Sunday, December 11, 2005

How Automatic Transmissions Make My Commute Worse

Random10 remarked during last year's Daytona 500 that Traffic Is Wonderful. He shows just how highly developed we are as a species through our ability to maneuver through traffic. My take on this is that the ability to catch a ball, round off a number or drive a car shows how finely tuned the nervous system is. Eye-hand coordination manifests in video games, traffic jams and major league baseball.

Random10's point is well taken, though, when he talks about the wonders of traffic and how seldom the system breaks down. The evolution of the automobile has made this much simpler. "It's not your father's Oldsmobile," is absolutely true. Power steering and brakes, ABS, traction control, electric starters and defrosters, and climate control all act to make driving more accesible and easier for everyone. It's not a big secret that some of us might not be driving if we still had to crank our cars. Automatic transmissions have opened the highways to even more folks in the same way that Windows made the computer mainstream.

The comparison from the Daytona 500 to the Friday night Beltline is apt. Matt Kenseth's car has made this same evolution. Curtis Turner would hardly recognize today's tube-frame, five-point-harness, roof-flapped and restrictor-plated monsters. Therein lies the rub for me.

Today, Mary Jane or Bob can get behind the wheel of one of the best engineered products in all of human imagination and set off for points unknown while eating a Steak McBagel and listening to the radio and checking the PowerPoint for this morning's meeting. Last Thursday morning in the slush and slobber left over from Wednesday night I met a minivan on the two lane. I could see her coming around the curve, throwing slush that indicated she was rolling a little fast for the conditions, the back end of her Voyager doing a schottische and all the while she was laughing on her cell phone.

My rant has long been that people don't focus on driving because it has become too easy for them. They are woooed by commercials that show cars that drive themselves through any weather and bring the family home safe. Drivers abdicate responsibility to machines and machines are, for the most part, forgiving. Now you can order a rear-view camera so that you don't have to get out to look behind the SUV.

Drivers should know their limits. Bob knows he could never drive a golf ball with John Daly. Mary Jane knows she couldn't stand on the baseline with Serena Williams. Put them behind the wheel, however, and they both become Dale Earnhardt. Skill unacknowledged, talent ignored, practice and attention eschewed, a gift pissed away, we blythely cruise through traffic unaware of the miracle that we are and the responsibility we share.

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