Friday, May 9, 2008

99 bottles of beer in the car …

Faced with an uncomfortable choice this year, the Tennessee General Assembly once again demonstrated its inimitable ability to crawfish.

A bill that would ban open containers of alcoholic beverages in vehicles has once again been introduced, and once again died. I guess the legislators were afraid to tamper with the God-given right of bored passengers to suck on roadies. (These are the same folks who also defeated schemes to require that dogs riding in the back of pickups be secured instead of making them play the tail-end on snap-the-whip turns.)

For the past 18 years, Tennessee law has prohibited drivers from having an open container of an adult beverage, but not passengers. Hence the nickname for the dead bill: “The Pass the Bottle Act.”

Failure to pass the act means that some $12 million in federal highway funds that would have gone into the state’s road fund will instead continue to be routed to the Highway Safety Commission. There, they have been used for programs to fight, among other things, you guessed it, drinking and driving.

Which brought up the difficult choice: Passing the open-container ban would likely have meant returning those federal dollars to the road-building fund, leaving the safety program with a huge hole in its budget.

I don’t envy the legislators choice on this one. Highway Patrol DUI citations have been dropping a bit during the past few years in Tennessee – whether because fewer people are drinking and driving or because troopers can’t keep up, I don’t know.

I’d like to think it’s a growing sense of caution and personal responsibility, but that seems to fly against the overall trend of our society.

Personally, I’m on the side of banning roadies altogether. I will grant you that having an open container in a vehicle does not automatically mean the driver is partaking. However, it’s an easy pass-off if he or she did have a few sips. And, the merrier the passengers get, the higher the likely level of distraction for even the most sober drivers. Just ask anyone who has had to take an over-served friend home (desperately looking for a place to pull over now on the way).

And who knows? The price of gasoline might encourage people to stay home and get potted, rather than going somewhere and putting lives at risk. I’d drink to that.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Dangerous new sport: Bridge post holing

Land Line reported Monday that a 2-foot-by-3-foot hole opened up on an Interstate-30 bridge in downtown Dallas.

Nothing too unusual there. Many of our nation’s roads are afflicted with sinkholes, potholes and cracks.

For instance, in Kansas City, MO, the current mayor even campaigned on a platform of street repair. He issued a press release in January 2007 titled “Funkhouser Announces Plan to Rid KC Streets of Metal Plates.". He promised that within two years streets would be repaired and 90 percent of the metal plates would be gone. I have had two flat tires this year – traveling those same city streets – that say otherwise.

Now about that hole in the Dallas bridge. It was discovered at about 10 p.m. Sunday night by motorists who ran over it and/or chunks of concrete, and seriously bent their rims.

Road crews were summoned, they set to work during the night, the hole was repaired, and lanes were opened – all before 7 a.m. Monday.

TxDOT spokesman Randy Black told The Dallas Morning News that the bridge had been inspected within the past 30 days. “Results were normal,” he said.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I like my bridge repairs to cure for a while. I also would like to believe that “normal results” of bridge inspections don’t mean exposed rebar within a month.

But then I’m a born skeptic. I grew up in Texas City, TX, a community whose nicknames are “The Town That Would Not Die” and “Toxic City.” The best-known Texas City disaster was in 1947 when an explosion killed 581 and injured more than 5,000 people in the worst industrial accident in U.S. history.

My father was a research engineer at Monsanto, and we constantly drove past the Monsanto and Union Carbide petrochemical plants in town. There were the most impressive blue, purple, green and black clouds. The mind-melting smells were so intense that I would hold my breath until I myself turned blue. The city and state assured us that these clouds were perfectly safe and a symbol of progress. (Union Carbide later brought the world similar clouds in the Bhopal, India, disaster.)

Texas City, being 8 feet below sea level on the Gulf, regularly sprayed the streets with DDT at that time to get rid of the mosquitoes. We residents were told that it was perfectly safe to let children play outdoors. My chemical engineer dad knew better and hustled us indoors.

In 1961, Texas City officials, to their credit, did recommend that residents get out of town ahead of Hurricane Carla. That category 5 storm wreaked havoc, caused more than $2 billion (in current U.S. dollars) in damages, and also marked the start of Dan Rather’s career.

In 1962, Texas and federal officials told our families on the Gulf Coast that the Cuban missile crisis was nothing to be too alarmed about. However, we schoolchildren were forced to hide under our desks repeatedly and practice walking home (both excellent measures in case of nuclear attack).

Texas City’s unfortunate history has continued, I see by news reports. A BP refinery explosion killed 15 people and injured more than 170 in 2005.

So, please pardon me if I do not believe the government experts’ reports on safe bridges and their repairs.

Epoxy, JB Cold Weld, newly poured concrete on sidewalks, “silver” dental fillings: They all require waiting before using. But apparently not bridges that carry heavy rush-hour traffic.

Clearly, the transportation infrastructure in our country is endangered. Equally endangered are the drivers who will be “post holing” on U.S. bridges in the near future.

Post holing is when you are walking along the top of snow and one or both of your legs sink in deep without warning. I’ve landed up against a tree after post holing and falling down a mountainside. Believe me, that is a frightening experience.

I do not, under any circumstances, want to post hole in my vehicle on a “safe” bridge, newly repaired or not.