Wednesday 3 June 2009

Offsetting behaviour: Rush edition

Did a fiction article in Road and Track (1973) predict the Peltzman Effect before Peltzman?

Denis at ALD today points us to a brilliant piece by PJ O'Rourke.
America’s romantic foolishness with cars is finished, however, or nearly so. In the far boondocks a few good old boys haven’t got the memo and still tear up the back roads. Doubtless the Obama administration’s Department of Transportation is even now calculating a way to tap federal stimulus funds for mandatory OnStar installations to locate and subdue these reprobates.

Among certain youths—often first-generation Americans—there remains a vestigial fondness for Chevelle low-riders or Honda “tuners.” The pointy-headed busybodies have yet to enfold these youngsters in the iron-clad conformity of cultural diversity’s embrace. Soon the kids will be expressing their creative energy in a more constructive way, planting bok choy in community gardens and decorating homeless shelters with murals of Che.

I myself have something old-school under a tarp in the basement garage. I bet when my will has been probated, some child of mine will yank the dust cover and use the proceeds of the eBay sale to buy a mountain bike. Four things greater than all things are, and I’m pretty sure one of them isn’t bicycles. There are those of us who have had the good fortune to meet with strength and beauty, with majestic force in which we were willing to trust our lives. Then a day comes, that strength and beauty fails, and a man does what a man has to do. I’m going downstairs to put a bullet in a V-8.

O'Rourke nails it exactly. Regulation has forced the car to become utilitarian; Japan does utilitarian better than does Detroit. Read the whole thing.

The O'Rourke article, of course, drew to mind Rush's (to my mind) best song: Red Barchetta. I hadn't known that the song was based on an old fiction article from Road & Track in 1973. Wikipedia informs me:
The song was inspired by the futuristic short story "A Nice Morning Drive," written by Richard Foster and published in the November, 1973 issue of Road and Track magazine. The story describes a similar future in which increasingly-stringent safety regulations have forced cars to evolve into massive "Modern Safety Vehicles" (MSVs), capable of withstanding a 50-mile-per-hour impact without injury to the driver. Consequently, drivers of MSVs have become less safety-conscious and more aggressive, and "bouncing" (intentionally ramming) the older, smaller cars is a common sport among some.

Note the year: 1973. Peltzman's seminal article, The Effects of Automobile Safety Regulation, came out in the JPE in 1975. I wonder if Peltzman read Road and Track. The Road and Track article, "A nice morning drive", outlines the argument perfectly:
Despite the extent of the safety program, it was essentially a good idea. But unforeseen complications had arisen. People became accustomed to cars which went undamaged in 10-mph collisions. They gave even less thought than before to the possibility of being injured in a crash. As a result, they tended to worry less about clearances and rights-of-way, so that the accident rate went up a steady six percent every year. But the damages and injuries actually decreased, so the government was happy, the insurance industry was happy and most of the car owners were happy. Most of the car owners - the owners of the non-MSV cars - were kept busy dodging the less careful MSV drivers, and the result of this mismatch left very few of the older cars in existence. If they weren't crushed between two 6000-pound sleds on the highway they were quietly priced into the junkyard by the insurance peddlers. And worst of all, they became targets . . .

I'd always thought the gleaming alloy aircar in Red Barchetta was a police car trying to chase down a forbidden gas-powered car; Foster's article (above) suggests rather a post-regulation griefer car. I prefer the former; it's less depressing. In any case, Foster is picking up the basic Peltzman mechanism. More accidents as folks take less care, fewer deaths per accident, but external costs for folks outside of the safer vehicles. Should we really call it the Foster Effect?

Some days, I really miss my old 350-4bbl '69 Skylark Custom. It waits for me in Manitoba. Sigh.

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