Are We Smarter Than Our Cars?

An SUV speeds out of control down the interstate highway; its accelerator stuck, the vehicle exceeds 100 mph as the woman behind the wheel swerves to avoid other traffic, even veering onto the grassy median to pass slower-moving vehicles.

All the while, she is on her cell phone to 9-1-1, and Highway Patrol cruisers are following, using their lights and sirens to try to warn vehicles in the SUV's path, and capturing the whole episode on their dashcams.

This was the story that got several days of TV coverage in the Kansas City metro last week, and provoked a lot of discussion on the radio.

The SUV eventually slowed down, apparently of its own volition, and was brought to a stop.  The dashcam footage shows the woman being helped out of the vehicle, still holding her phone to her ear.  Miraculously, there were no crashes, and no one was hurt.

What struck me while watching the TV coverage was how everyone concerned -- from the driver to the 9-1-1 dispatchers to the TV reporters (who praised the woman for being such an "excellent driver," because she avoided so many potential crashes) -- seemed to have had not a clue as to what the driver should have done.  And everyone seemed to accept that the natural and logical response to one's car speeding out of control was to dial 9-1-1.

The best the 9-1-1 dispatchers could do was advise her to try to lift the accelerator pedal with her foot, and to push mightily on the brake pedal.

I remember watching this and thinking, "Am I missing something?"  Actually, I've cleaned that up; what I actually thought was more like "Just how [unprintable] stupid are these people?"

From the time I first learned to drive, about a half-century ago, I've known that if your car's accelerator is stuck (and I've had that happen a time or two!), the primary tactic to employ is to interrupt the flow of power to the wheels, by depressing the clutch or moving the transmission selector lever to the neutral position.  With the transmission in neutral, the car is coasting, and the driver can use the brakes to slow and stop the car without the brakes having to work against the engine.

This isn't rocket surgery.  It's something anyone should know in order to obtain a driver's license, let alone to get behind the wheel.  It's not that different from knowing that when your car begins to skid, you steer in the direction of the skid, and you take your foot off the brake.

But nowadays we have cars with ABS (automatic braking systems), so drivers don't even have to know how to deal with a skid.  Not long ago, on my 17-year-old minivan, the ABS warning light came on.  My trusted mechanic assured me that, although the ABS system was disabled, the brakes on all four wheels were still functioning just fine.  "How long," he asked me, "had you been driving before cars came equipped with ABS?"  "About thirty or forty years", I replied.  "You'll be just fine without ABS, then," he chuckled. "You just have to be smarter than the car!"

But I wonder how many people nowadays are smarter than their cars.  The episode of the speeding runaway SUV made me wonder just how stupid people have become nowadays.

But I also see it as going far beyond mere stupidity.  I see it as symbolic of the death of self-reliance.  I see it as symbolic of how folks nowadays look first to "the authorities" to solve problems they used to solve for themselves.  It also illustrates how we tend to seek and find high-tech solutions to what are essentially low-tech problems.

And it also reminds me of something one of my heroes, Jean Shepherd, used to talk about.  Most folks know Jean Shepherd as the creator and narrator of the now-classic film A Christmas Story, the tale of, among other things, young Ralphie and his desire for a Red Ryder BB gun.  But Shepherd was, during my formative years, a late-night radio raconteur whose show could be heard anywhere within the signal range of NYC's most powerful radio stations.  And he didn't just tell stories about Red Ryder BB guns and leg lamps.  He was a moralist and social critic (among his heroes were Mark Twain and George Ade), and a very prescient one.

And one theme that "Shep" kept returning to was "creeping meatballism."  That was his term for the relentless dumbing down of the population, the tendency of modern mass culture -- and now technology -- to destroy our individualism, our self-sufficiency, and our initiative and turn us into a race of moronic robots.

When one hears about a person who is powerless to control her runaway vehicle and whose only response is to phone 9-1-1, and even the 9-1-1 dispatchers are powerless to help because nobody seems to grasp as basic a concept as taking the car out of gear, it certainly sounds like something that Shep saw coming (and Shep would also have known what to do; he was a "car guy" and often wrote for Car and Driver).

And of course, the more comfortable we are in our helplessness, the more we stifle our common sense and depend on "the authorities" to solve our problems for us, the better many of those "authorities" like it.  This next election will be about, among other things, how dependent on the government we want to be -- and how dependent the current regime wants us to be! -- to manage more and more aspects of our lives.  It will be about how much of our thinking we want our government to do for us.

And an awful lot of folks who will be voting are meatballs who just can't or won't "shift for themselves," even if sometimes all that means is being smarter than their cars.

Stu Tarlowe's heroes, in addition to Jean Shepherd, include Barry Farber, Long John Nebel, G. Gordon Liddy, Meir Kahane, Col. Jeff Cooper, Aristide Bruant and Hunter S. Thompson.

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