Better Roads, Worse Drivers

A collection of opinion on motoring in the United States by RICHARD BENSTEDSMITH of London, editor of MOTOR, and KEN PURDY, a writer on automotive affairs.

DRIVING skill is really a matter of definition. To a European, driving skill starts with the ability to control the machine, having a fair idea of its limitations and operating it accordingly. We know that our British roads have been designed to produce an emergency about every twenty minutes, and on the whole we don’t mind. It helps to keep us awake. The American ideal of a skillful driver seems to us a sort of Pavlovian dog, conditioned to respond instantly to a few simple commands and to leave the rest to Providence. The good American citizen stays obediently in his lane, never makes a move without looking in his rearview mirror, and cruises along in close company with his fellowmen at the legal speed limit. When the first car in the line does something unexpected, the poor chap has only one trick in his repertoire. He stamps on his brakes, and the whole convoy goes bang-bang-bang like an early English freight train.

It might be more pertinent to ask whom we should blame. I have a number of suggestions. The first is the highway engineer, for equipping America with a network of roads generally about two categories better than their European equivalents. That is, your ordinary suburban high street is built to roughly the same standard as our rural main road, and your second-grade expressway has one or two lanes more than the most modern motorway in Britain. You have to have them, of course, because the cars are so big and so numerous, and it might be a little unfair to indict the engineer for doing what he had to. A far more dangerous accident catalyst is the busybody who comes along, notices that the engineer has had to include a bend now and then, and starts posting “recommended” speeds. Out in wildest Michigan i made a few experimental passes at some of these hazards and established that the posted speeds were all 20 to 25 mph slower than those that a European, driving normally in an American car, would expect to use. It wasn’t by any means a competitive or tiresquealing exercise: I simply drove as I should with the family on board.

Later I discovered that the American Association of State Highway Officials’ policy calls for road design and speed limits to allow a maximum sideways acceleration for centrifugal force) ranging from about .3g at 15 mph to .11g at 80 mph. Without getting too technical, you can put this in perspective by saying that .lg is roughly the gripping power of a pneumatic tire on ice. By implication the American motorist is judged incapable, at highway speeds, of deciding lor himself whether it is fine or snowing. A further criterion of the AASHO is “the point at which centrifugal force causes the driver to recognize a feeling of discomfort and instinctively act — barring recklessness-to avoid higher speed,” and it defines the limiting sideways acceleration for this condition as .21 g up to 20 mph, . 18g for speeds of 25 and 30 mph, and .15g above 35 mph.

General Motors, to whom I’m indebted for pointing this out in its spirited defense of the Corvair before the highway committee of the Michigan state senate, also claims: “Our experience is that in the emergency situation few motorists have the capacity to control any car on public roads at much in excess of . 13g at 30 mph and .2g at 60 mph,” which is a sobering thought for us wild ones over here. To make sure I wasn’t cheating, I recently put a g-meter on my car and drove home through the usual rural English roads to see what would happen. Making allow - ance for some complicating factors, I found that up to 60 mph the discomfort limit was about .5g.

All this leads me back to the conclusion that the American motorist has become oversheltered, both by the road system and by the car itself. Because he (and more especially she) has asked for feather-light controls, the industry has provided them, which is a bad thing for two reasons. Extreme lightness not only is dangerous in itself (as when sudden stopping throws the driver’s foot more heavily onto the brake pedal and brings a shower of tissue boxes off the rear parcel shelf), but is usually incompatible with sensitive control — and sensitivity is what you need to cope with an emergency.

Of course the engineers are well aware of this, but of course the engineers in Detroit are bossed by the market researchers and the product planners who know what the public wants, and the public doesn’t want what it doesn’t know about. More important, the people who are making the biggest noise about safety are cotton-wool motorists like anybody else, and the idea of integrating the driver with a part of the engineering in his automobile simply hasn’t occurred to them. They might do well to read the first report on the New York Safety Car Program, which has a firm grasp of human engineering needs; “The ability of any given driver to handle his vehicle safely is not only determined by its handling characteristics per se, but perhaps to an equal degree by the information feedback to the driver. Drivers, in general, do respond to information feedback.”

The revolutionary nature of this observation becomes evident if you ask an American driver what information feedback (or, in motoring jargon, “feel”) he expects to get out of his car. It is so long since he was allowed steering which would tell him when the road was slippery, or for that matter, even if the wheels were pointing straight ahead, that he doesn’t know what you are talking about. The brake pedal is a thing on which he leans gently to slow down, or which he occasionally jabs in a panic to lock up his wheels and produce the freight-train effect. Rubber screeching on macadam is a normal accompaniment to the sounds of an American city because progressive braking has given way to a kind of stop-and-go system which makes no demand on the skill of the driver.

