James M. Flammang, author of more than two dozen
books, is at work on several more, including the
title described below.

A veteran automotive journalist, Flammang concentrates
on the "big picture," whether he's writing about cars,
consumer issues, simpler living, or any other topic.

During 2009, Flammang will be expanding his efforts
into the areas of work/labor, travel, and fiction.

Steering Toward Oblivion

The Automotive Assault on American Culture

by James M. Flammang

High-performance automobiles tempt perennial adolescent
drivers, prompting more high-risk behavior on the road.

Chapter 13 (excerpt)

Motoring Misbehavior

On a cool and crisp East Coast morning, five European-made sport sedans breezed down the two-lane highway, forming an impromptu caravan. Through a long sequence of twists and turns, the expertly-engineered sedans responded sharply to their drivers' assertive manipulations of the steering wheel. Each one had a journalist at the wheel. Some carried an auto-company representative as an auxiliary passenger, ready to answer questions about the car. Yes, the speed limit on that stretch was being violated, though not by horrific amounts. Not yet.

Suddenly, the lead car slowed, as a heavily-loaded truck came into view ahead. Each car in line dropped its speed swiftly. Along the right side of the sinuously curvy road, a sheer rock wall reached toward the sky. At the left was forest land. In between, a double yellow line separated the lanes, because it was impossible to see far enough ahead to pass with even the slightest degree of safety. As everyone knows, or should know, that double line means "No Passing." Period.

That knowledge didn't deter the group for long. After little more than a moment's delay, the lead car swung across the double-yellow, abruptly downshifting and tromping the gas pedal to roar past the truck. Seconds later, car two followed. Then the third vehicle. Car four managed to make it past the truck, too, without encountering an oncoming vehicle. Pure chance, because there was absolutely no way to know if anyone was coming toward you, hidden behind the truck.

I was in the fifth car, but wasn't about to cross that double-yellow barrier. Chances are, the sedan would have made it past the moving obstacle. Up to that point, few oncoming cars had appeared. But that didn't matter. Unlike my colleagues in the front cars, I had learned long before and still accepted the simple fact that ignoring a "no passing" warning was foolhardy and ignorant. Not to mention illegal - and just plain wrong.

Unlike most of my compatriots, I didn't like to break the law. Neither did I wish to attract the attention of the police. As a result, I stayed behind that truck for what seemed like an eternity before a safe opportunity to pass presented itself. My partner and I were last to reach the lunch stop, on that memorable day. Still, we got there, alive and safe. Nobody had gobbled up all the food, either.

Did any of the company people who'd occupied those passenger seats complain about their journalist's dangerous driving practices? Not a chance. It's a rare day indeed when a discouraging word is heard from any manufacturer representative, even when the offending driver has done something frightfully risky. Even when a car has been damaged - if not wrecked - by sheer recklessness, the culprit might well get off without so much as a reprimand.

A minor-league journalist who causes such trouble is more likely to be yanked off future invitation lists. But PR people have demonstrated great reluctance to deliver suitable punishment to the most reckless media drivers, if they happen to attract large numbers of demographically-desirable readers.

Journalists aren't alone in flouting the rules, of course. Ever since the imposition of the 55-mph speed limit in 1974, there's been an epidemic of violation of traffic laws. For a while, journalists and other enthusiasts even tried to suggest that disobeying the speed limits was a quasi-patriotic act. More than a few journalists continue to be part of the problem, not only by driving recklessly but later boasting of their illicit exploits to colleagues, and in print.

At another media program in the Pacific Northwest, I wound up with a driving partner I'd never met, or even seen before. Minutes after setting off for the morning's drive, with him at the wheel, it was obvious that trouble was brewing. As soon as we reached a downtown stretch of the urban expressway, he hit that pedal hard and kept his foot to the floor. Veering from lane to lane, charging ahead at every opportunity, he blithely passed every car on the road, exceeding the speed limit by hefty double-digit figures.

