To Blame or Not to Blame Automobiles


S.Q. Lapius wanted me to teach him how to drive a motorcycle.  It was a reasonable request, energy crisis and all that, but what made it a dubious venture was that I had great difficulty once trying to teach him how to balance himself on a bicycle.  As a matter of fact his command of the automobile left much to be desired, and I had always assumed that he had gotten his driver’s license by way of some sort of grandfather’s clause pertaining to horse and buggy, because I doubted that he could pass a driver’s test.


“That’s just the point, Harry,” Lapius said, countering my unspoken arguments.  “My apparent “erraticism” as a driver is really due to the fact that the American car is an erratic animal.”


“Come come, Simon.  You aren’t going to blame an unbroken string of traffic tickets, minor accidents and near calamities on the automobile.  Surely you must accept some of the blame.”


“Surely I will.  I accept blame for having bought the car in the first place.  But beyond that, the fault is all mechanical.”


I admired his intrepid denial of complicity.  “You know what they say, Simon, it’s not the nut on the wheel that caused the accidents, but the nut behind the wheel.”


It had been a bantering conversation to that point, but apparently I touched a nerve.


“Nut behind the wheel indeed,” he exclaimed.  “There are 50,000 deaths and 500,000 injuries annu­ally on American highways.  This, despite magnificent four lane turnpikes with median barriers and plenty of room for passing.  But as soon as a road is engineered large enough to permit two cars to pass safely, Detroit builds a wider car.  Americans didn’t start to buy foreign cars because they were cheaper.  That was a factor, of course, but they actually were more roadable, as a result, safer.  Recently in Europe I had occasion to drive a foreign car over winding mountain roads.  The compact auto, with positive steering and a feel for the road took me through safely, despite the unfamiliar and treacherous terrain.  A behemoth of an American car on the same roads would have been suicide to drive.  Let’s look at some of the facts.  First, the steering.  The average American car, for reasons that defy comprehension, has too much play in the steering wheel before the front wheels begin to turn.  You have to guess your way into a curve, jiggling the wheel to find the exact degree of rotation.  The rack and pinion steering of foreign cars turns the wheels into a direct ratio to the steering wheel.  This is a help.


“Secondly, the American car is softly sprung.  The manufacturers cater to the soft ride.  They brag that you can’t feel the bumps.  Well you can’t feel the road either.  You are riding an animal that has faster reflexes than you have, which has the power to purr up to a hundred miles per hour, and the driver has no idea how fast he is really going unless he peeks at the speedometer, which is usually hidden by one of the spokes of the steering wheel.  In a foreign car you can gauge your speed by the feel of the road.


“In addition, the American car tends to wander.  You can’t take your eyes off the road for a moment.  Otherwise you may find yourself brushing the fellow in the next lane.  Drive a European car and you will see the difference.  The car maintains its courses.  Furthermore, because of the soft springing, the body of the American car leans away from the chassis on turns.  This tends to pull the weight of the car to the outside wheels and threatens to overturn it.


“Only in the last year or two have disk brakes become standard on some of our cars, while they have been installed on European cars for years.  No, Harry, you can’t convince me that it is the nut behind the wheel.  It is the nut behind the drawing board that is to blame.”


“Consider, if you will, your posture in an American car.  Forget that.  Consider trying to get into an American car.  It requires training in Yoga.  And once inside you are only one step away from the lotus position.”


Lapius was just getting up a full head of steam.  “After all, Harry, I am not a tall man by American standards, yet I can’t find a domestic auto in which I can sit without my head rubbing against the roof.  As a matter of fact I was developing cradle-cap, which is why I first switched to foreign cars.  Even in the Volkswagen I can sit upright.”


“Boy, you sure are turned on to this subject, Simon,” I said trying to placate him.


“I sure am.  We both see the accident cases coming in to the emergency room.  Half a million people crippled each year, many maimed for life.  I claim it is because of inadequate brakes, the inaccurate steering, the momentum of a poorly sprung body, the excessive power all of which add up to poor readability.  These figures must be reduced.  Do you realize that in too many cases the lucky victims of auto accidents are the dead.  If we could reduce the number of accidents we would go a long way towards relieving the pressure on our emergency rooms, hospitals, convalescent centers.  And one way would be to build safer cars, engineered more sanely than they are today.”


“And you are gong to improve this all by learning to drive a motorcycle?”  I asked innocently.


“Harry, you’ll see.  I’ll let you be my first passenger as soon as I master the device.”


“You know, Simon, for the first time I am glad we are running out of gas.”