Modest Proposals for Safer Road Journeys

People often bray that if some expenditure or other will save just one life, it's worth it. What this sometimes boils down to is an undertaking that may visibly save a few lives but will, less visibly, cost an exorbitant amount of money and, indirectly, a larger number of other lives.

So it's nice in this summer season of increased driving to suggest a couple of relatively inexpensive measures that, I think, could save many lives. Automobile fatalities number approximately 40,000 annually (more than 13 times the number killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center), and more than half of these accidents involve alcohol, so there are a lot of lives to save.

The first rather simpleminded proposal is an idea I've suggested to officials ranging from turnpike authorities to the U.S. transportation secretary (in a previous administration), and I've always wondered why no one has ever shown any interest in it.

Turnpike Speeding, a Solution

Here it is: When someone enters a toll road, the ticket he or she receives is stamped with the time of entrance. The distance between the various toll booths is known (or can easily be determined) so that when the exit time is recorded later by a computer, it can easily calculate the person's average velocity while on the toll road. The tollbooth operator may then direct speeders with incriminating toll tickets to a waiting patrol car.

The method wouldn't do away with all speeding, of course, since someone could still speed until just before the exit, stop for a cup of coffee or a full meal if they'd really been racing, and exit with a legal average velocity. Still, the primary inducement for speeding would be gone.

What's wrong with this plan? Division of one number by another, the distance traveled by the time elapsed, is surely not a risky or novel technology. And a $5 calculator can do the job. Speeding tickets now are issued on the basis of radar and other technologies, which are considerably less reliable.

One possible reason for a lack of interest is that authorities don't really want to enforce the speed limit. After all, a lower speed limit does have adverse economic and other consequences. In return for an increased likelihood of catching speeders, however, we might consider raising the speed limit a bit to accommodate this concern. Others might observe that toll road driving results in relatively few deaths. This is true, but "relatively few" is not the same as "few."

Drinking? Punch in 573392

The second idea is a proposal to require that vehicles come with a small touchpad device near the steering wheel. A driver would have to very quickly enter a short numerical sequence in order to start the car. (The sequence need not to be secret and could be posted next to the device.) Research shows that if one has had a couple of drinks, one is much less likely to be able to do this.

This measure too would not be foolproof.

Some people who have drunk too much would simply ask friends to punch in the sequence, while other drinkers would not be impaired enough to be unable to do it themselves. The quickness necessary for the action might need to be adjusted for some older drivers as well.

Despite these and other problems, such a device would be cheap and relatively effective. The kinks could probably be worked out if there were a will to implement the proposal, although there would be opposition, I suspect, from automobile manufacturers, bar and restaurant associations, and others. At the very least, if the devices were thought to be too bothersome, they could be installed in the cars of people convicted of drunken driving (and perhaps of others as well).

Weaker Case for Cell Phone Ban

The effort to ban cell phone use while driving provides a constructive contrast.

It has gained momentum in recent years in part because a few of those killed by phone-distracted drivers have been named and featured in public relations campaigns. These legal successes have occurred despite the fact that the case for banning cell phones is much weaker, in my opinion, than the case for the anti-drinking, anti-speeding measures proposed above.

However, since people respond more viscerally to a few faces than they do to overwhelming numbers, perhaps what's needed is a focus on a few of the tens of thousands of victims of speeding, drunk, or tailgating drivers.

Where are the people who say "if we could save just one life" now?

Professor of mathematics at Temple University and adjunct professor of journalism at Columbia University, John Allen Paulos is the author of several best-selling books, including Innumeracy and A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper. His Who’s Counting? column on appears the first weekend of every month.