Judging by the glazed smile on his face, he appeared to view that expressway as his personal playground, to do with as he wished. Because he was behind the wheel of a spiffy and swift two-passenger sports car, he had the look of a kid who'd been given the keys to the local candy store, augmented by assurance that no one would interfere to stifle his fun. At the first rest stop, I stepped out of the car and did something I'd never done, before or since: I asked the company's PR representative for a new partner for the rest of the day's drive.

Because so many drivers see their cars as playthings, they're all too likely to disregard the welfare of other drivers and pedestrians. Everyone is in a hurry, it seems, ready to put themselves first. Despite hazy claims to the contrary, speed does kill, and it definitely burns more fuel. Furthermore, rude behavior, "me-firstism," lack of civility, and incessant speed-law violations set the stage for comparable misbehavior in other aspects of everyday life.

Automotive journalists might not drive more carelessly and daringly than anyone else with a driver's license, under ordinary circumstances. Quite a few of us in this occupation, it must be stated, are careful and conscientious behind the wheel. We engage in audacious moves only briefly and occasionally, to try out a car's reactions. Most of the time, even at media events, we drive with comparative care and sanity.

As for the others, their antics when road-testing a vehicle reach far beyond reason. Yet, some of the most notorious violators are welcomed back to events despite the seriousness of their misbehavior, which is known to nearly everyone. Lately, journalists who value their lives have taken to selecting driving partners quite carefully, often arranging for match-ups in advance when they know a collegial and safe acquaintance will be attending the same program. We all have our personal lists of partners to avoid. Some of our colleagues are engaging companions at the dinner table, but morph into frenzied risk-takers at the wheel of a hot car.

Back in the early 1990s, before I began to attend numerous events, a colleague described a drive through Oregon two-lane roads, where logging trucks could appear at every turn. But that didn't stop his partner from taking the car up to 130 miles an hour and leaving it there for long stretches.

Quite a few auto journalists are former race drivers, and some of them are well-known as partners to avoid. Another colleague tells of a flamboyant former racer who spent much of a day roaring through narrow rural roads, shoving the needle toward 130 mph and pasting it there, despite the presence of periodic driveways along that path.

One of the most notorious journalist-drivers of them all has wrecked vehicles, yet been invited back repeatedly for more potential mayhem. On one occasion, he was driving ahead of me on a California desert highway, reaching speeds that soon sent him off into the distance. At one hump in the pavement, his car evidently leaped into the air and slammed down again, tearing the bottom right off the transmission's oil pan and causing all of its fluid to gush out onto the asphalt. Did he confess and repent? Not at all. We later heard that he'd had the gall to contact the manufacturer representative and try to obtain another vehicle, to complete the drive as if nothing odd had happened.

On another occasion, this contender for highest-risk honors reportedly ran into the lunch stop and sat down hurriedly, blending gently into the crowd. Why so fast? Because a trooper was right behind him, and he had no intention of admitting his misdeeds nor taking any blame for them.

Fast driving is nothing new, of course. Ever since prehistoric man first found ways to compete against his fellows, speed has proven to be a veritable holy grail. No doubt, little time passed after the first wheeled vehicles came into existence before one early cart pilot challenged another to a rolling duel, perhaps with the affections of a luscious young cavewoman as the prize.

Back in the early days of the automobile, at the dawn of the twentieth century, farmers shook their fists and raised their voices against the young "scorchers" who tore down rural byways in their speedsters and touring cars, scaring the horses and threatening the populace. In the midst of the Great Depression, young fellows in stripped-down Model A and V-8 Fords stormed across the landscape, creating consternation among their elders.

After World War II, the hot rod craze took hold with a vengeance. As we've seen in an earlier chapter, movies soon spread the word that fast, reckless driving was a trait to be emulated, which helped the offender to "get the girl" at the same time. In cinema, at least, plenty of the hottest young ladies are drawn to the "bad boys" who drive fast, behave rudely, and act tough.

In 1954's Rebel Without a Cause, for instance, the troubled James Dean heads for class in a southern California high school in a chopped and lowered '49 Mercury coupe, causing male teenagers across the country to salivate in envy. When Dean later engages in a "chickie run" driving a hopped-up Ford, he emerges unscathed while his rival in acceleration frenzy ends up at the bottom of a cliff. Few youthful viewers took that sober message home with them, vowing to ease up on the gas when behind the wheel of their personal machines of mayhem. Instead, they glamorized Dean's untimely, lonely death at the wheel of a Porsche Speedster, likely moving along narrow California roads at breakneck speed.

Youthful defiance also reared its head in films of the Fifties, led by Marlon Brando's sullen portrayal of Johnny, leader of the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club. "I don't like cops," Brando mutters with a sneer when the cute waitress's father turns out to be the town's police chief.

Rather than defiant distaste for the police, modern motorists lean toward flagrant falsehoods to evade responsibility for their misdeeds. Today's violators seem willing to lie and cheat in any way possible, if their words and actions prevent issuance of a ticket. Rather than being willing to accept suitable punishment for any of their misdeeds, they install radar detectors to evade police cruisers, thus violating speed laws with impunity. If stopped, they'll make up fanciful stories in an attempt to avoid that dreaded traffic summons.

"I can't afford to lose my license," said one well-known journalist who makes a nasty habit of frightfully rapid driving. Evidently, it never occurred to him to slow down once in a while if he wants to keep his license pristine.

While piloting Porsches through Quebec one day, another journalist confided that he felt "naked" without his radar detector. Canadian provinces, to their credit, ban the devices and bar their importation by visitors. When I asserted my firm belief that the only purpose of radar detectors is to allow their owners to violate the law with impunity, and that I'd long taken an editorial stance against the devices, he pondered my retort for some seconds before acknowledging that such an opinion might possibly have some merit.

Speed-crazed journalists have been known to plop a radar detector onto the windshield of a test car - even if its manufacturer prohibits use of the devices and a top executive is riding along in the passenger seat. Nearly all the speed-law violators insist that speed limits have nothing whatsoever to do with safety. They're strictly "revenue enhancers," the daily offenders proclaim with a self-serving smirk. So, why shouldn't they be ignored?

Media people even boast of their punishment-avoiding antics. When two journalist gentlemen of mature age, driving a high-powered sports car, were being chased by the police, they hurriedly zipped into a convenience-store parking lot. According to the story they related later, one of them immediately ran off into the woods, while the other leaned against the car munching a snack. Thus, the police were fooled into continuing to search for the fast-moving offender they'd spotted.

A participant in one of the notorious coast-to-coast races, where speed laws have been flouted beyond belief without a wisp of concern for overtaken cars or hapless pedestrians, boasted at a subsequent media program of the "honor" he'd been granted after reaching the finish line. His achievement? He was the driver who'd spent the most time in jail during that transconinental run. According to his tale, one participating car reached speeds well beyond 200 mph on a public road in the southwest.

Journalists have even allowed colleagues to be stopped and ticketed in their place, taking advantage of mistaken identity. After all, they're each driving the same kind of brand-new car. The police officer giving chase has no reason to believe there was another, nearly identical vehicle in the area that had actually committed the violations.

Pulled over for a grievous offense, one journalist who'd recently been on a program in Asia boldly whipped out the temporary driving license that had been issued for the occasion. A confused trooper let the offender go with a warning, rather than try and determine its validity.

Rather than being punished or chastised for their misdeeds, journalists are likely to be praised. At dinner following a day of driving a new premium model, the PR director advised that someone had proved that the vehicle could "go fast," by getting a speeding ticket. Did fingers wag and diners' faces exhibit scorn, signaling that the offender should hang his head in shame? Hardly. Instead, the crowd broke out in a round of enthusiastic applause for the lawbreaker.

Click here for a Chapter Outline of Steering Toward Oblivion.
Click here for an Overview of Steering Toward Oblivion.
Note: Extended excerpts of Motoring Misbehavior and other chapters will be added later.

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