TOM McCAHILL SAYS: “We Can Stop the Highway Slaughter!” (Nov, 1954)

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TOM McCAHILL SAYS: “We Can Stop the Highway Slaughter!”

MI’s famed automotive authority proposes a gutsy, double-barreled safety program which would make a lot of people mad—but also save a lot of lives.

SPEED, illegal speed, is the Number One cause of highway deaths, according to the majority of the high-tinkling brass in the safety business. To this I say, “Phooey.” Speed is a cause of highway deaths—but then, so is slow-driving. As I see it, there are four primary causes of our annual roadway slaughter: obsolete highways, Stone Age police practices, bad drivers and unsafe automobiles.

I don’t intend to waste much space talking about out-of-date, overcrowded highways that are real killers by themselves. A lot of people, from President Ike on down, have been working on that one. If everybody agrees with his proposal to spend 50 billion bucks and ten years of effort on the job, maybe we’ll have decent roads by the time your son Herman starts asking for the keys to the family crate. In the meantime, standard Federal highway laws would help somewhat to straighten out the 48-state confusion.

Today, in some cities, making a right turn on a red light is permitted (although this fact is not always posted) while across the border into the next state it’s possible to wind up in the clink for doing the same thing. Too many road signs cry “Wolf!” when there’s no wolf around. By warning of steep grades and dips that don’t exist, or a “Dangerous Crossing” that turns out to be a cowpath, they often cause drivers to be caught off base and unprepared when these conditions really do exist. Some sort of standard, nation-wide system of road markers and traffic regulations would help.

As for the Stone Age police practices I mentioned, we’re all familiar with the occasional crack-down drives against speeders, the get-tough vehicle inspections, the sneaky radar patrols and the drunks blowing into balloons. Sure, the police nail a few offenders and prevent a wreck or two with these stunts. But, because their thinking is largely out-of-date and unrealistic, the total effect is like trying to extinguish a raging forest fire with a glass of water. Take the matter of excessive speed, for instance.

Actually, one pinch-wary citizen doing 20 on a legal 50-mile-an-hour highway can cause more deaths than a truckload of hot rodders. The frustration Joe Slow builds up in the drivers behind him can and does cause sane men to take almost suicidal risks to pass after several miles of creeping along. Many states now have regulations against this type of slowpoking—but how many people do you know who have been arrested for driving too slow? I’ll bet you know plenty who have been pinched for speeding.

Another dangerous cause of accidents, too often ignored by speed-conscious cops, is overloading. A man who drives all week on business runs, with only himself in the car, rarely considers that when he adds three other guys to the load for a weekend fishing trip, he can’t pass cars with nearly as much room to spare as he did the day before. The extra weight of people or luggage may cut his pick-up speed in half.

Two of the worst traffic disasters ever recorded happened this year. One of the wrecks involved a small car packed with ten people. In the other smash-up, the death car was carrying twelve persons. If police had nabbed the drivers of those overloaded hearses before the accidents happened, they’d have accomplished a lot more good than they do by waiting for some guy to exceed the speed limit or jump a red light.

Poor highways and unrealistic policing are only two angles to the highway murder problem. Far more important, to my mind, are the two other major causes of traffic deaths: bad drivers and unsafe cars. In these two departments I have a double-barreled plan to offer which I am convinced could slash the death toll drastically. First let’s take the drivers.

In New York City it is possible to take your driving test in traffic near Sutton Place, a little-traveled road along the East River where you will never go faster than 25 miles an hour. If you make all the right-hand signals and don’t run over the inspector, you will most likely receive a driver’s license—a certificate which will permit you to travel the Penn Turnpike, where 70 mph is legal, and give you the right to drive in states where 100 mph is not frowned on too hard, such as the speedways near Detroit. That arm-waving test at eight miles an hour back in New York will do you a lot of good here if suddenly your car goes into a dry slide at 70 or better. You can end up awfully dead and still be within the legal speed limits—in fact, not violating any traffic law whatsoever.

The answer is obvious even to the dimmest wit. That license you get for arm-waving and for not running through a light should allow you to use the highways only within certin limitations. You shouldn’t be allowed on fast throughways during peak hours or ever allowed to drive as fast as someone holding a Senior License (for lack of a better name). In order to get a Senior License, the driver should be given a much more thorough examination on a Federal proving grounds and all inter-state licenses should be Federal, i.e. uniform.

The senior driver will have to prove that he can handle a car at high speed in an emergency situation prepared by the proving grounds examiners. He must demonstrate that he knows how to handle a skid or slide or even a high-speed blowout. He will be tested on wet pavement and ice conditions. He will be given an emotional stability test and a reaction-time test which will have to be repeated every other year. The test will be rough but only those who pass it should be allowed on the fast turnpikes and super roads. The Senior License driver will have a metal tag attached to his license plate to prove his right. If he goofs and gets caught driving as he shouldn’t, he is reduced to a Junior License driver until he passes a new test.

There is little difference between learning to drive well and flying. Today both are equally dangerous. Can you imagine the rhubarb that would result if you could get a pilot’s license with the same ease with which you can get a driving ticket in most states? If you could, roof insurance would go sky-high and your garden would be continually cluttered with dead bodies.

To put my licensing program over will take more political guts than I think we have in either party. But if we rated drivers like we do pilots, with only the experienced ones getting a commercial ticket, your chances of living longer would be a lot better.