To an outsider it is hardly surprising that the result is an automated man with no built-in provision for emergencies. Indignant automats will reply that the death rate on American roads is a good deal less horrifying than it is in Europe — which is true but irrelevant, because

we lack America’s divided, pedestrian-free highways and have a much higher proportion of pedestrian casualties. Britain in particular, with a soaring vehicle and driver population which has already produced congestion greater than that in any other country on earth, is just embarking on the dangerous experiment of rigidly disciplined driving on the American pattern without the advantage of American roads. If our industry, too, should follow suit, I fear the consequences of a triumph of matter over mind.

Richard Bensted-Smith

THERE are two kinds of motorists, all the world over. One sort thinks of the automobile as an everyday convenience, on equal footing with the refrigerator, the TV set, the heating plant in his house. The other thinks of it as an instrument of sport, as something designed not primarily for transport but as a source of pleasure. He is a profound reactionary, his face set like flint against the future. Most Americans live in the first category, many Englishmen in the second. A small and vocal band on both sides of the water share the enthusiast’s ideal: the beautiful automobile, fast, controllable in the highest degree, and running over the road without let or hindrance. These people feel that they live in tragic times. They see the designers turning out motorcars of incredible speeds, over-the-road cars that will do 150 to 200 miles an hour, automobiles sturdy, sophisticated, comfortable to a degree unimagined even two decades ago, and at the same time they see society imposing ever more stringent conditions on their use. The list of cars which insurance companies arbitrarily decline to cover grows; speed limits are lowered and ferociously enforced. In England traffic density has reached sixty vehicles to the mile and is rising. This can end in only one way, in society’s insistence on cancellation of the individual’s control of the vehicle, which is to say, in automated transportation.

Automation is probably closer than we think. Already a working commuter system has been demonstrated. It uses identical threepassenger vehicles. The commuter rolls his car out of the garage, drives it to the station, sets it on a slotted ramp, exactly as a toy racing car is set on its track, and relinquishes control. The vehicle is automatically run into the traffic stream, and the driver can go to sleep, read his newspaper, or play cards. When the vehicle reaches its programmed destination, it will be switched out of the traffic stream onto another ramp, with control given back to the driver, who will pilot it to his office, where it will be parked automatically. All very efficient, probably nearly accident-proof, comfortable, convenient

— and deplorable to those who will see it as the final crushing of one of man’s basic liberties, the right to individual freedom of movement.

The golden age of the motorcar may have run from the middle 1920s to the Hitler war, when the great carriages of legendary name — Bentley, Hispano-Suiza, Bugatti, Voisin, Isotta-Fraschini, and so many others

— ran over roads almost deserted by the standards we accept today. In those far-off times, individualism counted. Even the automobiles, cheap or costly, differed profoundly one from another. The driver was the captain of his ship, and he went as he pleased. If he wished to go fast, he could; he could run from Calais to Nice in a day without, as the phrase went, turning on his headlights. Over-the-road motoring really was a sport, a recreation, and a delight. It is no longer, and it will never be again.

In the use of the automobile, in its integration into the fabric of the economy, the United States indisputably leads the world, and therefore in the trend of things here we can see the pattern of the future. In the pattern of the future, individual license in the management of the motorcar will count for nothing or next to nothing. Some bitter rearguard actions are being fought against this inevitability, but they are doomed. Hear H. D. Bos, in the correspondence columns of the British magazine Autocar: “Most, if not all, of us would feel shame after conviction for drunken driving, dangerous driving, crossing on the ‘red,’ or any other form of dangerous behavior. Like most others, if not all, I feel no shame over speeding convictions, only annoyance. . . .” One can sympathize with Mr. Bos, but still he is well off. In Connecticut, where I live now, a speeding conviction brings loss of license for thirty days. If Mr. Bos lives long enough, he will find himself under the weight of similar restriction.

In Great Britain, until very recently, there was no speed limit on the open road. I have driven past police cars on British motorways at 125 miles an hour without arousing a flicker of interest. Now there is an overall 70 mph limit. When it was laid down, the British motoring press set out against it a campaign of remarkable ferocity and subjectivity. Four arguments were cited: (1) If traffic, were forced to move at a uniform rate, a plague of the dreaded American-style “crocodile” accidents would ensue; (2) The limit would be unenforceable because British motorists, to a man, would break it; (3) It would destroy the British highperformance car industry; (4) Speed is safety — that is, a high power-toweight ratio, giving, for example, great passing power, enables one to drive out of trouble.

