Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do



For a list of all the ways
technology has failed
to improve the quality of life,
please press 3.
TECHNOLOGY HAS moved ahead at a rapid pace. At the turn of the century, the consensus in the medical community was that the human body could not withstand traveling at the inconceivable rate of a mile a minute. Today, even though many of us travel daily at speeds once considered humanly impossible, the technology for devices to prevent these mile-a-minute missiles (automobiles) from being operated by incapable drivers is no further along than it was when the first carriage moved without a horse in 1885.
In that same year, 1885, mass communication consisted of newspapers, phonograph cylinders, and illustrated monthlies. Our view of the world came from paintings, etchings, and stereopticon slides. Communication took place by letter or the quaint old custom of visiting people and talking with them. In an emergency, one could send a telegram (by going to a Western Union office), and a handful of people had telephones. The business world gravitated around the ticker tape, and the carrier pigeon was still in use. That was about it.
Today we have radios, telephones, VCRs, computers, mobile telephones, fax machines, movies, televisions (with hundreds of cable channels), Walkmen, boomboxes, home stereos, car stereos, the Internet, as well as all the other communication devices of the earlier days. And yet, those who don't want to be exposed, or their children to be exposed, to certain material must rely on minor variations of the censorship practiced in Victorian times.

The ordinary
"horseless carriage"
is at present a luxury for the
wealthy; and although its price
will probably fall in the future,
it will never, of course, come
into as common use as the bicycle.
October 14, 1899
It's time technology better served the nonconsenting.
It's hard to imagine the kind of damage a 3,000-pound metal and glass object traveling a mile a minute can do. Hard, that is, until you see a traffic accident. Then we look and look away at the same time. We like to think that degree of devastation is a fluke of nature. (It's not.) We like to think it won't happen to us. (You have a two percent chance of dying in a traffic accident.) Most of these accidents are caused by a driver's not being capable of operating a motor vehicle at the time of the crash.
At the risk of stating the obvious, people who are not capable of operating a motor vehicle—for whatever reason—have no business operating it; not because they may harm themselves, but because there is a very good chance they may harm nonconsenting others. Of this country's 44,000 annual traffic deaths, 22,000 are alcohol related. Of the 22,000 that are not alcohol related, a good many happen because the drivers are too stoned (on drugs other than alcohol), emotionally upset, physically impaired, senile, exhausted, or in some way physically, mentally, or emotionally incapable of driving.
A simple device, installed in each car, could prevent the majority of deaths caused by these impairments.
Let's call this device, for lack of a better name, the "Tester." Imagine a panel on the dashboard with a numeric keypad, like those on touch-tone telephones. Above the keypad is a screen to display numbers and brief messages. There is also a slot, about the size of a credit card. The Tester works like this:
When you want to use the car, first insert your driver's license, which would act and look like a credit card. The Tester reads your driver's license as an automated teller machine reads your credit card, and then asks for your four-digit personal identification number (PIN), much as a teller machine would. Your PIN is known only to you, but is encoded in your license. After your four-digit personal identification number is successfully given, the screen displays seven random numbers—the number of digits in a phone number. You must then, within a certain period of time and with a certain degree of accuracy, enter those numbers on the keypad. Once you complete this procedure, which should take less than a minute, the car is ready to operate normally.

The last-ditch stand
against "accidents" will be the car.
After seat belts, after air bags,
after drunken driving and speed,
there will be changes in the car.
Chicago Tribune
That extra minute will keep a good many unlicensed and incapable drivers off the road.
Driving is not an inalienable right. We must meet certain standards of knowledge, ability, and competence before we receive a license to drive. A great many car accidents are caused by people whose licenses have been revoked or suspended, or people who don't have licenses at all. Without a license, people have no business—and certainly no right—to drive a car. If, potentially, they could only hurt themselves, they would have the right. (They can drive around on their own property, for example, all they want.) The potential for hurting innocent others, however, moves driving into the realm of licensing. Hang gliding, for example, should require no license. The chances of harming anyone but yourself are extremely slim. On the other hand, the chances of an incompetent person hurting someone with a car are very high.
The Tester assures that only licensed drivers are using automobiles. Your PIN means that your license can't be used if it's stolen. Because it's encoded in your driver's license, however, the PIN works in any car. Yes, sophisticated license thieves will have machinery to read PINs, but the average would-be license-and-car thief would find the lack of a PIN a sufficient deterrent.

