Porsches, or other fast private cars.

To close, here is the last paragraph of Jonathan Kwitny’s article in Harper’s: “A few years after the [GM] trial, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg paid the death penalty for treason in a case that unfolded at about the same time as the GM conspiracy. The Rosenbergs’ crime, as it turned out, had no appreciable effect on the future of the country. On the other hand, what the transit conspirators did was destroy mass-transit systems that could benefit millions of citizens and, ironically, make for improved national security by reducing reliance on foreign oil. And they did it for no greater cause than their own profit”. Kwitny wrote this in 1981.

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