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By Jack Ganssle

Yea for Big Brother?

Published 9/14/2003

Gallagher, the comic (http://gallaghersmash.com/) famous for smashing pumpkins on stage, once offered a solution to traffic scofflaws. He suggested that drivers should carry suction cup dart guns tipped with a "Stupid" sticker. See someone making a dumb move? Pop one off at the vehicle. If the cop sees a car peppered with "Stupid" darts he gives the driver a ticket for being an idiot.

It's an interesting idea. Today police enforcement of traffic laws is capricious and utterly ineffective. The roads are filled with maniacs daily flirting with suicide to shave a few seconds off their commute. The appearance of a police car barely slows traffic till the cop speeds off. The system as it is teaches drivers strategies to avoid being caught, not to drive more safely.

But never fear, an embedded system is nearly at hand to save us from our own dysfunctional behavior. www.timesonline.co.uk (registration required but reprinted at http://www.safespeed.org.uk/evi.html) indicates that UK officials plan to equip roads and cars with microprocessor-based systems that monitor certain aspects of driving. Somehow the box will know the road's speed limit and will report violations automatically. Stray over the yellow line and you'll find a citation in the mail.

I watched traffic in Columbia, MD when local authorities installed dozens of red light cameras. It sure appears to me that many fewer folks there now push the yellow. They're still maniacs, lead-footedly zooming to the next light, then jumping on the brakes to obey the red. A gentler approach might be safer, would surely save gas, and might even be faster.

The Washington Post (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A45233-2003Sep8.html) claims red light cameras reduce both accidents and traffic violations.

Some innate quality in human nature drives us toward dangerous highway behavior. During an all-night ride-along with a local police officer I asked if he obeys the speed limit when headed home at the end of his shift. "Of course not," he answered, "but no cop will give another a ticket." What is it, what facet of human nature, leads so many of us to act so wildly when behind the wheel?

Many drivers feel they are safe at most any speed and a system that automatically tags them for creeping over the limit does nothing to improve highway safety. Let's suppose, though, that we can build an embedded app that truly identifies dangerous behavior - tailgating, wild lane changes, or whatever. Suppose further it's deployed everywhere. Drive dangerously and you get nabbed. Though rather Orwellian, is it reasonable?

We already have systems that snare shoplifters. No one complains about them, though when the guard at Best Buy examines my shopping bag and receipt I feel like a petty thief.

My son acquired his driver's license a few weeks ago. It's awfully tempting to instrument the car to monitor his use of this new and scary privilege. I haven't - reluctantly - because there's certain trusts one must maintain between parents and kids. But an ubiquitous system removes that issue.

There's little doubt in my mind that police forces will tend to increase electronic surveillance of the highways. Perhaps the proper approach is to not issue citations; rather, send the violations to the drivers' insurance companies, which can increase premiums for those who run the biggest risks. Want to drive like a maniac? Fine, just expect astronomical insurance costs.

Recently a 19 year old complained bitterly about his latest speeding ticket. I told him that I'd found a cool trick that kept the cops off my tail, one that worked every time. He leaned forward, eyes bright, eagerly awaiting this way to foil the fuzz.

My trick? Don't speed.