A friend called me at home this week to give me an idea for a column.
"Did you see the piece in The Post a couple days ago about trucks and buses?" he asked.
I ran all the punch cards on trucks and buses through my 1-candlepower mental computer but drew a blank. "Refresh my memory," I suggested.
"It said that four out of 10 trucks and buses inspected by federal highway agents last year were ordered to get off the highway at once because of serious mechanical deficiencies related to safety," he said. "Imagine that! More than 44 percent of those big rigs were so bad they had to be ordered out of service in the middle of a run -- and Lord only knows how many others had less serious defects and were premitted to continue on to their destinations. Those big trucks are a menace to society."
"Yes, I saw the story," I said. "But I don't know of any comment I could make about truck safety that hasn't been made many times before."
"For heaven's sake, man," he said, "do you realize the danger to everybody on the highway when there's something as big as a truck or a bus running around out there with unsafe brakes?"
"Yes, I realize it," I said. "But the story just isn't new. It's been printed hundreds of times. And I'll tell you something else that isn't new: the highways are also full of private cars with serious defects, and nobody cares much about that, either. For instance, do you consider yourself a menace to society?"
"Me?" he asked incredulously. "What are you talking about?"
"Your headlights have been cockeyed for months," I said. "The left one shines right into the eyes of an oncoming driver. Instead of being pointed a little bit toward the right, it's tilted way over to the left."
"The hell it is," he said. But he said it in quiet wonderment, not irate denial.
"The hell it ain't," I said inelegantly. "When is the last you actually walked around your car to make sure that no bulbs were burned out? You have no idea of how beneficial that kind of walk can be to your health. When is the last time you turned on your lights at night and then walked up ahead a hundred feet to see what your headlights look like to other drivers? When is the last time you had somebody stand behind your car to see if your brake lights work the way they're supposed to?"
"Y'know," he said, "you're really a fanatic on the subject of highway safety."
"You're the one who started this by trying to get me to criticize the truckers," I pointed out. "I'm as angry about unsafe trucks as you are, but fair is fair. There are a lot more of us than there are truckers. I see private cars by the hundreds flying around the Beltway with their sides caved in, or maybe one fender and headlight mangled, or sometimes the front grillwork busted out, or a door tied on with rope. And I have to ask myself: Is that car really fit to be driven at that speed? Is the guy behind the wheel the one who was driving when the car smacked into something? Is he on his way to another accident? Who'll get hit this time -- me?"
"Well, anyway," my friend said, "I thought I'd give you a good idea for a column. If you don't want to write it, you don't have to."
I don't want to write it. It's a waste of time.
Everybody is in a big hurry to get somewhere right away so that his travel time won't but into his leisure time.
Who has time for safety? POSTSCRIPT
"Right on red" is really an abbreviation. The full phrase is supposed to be "right on red after stopping."
But almost anything passes for a stop these days. When a driver going 45 miles an hour in a 30-mile zone slows down to 10 before going through a "Stop" sign or turning right on red, he considers himself to be in substantial compliance with the law.
It does not occur to him that the law requires a full stop for the express purpose of giving that driver a few moments to evaluate the speed and direction of other vehicles -- and of pedestrians -- in the area. A "rolling stop" eliminates that precious interval between a driver's arrival at an intersection and his decision to accelerate into it.
The Army used to have (and perhaps still has) a wonderful definition of "stop" for its drivers.
A vehicle was stopped, the sergeant would explain, "only when its wheels had stopped turning and the weight of the 'Vee-hickle' had settle back on its rear axle.
A drive who resumed his forward motion before that happened became a prime candidate for a first-class chewing out.
In retrospect, this is quite preferable to becoming a prime candidate for sudden death.