Sunday, August 8, 2010

A Question of Balance

Something tragic happened on Interstate 81 in Virginia, south of mile marker 272 on this past Tuesday. It must have been some kind of road accident, because it put me in the worst traffic jam of my life. I went 4 miles in 2½ hours. In that time I managed to get up to an exit, so I took off for US Highway 11, which parallels the interstate. There I found another 4 miles of traffic at nearly a dead stop. (And there, too, I was passed by a tow-truck dragging the burned-out hulk of an RV and trailer, which I assume had something to do with the traffic snarl.)

Then, Thursday, on Loop 610 in Houston, during the morning rush hour, there was an accident on the southbound bridge over Richmond Avenue. I was heading north, so I wasn't stuck in that traffic jam, but I got a good look at it: two vehicles, blocking two of the five lanes of traffic; three fire engines and four police cars blocking the other three lanes; traffic squeezing by on the shoulder; and behind all that, a sea of cars stretching back for miles, far beyond my exit.

I tend to see all change as the motion of a pendulum --- a clichéed image, I know, but an apt one. Things creep along, getting worse and worse for somebody, some group of people, and then they've had enough and take it upon themselves to make some noise, and --- another cliché here --- they become the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. 

In this case, the group of people who Had Enough were those who, since 9/11, we have taken to calling "first responders": policemen and firemen. Up until, oh, the late 1970s, road accidents were largely viewed officially  as problems because of the traffic jams they create. Before that, the role of police and fire-department personnel was to first see to any injuries, and then to get the vehicles out of the way so traffic could flow again. On very rare occasions, there would be a flare-up. Often, there would be some undesirable substance left on the roadway --- oil, or transmission fluid, or antifreeze --- and very rarely, some more exotic substance being transported in a damaged container.

Getting traffic moving was an important function, and not completely unattended by risk. Those chemicals on the road ... they could be anything. They might get on the cop's skin and cause his hand to rot off. The damaged cars might explode, showering everybody with shrapnel. All kinds of things might happen, and of course on occasion all kinds of things did. And every now and then, some passing car would take out a cop or firefighter; as the comic says, "you can't fix stupid." 

The "first responders" began to see their duty in terms of the danger occasioned for them, instead of in terms of the service required of them. 

I used to be a Revenue Officer, the mean, heartless IRS guy who comes and throws people out of their houses, takes their cars and paychecks and furniture or whatever. It's apparently pretty easy to upset people when you do that, and although I never had any serious problem doing it myself, I often heard about colleagues who were shot at, or harassed, or threatened. I often felt like that was a justified response to the characteristic arrogance, insensitivity or crudeness of the individual Revenue Officer. The way I was taught the job was, "It don't cost you nothin' to be polite when you takin' somebody's car." That's literally true, though not always easy, but my point is not there. My point is that this rarely-occasioned and somewhat self-inflicted danger was adopted by the national employees' union as justification for various changes in policy. Their particular desire was to make the Revenue Officer position out to be so dangerous that it warranted hazardous-duty pay differentials and preferential retirement treatment. It isn't that dangerous, so they didn't get those things; all they got were some changes in training policy and, in the end, some diminution in the range of the Revenue Officer's individual discretion.

The police and fire-department employees have national unions, too: professional associations and actual unions. And there are enough "first responders" doing enough potentially dangerous things to get the attention of trial lawyers. Together, they raised enough of a ruckus that more official attention was paid to the safety of these "first responders" in road-accident situations. 

Now, when there's a road accident, roads are routinely closed down completely. No one responding to the scene takes any interest in getting traffic going again until every last spot of spilled chemical, every last shard of broken glass, every last shred of personal belongings is washed away or swept up or swept away from the scene. Environmental activists got interested in all those chemicals being washed into the roadbed, and so now, before they wash off the road, firemen have to know exactly what chemical they're dealing with, and maybe they have to have special equipment come out to suck it up.

Meanwhile, here we are, the general public, who have no advocates for our interests except at election time (and then, only theoretically), stuck in traffic. A rough calculation of the delay I encountered in Virginia tells me that about ten thousand vehicles were affected; that's at least ten thousand people, probably more like fifteen thousand, and who knows how many millions of dollars worth of cargo delayed. (In my own case, the result of that slowdown was stress, and another night in a motel.) I would bet the accident in Houston affected many more people than that. This kind of casual delay has become the norm in road-accident response.

Much as I admire the bravery of our "first responders," that bravery doesn't make them immune from criticism. And much as I acknowledge the need for their safety in doing their job, that is not the only consideration at work here. My complaint is not that traffic backs up; it is that traffic is allowed to back up so much and so needlessly. My complaint is not that roads are closed, it is that they are closed so often and for so long. My complaint is not that attention is paid to the dangers inherent in road-accident response, it is that too little attention is paid to the injuries caused to the rest of us. 

It's a matter of balancing interests. For now, the pendulum has swung too far, and the diffused interests of the general public are being too much ignored. Drivers need to become squeaky wheels.

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