These arguments had zero effect on the Ministry of Transport, perhaps because they are all invalid. The plague of crocodile accidents did not materialize. (For some reason, British motorists believe that the multiple tail-end collision is a standard feature of American life.) Public opinion polls showed that a majority of British motorists did not wish to drive at speeds over 60 miles an hour. The British high-performance industry continued to flourish. A short time after the limit went on, David Brown, head of the Aston Martin company, told me that he had no order cancellations, expected none, believed that he would increase his exports to the United States by 30 percent in 1966, and intended to press on with his plans for a 200 mph road car. And of course the “Speed is safety” argument had no bearing in the premises, since it is applicable only to a tiny minority of specially skilled drivers: professionals, semiprofessionals, dedicated amateurs, and the graduates of the British High Performance School, who are certified as being competent to drive at, say, 100 miles an hour in traffic. And even this is arguable. The most skilled drivers we know are certainly the grand prix champions of the world, and of this superselect company of experts, produced at the rate of only one a year, two have been killed at the wheel in the last decade in ordinary road accidents.

No one prominent in the British motoring press — a much weightier institution than our own — is in my view more competent or better informed than Richard Bensted-Smith. He is right when he says that the American motorist is sheltered by the road system and by the car. And the future will bring him more shelter, and less skill. Regulation, and particularly, lower speed limits, must inevitably lessen skill. Skill of a high order cannot be developed, or even demonstrated, except at high speeds. The future will bring more shelter to the British motorist, too, and less skill, although he will fight harder against it. (The enthusiast segment of British motoring fought the automatic transmission bitterly, and it is only now, two decades after it became standard in the United States, coming to acceptance in the U.K.; much of the British motoring community is still furious because manufacturers no longer furnish a hand crank as standard equipment.)

Bensted-Smith considers the 70 mph limit a dangerous experiment because he is afraid it will produce American-type automobiles, overpowered because 0 to 60 acceleration offers their drivers the only opportunity for speed pleasure; underbraked because American driving conditions rarely call for three successive hard stops from high speed; less road-worthy because travel over carefully graded and curved superhighways emphasizes comfort, and comfort drives out controllability, other things being equal.

I don’t think the British 70 mph limit is either dangerous or an experiment. It is an inevitable reflection of the concern society shows when traffic reaches a certain density. It is another step on the path to tomorrow, a step toward the intermediate stage between highway travel today and the automation of the future, a stage that will see automobiles very much alike in size and performance capability traveling under rigid speed and interval supervision over featureless highways. Automatic throttle controls of the kind now increasingly common on American cars will certainly be used, and a sensing device to maintain safe space between cars would appear inevitable as well.

Will this kind of driving be a pleasure? For those who have known nothing else, yes. And even for those who have — crawling about in today’s anarchistic traffic is no delight. Those who remember real motoring, and not only yesterday’s motoring, but the kind one can have today in South America and in many parts of Europe, will think it horrible. Even now, driving in the United States compared with driving on the Continent or even in England, 70 mph limit or not, is boring in the extreme, frustrating, and annoying. But safer it certainly is, because while it’s true that most accidents occur at under 45 miles an hour, it is also true that the higher the speed the worse the accident, and that the safest speed is the speed of the traffic. Those points cannot be argued.

Finally, one must dispute BenstedSmith’s implication that the present generation of British drivers is skilled out of all comparison with the American. This simply isn’t true. One sees shockingly bad driving, and very good driving, on both sides of the Atlantic. I think it is true that a higher percentage of British

drivers are adept in the esoteric, dying refinements of the art — “heeland-toe” downshifting with that Stone Age device the manual transmission, ability to manage an understeer skid, and so on — but the level of good judgment in emergency, the primary factor, is no better than in the States. Two of the best road drivers who ever lived are Pat Moss of England, Stirling Moss’s sister, and her husband, Erik Carlsson. Pat Moss has repeatedly been woman champion of Europe, and Carlsson is one of the legendary figures in the tremendously demanding field of high-speed international rally driving. The Carlssons, who drive 20,000 or 30,000 miles professionally every year, think the Belgians the worst in the world, with the Greeks, the Swiss, the Danes, and the British next. Ken Purdy