An Assembly of Pieces

James Anderson Merritt's piecemeal thoughts and observations, and the occasional attempt to put some of the pieces together.
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All material except cited quotations Copyright (C) 2004-2008 by James Anderson Merritt. All rights reserved.
Sunday, March 28, 2004

I travel Silicon Valley's notorious Highway 17 between Santa Cruz and San Jose most weekdays and often on weekends. As the cost of living in Santa Cruz is high, and local jobs don't generally pay enough to support living where you work, thousands of Santa Cruzans join me on the daily commute, "over the hill," to the land of relatively more jobs and relatively higher pay.

Of course, when we say "over the hill," we actually mean the Santa Cruz mountains. Highway 17 is at once a curvaceous and dangerous mountain road, as well as a principal traffic corridor between an inland urban area, rich with jobs, and a coastal suburban area that includes bedroom communities for the workers, as well as world-class tourist attractions. The highway's dual nature is often a deadly combination, especially during periods of inclement weather, or the road maintenance that inevitably follows.

Not a week goes by when I do not see (or get caught in the traffic jam behind) some horrendous, grisly traffic accident. Enough people have complained, that Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties have responded by increasing California Highway Patrol presence on the road. This may sound good in the abstract, but I know I am not alone in wondering whether the primary purpose of the policy is keeping the roads safe, or enhancing revenue.

The CHP writes a great many tickets along Highway 17, very often letting egregious, dangerous speeders go by while they are writing up people who were moving at only a handful of MPH over the extremely conservative, posted speed limit. Even when they are just sitting by the side of the road, gently "reminding" motorists to drive safely and observe the speed limit, there is a counterproductive aspect to the effect they have: people play road games to "sting" others into speeding in front of a cop, or they decrease their speed rather abruptly when they spot the black-and-white, often surprising the cars behind, and disrupting the smooth flow of traffic. I have personally seen accidents or near-accidents that resulted from such situations. I know from decades of driving that maintaining a smooth, regular traffic flow is a lot more important to highway safety than making sure people scrupulously observe some arbitrary speed limit.

I have a modest suggestion: rather than post CHP cars up and down the road, let's put a smaller number of cars in traffic, where they can be on the lookout for hazards, motorists-in-distress, and the most egregious speeders. Along the side of the road, drag recent highway wrecks to sites of previous accidents, to put people face-to-face with the consequences of not driving safely. Drag newly-wrecked vehicles into place every few days, so that people don't get used to the same-old, same old. This might spoil some of the scenic beauty of the road (which, truth be told, can be quite beautiful), but it would be an honest -- and, I think, an effective -- way to keep people's minds on their driving without also engendering problems that attend CHP revenue-enhancement predation, or inspiring looky-loos to disrupt traffic as they try to get a good look at a real accident scene.


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