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Outsider

Just another day on the I

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A couple of weeks ago, driving back from Denver late one night, I found myself in the middle of a typical Colorado April snowstorm. Wind-driven flurries dropped visibility to 100 yards or so and the lane markers were quickly obscured.

I crept along at 40 in the right lane with my fellow sissies, while big honkin' semis and lordly SUVs swept by at 70 -- no way was a little snow gonna slow 'em down! A few minutes later, traffic slowed, then stopped. The snow increased, the road disappeared. We sat for nearly an hour.

When we finally got going, we crept along at 25 or so, stopping frequently. Cars were off the road, and it seemed that one of those lordly semis, losing traction on a hill south of Castle Rock, had jackknifed, blocking both southbound lanes for an hour or so. No one was hurt, but the trip from Denver took close to four hours. Just another day on the I.

We were lucky. All we had to endure was a few hours of inconvenience. Things might have been very different, as they are for so many of us every day on the nation's highways. I thought of Pam Hartman and Jeanne Kerechanin, the two wonderful women who had lost their lives two weeks earlier in Nebraska, or of the five people who had died in a horrific crash on 115 south of Colorado Springs.

Suppose our country's air transportation system resembled its surface transportation system. What would it look like? For starters, there'd be millions of planes aloft at any time, regardless of weather. Enormous cargo planes would share uncontrolled air space with tiny private planes. Aircraft would take off and land randomly, separated by a few yards. Pilots would receive little training, and many of them would be incompetent, distracted, talking on cell phones, drunk, stoned or older than 80. Each month, a couple of thousand people would die in crashes, and tens of thousands would be injured. What would we do?

You know the answer: We wouldn't stand for it. We'd shut it down and make drastic changes until we had the system we have now, one which is as close to absolutely safe as human ingenuity can make it, one which transports hundreds of millions of passengers annually with only a handful of fatal accidents.

So why don't we do anything about our surface transportation system? Part of it is necessity. Absent the automobile, we'd face economic collapse in a week or two. And part of it is history; horses were slow, troublesome and not all that safe; take city founder General Palmer, for example, who was partially paralyzed when thrown from his horse a century ago. Cars -- still dangerous, but fast and less troublesome -- were Progress with a capital P.

But most of it is simply because we choose not to think about it. Highway fatalities happen in ones and twos, and they happen all the time, in every state, in every city. It's just not news. So if we think about it at all, we accept it as an inevitable consequence of a quick, efficient and relatively cheap transportation network.

It doesn't occur to us that, if we have the technology to enable a racecar driver to walk away unscathed from a 200 mph crash, we ought to make cars that would protect their occupants at 60 mph. Instead, we spend billions on highways, set the speed limit at 75, and send tandem semis, SUVs, mini-cars, teenagers in 20-year-old junkers, motorcycles, and Grandpa in his '78 bulgemobile roarin' down the road in a toxic, frequently fatal mix. And what are we going to do about it? Nothing, because we're all gamblers at heart.

When you go up to Cripple Creek and play the slots, you don't expect to lose -- that's for the other guy. And when you get in your car and take off for Denver, you don't expect to die -- that's for someone else, not you. And especially not if you're behind the wheel of a big ol' SUV. Besides, a safe transportation system would be no fun at all -- no Mustang convertibles, no Ferraris and Porsches, no movies with cool car chases ... so disgustingly grown up!

So why think about it? Summer's almost here -- maybe I could trade in the Nissan for a speedy little red Boxster ...

-- johnhazlehurst@earthlink.net

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