A sensible way to deal with the traffic crisis

Robert McConnell

November 30, 1990|By Robert McConnell

JUST ANOTHER Saturday night:

Time: 12:40 a.m. Place: Montgomery Co., Md. Eleven, most under 18, injured, as two vehicles collide. A Nissan Stanza, driver 18, collides with a Jeep Wrangler, driver 17.

With the American economy held hostage to oil prices, the risk of war in the Middle East, disastrous tanker spills, worsening air pollution and 50,000 lives lost each year on our highways, isn't it time we got serious about America's transportation mess?

After World War II, this nation embarked on what can only be described as civilization's most remarkable binge of highway construction. Trillions of dollars and four decades later, we have a system which provides extraordinary mobility to the largest number of people in human history. Just as important, it and the auto provide Americans as well as millions of visitors each year with an unprecedented degree of freedom.

Yet with every new road, traffic increases. With every new lane, maintenance expense climbs, and inflation continues to drive the cost skyward. With each new bypass and interchange the number and size of trucks increases, and the number of lumbering, gas-guzzling "recreational vehicles" grows. Average speed on our urban roads declines each year. Gridlock is plainly visible on the horizon.

With population growth, more vehicles are added each year, and more miles are driven. As our large Eastern and Midwestern cities continue their slow decay and lose population, their suburbs expand. This serves to increase distances between home, job, shopping and recreation, while at the same time reducing the efficiency of mass-transit as a transport solution.

The whole process is underpinned and supported by three factors:

The western world's cheapest fuels and lowest vehicle taxes.

The colossal political power and economic importance of the transport and fuel industries, and the federal and state bureaucracies that deal with them.

The notion of "rights" which permeates American society like no other nation on the planet.

These are the realities we need to address before we can move toward a sane transportation policy.

The concept of "the rights of man," sacred to Enlightenment philosophers and their disciples of the 18th century, has become perverted. Today, expensive driver education programs in schools across the country foster the notion that it is every child's "right" to obtain a driver's license at age 16. Children of middle-class and wealthy families are routinely given cars. College and high school parking lots fill with student cars every autumn. The fast food industry arguably owes its existence to teen-age minimum-wage labor. Many such employees spend their meager pay largely for car payments, gas and insurance, reasoning that they "need a car to get to work."

Recently in a newspaper advice column, a trained psychologist claimed that students had a "right" to a car while at college, as long as they "helped with gas." At the same time, colleges and universities spend millions building, lighting and maintaining parking lots and roads, often exclusively for residential student use. Some colleges are actually fearful of banning cars for residential students, afraid that students might select or reject a college on this basis alone.

With attitudes like these it becomes clear why progress on our transport mess is virtually non-existent. Driving is believed to be an inalienable right for children who have reached 16, for senior citizens no matter how reflexes and vision deteriorate, for repeat traffic offenders and for everyone in between. To the extent that we view driving as a sacred "right" rather than a privilege and responsibility, we lose one of the surest means to reduce congestion, pollution and oil dependence ` that of restricting driver's licenses.

Recently, a transportation study done for the Washington D.C. metropolitan area found that only 30 percent of miles driven on area roads was business or work-related the rest was represented largely by shopping and recreational trips. The study did not indicate how many miles were driven by teen-agers, but suspicion looms large.

Let's therefore take a first step to address our traffic problems by raising the minimum age for driver's licenses to 18, and eliminate driver education courses in our schools. By this one act we will slash auto accidents and fatalities, especially where speed and alcohol are involved. We will also reduce our nation's auto insurance bill, significantly lessen congestion and pollution and reorient school budgets ever so slightly toward more productive activity.

It's the simplest, fairest, cheapest and most sensible way to begin to deal with the crisis on our highways.

Robert McConnell is associate professor of geology at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Va.

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