Friday, August 19, 2011

Safe Distance

When driving, I try to maintain enough distance between my car and the one in front of me so I can react to any problems that might come up. This has saved my life on at least two occasions, and avoided less serious accidents numerous more times, especially in bad weather.

For my current job, I do a lot of highway commuting, and spend as much time in stop-and-go traffic as going at high speed. I've noticed that it's becoming harder and harder to maintain a safe distance because other drivers don't recognize the need to keep such a distance; they instead seem to view the space I'm leaving as an invitation to dive in front of me.

I suspect that the growing number of accidents that routinely slow traffic to a crawl is partly due to people not driving with a reasonable amount of caution. The faster people try to go, the more they're willing to do to “get ahead” -- even by a handful of minutes -- the more likely it is that something bad will happen.

These observations have strong parallels in other parts of my experience, so much so that I think they are a useful metaphor for life in general. Take, for example, the willingness of corporations to push the envelope of what's legal, even to the point of trying to change that envelope through lobbying and influencing elections. Instead of limiting activity to within a safe margin, they try to redefine what people consider safe. When more people tailgate to get to their destination faster – the equivalent of competitive economic growth – it becomes the norm, and the increase in crashes becomes an expected cost of driving that everyone must pay.

Police do a modest job of controlling recklessness; when they're present, traffic slows considerably, just as regulations in the economy divert money from growth to maintaining constant production. Take the police off the road, and individual people's speeds increase, resulting in more fatalities and property loss. Reducing the size of government by cutting taxes has an equivalent effect, as does the exertion of political influence to cut regulations and provide loopholes in their enforcement. For a relatively small number of individual drivers (or the irresponsible rich), this is a boon; for the vast majority of the rest of us (or the poor and middle class), it is increasingly dangerous.

Another consequence of not observing safety margins in our activities is the deterioration of the infrastructure that enables them. With fewer taxes, roads can't be maintained and they become less drivable. With less environmental protection, natural systems have a harder time keeping the Earth habitable. A few people can make more money faster, acquire a brief superiority in power over their lives and those of others, but eventually the system that sustains that growth becomes too deteriorated for anyone (or anything) to use it.

No comments: