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Machine of the Gods Won't Help Highway's Loose Screws


Greek playwrights called it deus ex machina, god from a machine.

Just when the hero seemed doomed to a horrible death, *poof*, one of the gods would appear and save him via some gnarly-looking wood-and-leather device wheeled onstage by Sophocles' sweating stagehands.

Machines promise progress and enlightenment, from the simple wheel that got us all rolling to the Slurpee dispenser that keeps all that commuting we all do on those wheels from grinding our souls to mush.

Machines will save the human race (or so we think), knitting the global village together on the Internet and micro-miniaturizing us all toward bright and happy lives full of leisure.

Then again, there's the Titanic, the Hindenburg, the A-bomb, the 8-track tape, the common leaf blower, Windows and the 47 devices now on the market that only promise to keep your car's floor mats from slipping up under your heater vents. Not to mention the Yugo.

Why is it that where common sense fails, someone always seems to think a machine could do the job better?

Cruise control? Pay attention. Smokeless ashtrays? Quit. Sport utility vehicles? Drive on the pavement, silly.

But what about wrong-way drivers? You're not going to believe this one:

Dear Street Smart:

With the rash of "wrong way" head-on collisions that have occurred in recent months on our freeways, why couldn't Caltrans install simple but effective spikes, like the ones in parking lot exits?

If one of these "don't back up"-style devices were placed at every offramp, the worst thing that would happen to a wrong-way driver is that he would get a couple of flat tires. Yet it would stop him long before he could get out on the freeway and do some serious damage.

I realize it might be time-consuming, but I, for one, feel that it would be well worth it in the long run.

Donna Athens


Dear Reader:

Sounds like you've been reading Street Smart for too long.

Of course, we love the idea. Elegant and to the point, it stops stupid drivers from hurting anyone--and punishes them simultaneously.

Believe it or not--unbeknownst to us armchair engineers (who will rule the world as soon as we figure out how to stop losing vital tools in the middle of complex repair jobs)--Caltrans has been studying your idea for years.

Here, verbatim, is the response from Caltrans spokeswoman Pat Reid:

"Extensive research has been devoted to the development of more effective signs, pavement markings and devices that prevent the entry of wrong-way vehicles onto our freeways.

"The parking lot spike has been a frequent suggestion over the years. Driving tests on standard spikes, modified spikes and other tire-slashers demonstrated, however, that they would not work effectively against vehicles traveling in excess of 15 mph. Some of Caltrans' findings are:

* Less than half of the vehicles were disabled by the spikes.

* Those tires damaged worst still took 10 to 30 seconds to go flat--enough time to go onto the freeway.

* Tires bent and broke spikes, leaving them to puncture or damage tires of right-way vehicles.

* At 30 mph, right-way drivers could not tell which way the spikes were pointing. This could cause more panic stops by right-way drivers than by wrong-way drivers.

"Even if these problems did not exist and spikes were 100% effective, less than half of the problem would be addressed. Studies show that half of the wrong-way moves are the result of U-turns (many of them deliberate), and less than half are entries from the off-ramp."

Ummmm, OK. So what about like, maybe, uhhh, giant gill nets?


Dear Street Smart:

Is Big Brother watching us?

While traveling east on Telephone Road in Ventura, I was stopped at the light at Victoria. My companion noticed a camera atop the light standard trained on the oncoming traffic. Observing further, we noticed that each side of each street in the intersection has a camera trained on the oncoming traffic.

At first, we surmised that it might be a way to catch red-light runners. But the camera would be of no use for this purpose because they are trained on the oncoming traffic before the intersection. Is it surveillance for potential bank robbers? (There are a number of banks in the area.) What gives? Thank you. I enjoy your column.

Tom McHenry


Dear Reader:

We might enjoy our column too, but we never have time to read it.

The answer to your first question is, yes. But Big Brother's a heckuva lot more sophisticated than a bunch of video cameras stuck up on poles where everyone can see them.

Think IRS tax audits. Think TRW credit checks. Think Internet robot programs that grab your e-mail address and flood your mailbox with pornography, opportunities-of-a-lifetime and all manner of time-wasting snake oil.

Think Barney.

But wait, maybe that's the plan. Hide the cameras in plain sight, and the unwashed masses will never suspect. Listen to the city of Ventura's explanation and judge for yourself:

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