I'm running into some downtime at work because the firewall we have seems to be blocking some stuff we need. Or, maybe it's just not working. Fun.
Anyway, this gives me a small opportunity to talk about cars. I spent yesterday afternoon visiting a friend from ages past, and watching him and his friends talk about hot-rodding… Then I went home and watched an episode of Modern Marvels about the German Autobahn.
I went on a class trip to Germany in high school and noticed that their roads are amazingly well-maintained (or at least they were in the West part—they were still reconstructing the old East German roads at the time). Never really got going very fast on them, though, since the bus we usually traveled on was restricted to 100 or 120 km/h. We stayed with host families for a few days and they drove faster, but nobody took it extremely fast (though I think some of my classmates stayed with people who took them for some scary rides ;-)
Of course, the road is designed for speed. I guess the original roads over there were designed for 100 MPH speeds, which was essentially infinite since no cars could go that fast anyway. The roads were designed with even higher speeds in mind later on, with only gentle curves and low grades allowed.
The roads have also been designed for safety, and there's nearly always a guardrail in the median to prevent cars from careening into oncoming traffic. The road surface is also very smooth—I remember the ride always being like that of fresh asphalt, and the show discussed this in moderate detail. Apparently the road surface is twice as thick as U.S. roads, and it's meant to last twice as long. When cracks appear, they aren't just patched—an entire section of road is replaced.
The Germans have the concept of Rechtsfahren, or “drive right,” which could be a phrase with a double-meaning (I tried googling on it, but I could only find German-language websites talking about it). In the very least, it seems to encompass the idea that slower traffic should always move to the right, and there is no passing in the right lane. I imagine there are other ideas built in there as well…
German cars and motorists have to live up to the promise of the roads as well, and it's much harder to get a license there—probably 10 times as expensive as it is here, and the training is much more thorough.
Here in the U.S., Americans border on the belief that everyone is entitled to have a car, which is somehow mixed with the belief that everyone is entitled to be an idiot. German automakers apparently had difficulty understanding the need for a cupholder, since driving on the Autobahn requires your full concentration.
So, obviously, if you have a combination of good roads, good drivers, and good cars, people can safely travel at higher speeds. It appears that for the past ~25 years, American and German highways have had comparable safety records, although the average speed on German roads has increased from 70 to 80 mph over that period, while the change here has been more like 60 to 70 mph.
Hmm… Okay, that's not that much… Although, the 85th percentile speeds have a bit bigger difference.
Certainly, a vast number of roads here in the U.S. could use a lot of improvement. Sometimes, I drive down certain roads and think that I've been somehow transplanted into a third-world country. I'm sure that Germans visiting the U.S. must feel very strange driving down some of our roads.
There are a lot of big differences in the roads—I doubt that there are more than merely a handful of left-hand entrances and exits on the Autobahn, for instance—but some things are more subtle. On- and off-ramps are often very inconsistent. Sometimes a lane is added to the road, and it stays for miles and miles. Other times, the lane only exists for a short distance. Sometimes the short-distance lanes have the short-dash painted stripes, and sometimes they don't. Sometimes the signs indicate that a ramp is merging when it isn't, and sometimes they indicate that the ramp is not merging when it is.
Visibility is a big limiting factor on American roadways (unless, perhaps, you're traveling through Kansas…). This can be caused by constantly varying inclines or declines as well as plenty of sharp curves. Of course, I'm sure the rules for making roads get violated way too often in this country. Apparently, the spot south of downtown where I-35W shifts from heading west to going south is out of spec for Interstate highways, as they are supposed to be designed to at least handle 50 MPH traffic. It is possible to go that fast around that curve in most cars, but it's not very pleasant to do so.
So, why do I care? I'm not a speed demon.
Yeah, it's just something I'm thinking about. An intriguing problem to solve.
I guess one thing that sticks out in my mind is that we are in a culture that embraces cars more than any other. Why, then, do we not invest more in our roadways to make them safer for us (and for our suspensions)? Why don't we work harder to make sure that we have the best drivers on the road? Other than the ubiquitous response of “money,” I'm at a loss… (and, arguably, investing money in roads could save on costs elsewhere…)Posted by mike at July 28, 2003 10:27 AM | Car | TrackBack