Transportation system taking some risky turns
By John M. Crisp
It's always interesting when three apparently unrelated news stories materialize coincidentally and provoke a serendipitous question such as, in this case: Aren't we driving (literally) very rapidly in the wrong direction?
First, consider the massive chain-reaction wreck on I-75 near Gainesville, Fla., last week. The word "horrific" is probably overused these days, but it seems to fit this calamity. The wreck began when fog and smoke enveloped the interstate around 3:45 a.m. A stream of vehicles began to collide, one after another. At least six of them were tractor-trailer rigs. Some of the vehicles caught fire. Eleven people were killed and more than 20 were injured.
Second, during the same week, the state of Texas raised the speed limit on 1,500 miles of highway to 75 mph. The same law that authorized the higher limit also eliminated the nighttime differential, which was typically five mph lower than the daytime speed limit.
Texas already has more than 520 miles of road with an 80-mph limit. Last spring the Texas House passed a bill that would have permitted 85 mph on certain specially constructed highways. You still can't legally drive 85 in Texas, but the trend is unmistakable.
Finally, in other transportation news, last week House Republicans proposed a $260 billion transportation bill that would govern spending on the nation's highways for the next 4 1/2 years. Among other provisions, the bill would consolidate existing transportation programs and make it easier for road construction projects to comply with federal environmental requirements, presumably weakening them.
But the eye-catcher is a provision that increases the maximum legal weight for trucks on interstate highways to 97,000 pounds and, in some cases, as much as 126,000 pounds.
Currently in most states the maximum truck weight is 80,000 pounds, or the weight of about 20 cars. It would take 32 cars to equal the weight of a 126,000-pound 18-wheeled giant.
As it turns out, this 800-page proposal doesn't appear to have much chance of becoming law, and some critics have said that its provisions ― more drilling, less money for Amtrak, weakened environmental regulation ― are a cynical sop to the GOP right wing.
And likely they are. Nevertheless, all of the proposals are still on this side of the border with the inconceivable, supporting the distinct possibility that our future holds higher truck weights, higher speed limits (and average speeds), and a higher rate of death on the highway.
Unfortunately, the transportation horse has been out of the barn for a long time in our nation, but it's intriguing to contemplate the different choices that we might have made. The nature of our country is that commodities, products and people have to be moved from one place to another. That process has always involved risk and, given our reliance on internal combustion engines for these purposes, it also involves environmental damage and eventual shortages of a finite resource.
We could, of course, devise and construct a system that would be safer, faster, cleaner, more comfortable and more efficient. It would sacrifice some of the freedom and convenience of the personal vehicle, but it would also allow us to redirect to more productive and enjoyable uses the billions of hours that we spend each year driving.
Such a system could also eliminate a lot of the factors that make getting from place to another more dangerous than it needs to be: drivers who are drunk, sleepy, distracted or just plain incompetent; vehicles that are poorly maintained; excessive speed; and the gross mismatch between private vehicles and massive trucks many times their size.
I'm talking, of course, about high-speed rail, an infamous nonstarter in our country and the object of considerable disapproval and scorn.
So the prospects for HSR aren't good. That's too bad: During the same week in which 11 people died in a bad wreck in Florida, another 700 Americans were killed in traffic elsewhere.
John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. He is a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service (www.scrippsnews.com). E-mail him at email@example.com.