Challenging times create unexpected opportunities

This column published as "The New Normal" in July/August 2020 issue

David Matthews / July 15, 2020 / 3 minute read
David Matthews

The coronavirus pandemic may have brought the world to a standstill, but there are a few bright spots.

With so many cars off the roads, global daily carbon dioxide emissions are down 17%. 

Business meetings have turned into video calls that are entirely pants-optional.

And teens in Georgia and Wisconsin can now get their first driver’s license without taking the dreaded road test. 

Due to the backlog of requests that have piled up since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, the two states decided to temporarily waive the road test requirement, so long as new drivers meet all other requirements. 

In Georgia, new drivers must have held their learner’s permit for 1 year and 1 day with no violations and completed 40 hours of supervised driving. Wisconsin requires teens to have held a learner’s permit for at least six months with no violations and completed 30 hours of driving with a parent.

Still, driving with a family member isn’t the same as sweating it out with an examiner in the passenger seat, constantly taking notes on that ever-present clipboard.

However, around 30,000 new drivers are now on the road without having to take this rite of passage, and that makes some people nervous. 

Laurie Walters of Cumming, Georgia, told CNN, “It’s dangerous for there to be no person to have the checks and balances to make sure that this person knows the skinny pedal on the right is gas and the left pedal is brake.” 

What could go wrong?

We’ve all learned the importance of disinfecting hard surfaces to stop the spread of coronavirus, but what about the inside of your vehicle?

The New York City Police Department was wondering the same thing, so Ford created software to do just that in its NYPD Police Interceptor Utility vehicles.

The software uses the SUV’s engine and climate control systems to heat the interior to a toasty 133˚F for 15 minutes. That’s hotter than Death Valley on a summer day, and long enough to kill more than 99% of disease-causing germs, including coronavirus.

Once the cycle is complete, the software begins a cool-down mode, and then flashes the vehicle’s lights once it’s safe for officers to enter the vehicle again.

The one minor snag with the software is that there are currently no safeguards to prevent the system from being activated if a human, animal, or recently procured meal are still inside. 

If a vehicle control like the steering wheel or pedals are moved while the system is running, it will shut off. 

Unfortunately, though, that won’t save your corned beef brisket hoagie.

Lost highway

The “Graffiti Highway” is the most popular tourist attraction in Centralia, Pennsylvania. It’s also the only tourist attraction in Centralia, which as of 2017 had a population of just five people.

However, back in 1962, Centralia was home to more than 1,400. That year municipal employees tried to reduce the volume of garbage at a waste disposal area by burning it, and accidentally ignited an underground coal seam. 

Efforts to extinguish the fire failed, and it has been burning continuously ever since.

After 20 years of intense heat, fissures began opening in the ground, releasing dangerous smoke and gases. Evacuation orders were issued in 1981, and today Centralia is a real-life ghost town.  

In the 1990s, a 1-mile stretch of Pennsylvania Route 61 that ran near Centralia was also abandoned after sections began to buckle and crack. PennDOT created a bypass and left the damaged area to the elements.

In the years since, this forgotten stretch of road has become a canvas for local artists. The graffiti, some profound and some profane, now covers nearly every available inch of pavement.

This past spring when Pennsylvania issued statewide stay-at-home orders, the highway saw a significant spike in visitors. Property owner Pagnotti Enterprises became concerned about the large crowds that were gathering, not to mention the vandalism and litter that came with them. 

So in April, Pagnotti had the Graffiti Highway covered with 400 truckloads of dirt, redubbing it “There’s Nothing To See Here So Please Go Home Highway.”

About the Author

Matthews has been chronicling the unexpectedly humorous side of transportation news since 2000. The stories are all true.

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