And so we come to Part II of the McCahill Plan, the part involving unsafe cars. The cause of many accidents, and the most neglected, is the equipment naive owners are conned into buying. Regardless of what the ads say, all cars are not safe, and for a number of reasons. As most of you readers know, it is my job to test every make and model of car made in America and most of the popular imports. As I have been doing this for many years, I have seen the safety of some makes improve and in others I have seen it go down the drain. However, space being limited and I having no desire to spend the Christmas holidays fighting a trumped-up libel suit, I will just make the following statement:

There are a number of truly good, road-able automobiles made in America today. On the other hand, there are makes which, in my opinion, are real killers. Some of these actually scare hell out of me. In my time I have driven a few pretty miserable pieces of transportation. Oddly enough, it is possible (and I have one specific car in mind) to find two models of the same make that run the full gamut from safe to dangerous. One is a top-flight road car that can corner, hold the road and be kept under complete control under all circumstances. The other model, in this case more costly, is a real ax murderer.

I don’t believe there is a single designer or manufacturer today who enjoys building out-of-balance, dangerous vehicles. Why do they do it? As Harley Earl, vice-president in charge of General Motors styling, recently stated, American women are the principal influence in buying today’s automobiles. Most women are more concerned with luxury and comfort than they are with an automobile’s athletic prowess. All manufacturers know this and, in order to meet the competition from their fellow balloon builders, they have had to go overboard with mushy suspension, ridiculously low-pressured tires and out-of-balance chassis to get the rear passenger seats off the rear axles. Naturally, some cars have gone even further than others and, I am sorry to report, have proved to be very popular with the buyers.

Now, if some large foodstuff .manufacturer was silly enough to market a cereal that, let’s say, models I know of would undoubtedly fail. The models that pass would be given a Government Certificate of Approval. If, after the manufacturer’s model passed the test, he altered the suspension, steering or any other safety factor, his license to manufacture this particular model would immediately be lifted and the manufacturer would be subject to a huge fine. After the first year or two the requirements would be stricter so that within a short time every American car on the road would be much safer, under all conditions, than the finest cars we build today. This would offer a brand-new challenge to young engineers and any honest manufacturer should welcome such controls and be proud of his Government seal of approval.

In fairness to the manufacturers, the latest fad of blaming highway deaths on the so-called horsepower race is ridiculous. In many cases that extra horsepower is needed to get you safely around one of those railroad-car-long tractor-trailers on a two-lane highway (the world’s most dangerous type of road, in my opinion). In a pinch, a skilled driver will be a lot safer in a good car with 200 horsepower than he will in one with half that much moxie.

On the other hand, a little item like tire pressure can, under some conditions, mean the difference between living and dying. A car with 32 pounds of air often can be controlled in a semi-emergency situation where a car with factory-recommended pressure of 26 or 24 pounds will mush, plow and become completely unmanageable. Actually, a car with tires inflated to factory specifications— even the finest car we make today—could not get around my test course for safe roadability!

I have demonstrated this to some manufacturers on their own proving grounds by beating some of their latest and much more powerful equipment by simply putting more air in the tires of the earlier model I was driving. All company engineers know these facts but they have been cut short in their tracks for years by their own sales and advertising departments who, with a pat on the head, say, “Now, now, Junior, we know what sells automobiles—build them our way!”

My proposed Government Certificate of Approval should also be required for the manufacturer of component parts and accessories. The parts manufacturer, as well as the automobile producer, has a definite duty to the innocent buyer which has been neglected for some time. Many of these off-beat items can easily cause death to the unsuspecting motorist. One important example is out-of-round, or off-balanced tires. The number of untrue automobile tires sold to the consumers, and to automobile companies, would curl the hair of the most dyed-in-the-wool pessimist. Many of these tire faults can be corrected to some degree through wheel balancing—but the manufacturers never warn the buyer about this necessary check. In my opinion, if you were fortunate enough to buy a new car with five really round, thoroughly-balanced tires today, it would come pretty close to being a miracle. On my own Lincoln, when I went to have the spare tire balanced, the thoroughly honest wheel technician refused to do it. After testing it he said the tire itself was so far out of true that it would be impossible to get it anywhere near right without adding enough lead weights to sink a small rowboat.

Why is this tire stuff so important? When a tire is out of balance, the way my spare was, it develops a gyroscopic action whose intensity increases with speed. At 100 mph a real dog of a tire can almost tear the wheel off the axle, the eccentric action is so severe. At any speed above 60 the car with unbalanced wheels can become extremely uncontrollable and, in some cases, will actually develop a galloping tendency. If you have to brake hard, the offbeat wheel motion makes it almost impossible to hold the car on a straight line.

If shotgun shells sold on the open market frequently blew up good guns and hurt the shooters, Uncle Sam would step in and investigate. To my knowledge, no one checks automobile tires to make sure they are in round. That’s one of the items that would be checked at my Federal proving grounds. There are lots of others.

For example, inspectors would check the hypnotic effect caused by air conditioning and too many automatic accessories designed to make driving as effortless as possible. I have driven some of these fully-loaded cars on turnpikes where I really had to concentrate to keep from taking a little snooze. With a soothing air-conditioned temperature inside the car lulling my senses and almost eliminating outside road or engine noises, and with automatic steering requiring no effort to navigate the barge—what a spot for 30 winks!

A Government-operated track and proving ground, where every model of car manufactured in America would be subjected to the impartial scrutiny of experts, would save thousands of lives every year. Combined with a realistic, hard-boiled Federal licensing system for drivers, safer roads and a modern system of police regulations, it could certainly reduce the death rate by more than half. A few Teddy Roosevelt-type politicians with guts enough to act could put such a program into effect.—Tom McCahill

  1. DrewE says: September 28, 20128:36 am

    We appear to be missing a section of this article from page 206 (that belongs between the fourth and fifth pages).

  2. Charlie says: September 29, 20127:37 am

    Yeah, my bad. Sorry. Probably not going to go find the mag to scan it again.

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