The means by which we live
have outdistanced
the ends for which we live.
Our scientific power has outrun
our spiritual power.
We have guided missiles
and misguided men.
The Tester can be programmed so that each car will accept only certain licenses. This deters theft and keeps unauthorized family members from "accidentally" using the wrong car. Or, a car can accept any license except those specifically excluded (very handy in recent divorces).
After one has been authorized by the state (through licensing) and by the owner of the car (who has selected which licenses can and cannot operate the car), the randomly generated seven-digit number appears. If one cannot see, read, comprehend, or summon the hand-eye coordination necessary to enter seven randomly generated digits into a keypad within a certain period of time, that person has no right (based on his or her demonstrated lack of ability) to operate a motor vehicle.
If one fails to accurately enter the number, a new number is generated. If the second attempt is not successful, the person gets one more try, and a third randomly generated number appears. As with baseball, three strikes and you're out—at least for the inning. The Tester then displays the message, "TRY AGAIN IN 15 MINUTES," and then keeps track of the time ("TRY AGAIN IN 14 MINUTES," "TRY AGAIN IN 13 MINUTES," and so on). During this mandatory waiting period, one can chill out, warm up, breathe deeply, or do whatever one must do to meet the minimum mental and physical standards for operating an automobile. After a driver fails three consecutive tests (nine times in a row failing to enter a seven-digit number correctly), the Tester shuts the car down for two hours and suggests, "CALL A CAB." (The Tester would, however, allow a different license to be entered and the car to be driven by a competent driver.)
The Tester controls the link between the engine and the transmission. The car cannot be put in gear unless the Tester signals its okay. This allows you to start the car and use the heater, air conditioner, radio, tape player, telephone, or any car function other than moving it.

Traffic signals
in New York
are just rough guidelines.
There is, of course, an emergency button, which overrides the Tester entirely and allows one to start the car and drive it immediately. Pushing the emergency button, however, automatically activates the emergency flashers and beeps the horn once every two seconds. This alerts law enforcement officers that you need aid, and they will be happy to supply it. It also alerts other motorists on the road that you have an emergency and, perhaps, they might want to get out of your way.
As with all fail-safe devices, this one has built-in drawbacks, the primary one being that someone else can enter the code for an inebriated, stoned, or otherwise incompetent friend. Yes, this could be made illegal. But, again, the solution lies in education and creating the cultural belief that overriding the fail-safe system for another is neither an act of kindness, friendship, or love. In fact, it could be seen as an act of indifference and dismissal. A true friend would offer a ride, call a cab, or walk the person around the block a few times.
No, this system will not get every incompetent driver off the road.[*FN] It's designed to keep some of the most blatant offenders off the road. We must handle the problem of incompetent drivers at its source: not banning the alcohol or drugs that contribute to the incompetency, but stopping the problem at the point it becomes a problem—when an incapable driver gets behind a steering wheel.

[*FN] Accountants would probably have no trouble entering randomly generated numbers in their sleep, much less when drunk. But then, how often do accountants get drunk? "You don't want to see me drunk," one accountant said, "When I get drunk, all I do is talk about stock options."

What we are seeing is a sea change
in the way people view driving.
We are getting away from the word
"accident," which is sort of
a luck-fate-magic approach
and into the word "crashes,"
where people understand
what specific things they can do
to reduce their risk.
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
Just to show you how quickly technological changes can take place (an idea whose time has come and all that), in the original hardcover edition of Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do, in a chapter called "Fail-Safe Safety Devices," I proposed something called the Sensor, which would monitor television broadcasts and eliminate those aspects selected as objectionable by the viewer. This was in late 1993. Of all the people I talked to, only one of them had ever heard of such a thing. Most people thought it was a fine idea that had a snowball's chance in a sauna.
Less than three years later, however, the V-Chip is law, all signed, sealed, and legal-like. Astonishingly, it was the broadcasters (short-sighted little money grubbers) who put up the biggest stink. Yes, it may make a little more bureaucratic work to encode all those programs, but what broadcasters gain in exchange is freedom. Don't they remember how the multiple ratings system in the movies (rather than the Hayes Office "approved" or "not approved") gave freedom to the motion picture industry? Both Disney and Deep Throat thrived. Now the same can happen with broadcast television.
There's no reason the Tester shouldn't be installed at once in the cars of each person caught driving under the influence (at the guilty party's expense, of course), and mandated for all new cars within a year. (Cost per new car? Maybe ten bucks.) Traffic accidents and deaths should go down by 50%. And please keep in mind such a device is not to protect the incapacitated driver, but the rest of us.

There should be some schools
called deformatories
to which people are sent
if they are too good
to be practical.
The ideas behind these fail-safe devices are just an indication of what technology can do to make everyone physically safer—and free people from being exposed to some of the objectionable aspects of other people's freedom. The possibility for using technology—rather than unenforceable, unworkable, unjust laws—to regulate potentially harmful behavior is vast and largely untapped.


Peter McWilliams Home Page

Order the Book

Copyright 1996 Peter McWilliams & Prelude Press

Site Credits