ROADS REPORT: Turn on, tune in, drop out

Who needs psychedelics? One big whiff of that new-car smell and you’ll . . . hey, where did that train come from?

Blog Entry May 04, 2012

David Matthews has been chronicling the unexpectedly humorous side of transportation news for his Roads Report column since 2000. The stories are all true.

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Watch your step
We know that distracted driving has been on the rise for years, but motorists aren’t the only ones not paying attention.
According to a new study from the University of Maryland, the number of injuries to pedestrians wearing headphones has more than tripled in the past six years.
Researchers looked at 116 such accident cases from 2004 to 2011. Nearly three-quarters of the accidents resulted in pedestrian fatality, and strangely, half involved the distracted pedestrian colliding with a train.

With most states now cracking down on distracted drivers, will distracted pedestrians near train tracks be the next target?

Yes, if the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) board has its way. They passed an ordinance this spring that bans “distracted walking” near UTA’s light-rail and commuter rail lines.
The ordinance defines “distracted” as including (but not limited to) talking on a phone, texting, attending to personal hygiene, reading a newspaper or magazine or listening to music with headphones.

So what will that Justin Bieber MP3, magazine article or branded dental floss cost you while in the general vicinity of an electric rail car track? A first offense is $50, and repeat offenses will run $100.

However, not everyone thinks that legislation is the most effective way to promote pedestrian safety. UTA board member Troy Walker told the Salt Lake Tribune, “We can criminalize all the activity we want. But getting hit by a train is a pretty good lesson.”

Law of the land
Utah’s laws might sound tough, but they’re nothing compared with those in other countries.

For example, we all know that speeding fines in some states can be steep, but at least they’re assessed evenly to everyone. In some European nations, fines are calculated as a percentage of your wealth. In 2010, a driver in Switzerland was caught doing 85 mph in a 50-mph zone, and due to his $22 million in assets, his speeding ticket came to $290,000.

In the U.S., older drivers sometimes face extra requirements in order to renew their license. Japan goes a step further by requiring all drivers over the age of 75 to display a special multicolored magnet on the front and back of their car, which surely in no way becomes a source of ridicule.

And, of course, we’re all accustomed to keeping our registration and proof of insurance in the car with us at all times. But in France, vehicles must also include a luminous high-visibility vest, a reflective warning triangle, a full set of spare light bulbs and beginning July 1, a portable Breathalyzer test kit.

Hold your breath
The smell of a new car can certainly be intoxicating, but not in a good way.

Researchers at the nonprofit Ecology Center have found that the “fresh-from-the-showroom” smell is actually a mixture of toxic fumes from chemicals used to create the car’s interior.

The Ecology Center analyzed the chemical content of more than 200 new cars and found the healthiest to be the 2012 Honda Civic. It earned high marks for not having any bromine-based flame retardants and only low levels of heavy metals. (That is until the new sound system gets installed. Rock on!)

Both the 2011 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport and 2011 Chrysler 200 SC were awarded the distinction of unhealthiest new-car smell. Both showed levels of bromine and antimony-based flame retardants, chromium-treated leather and lead in seating materials.

Fortunately, standard safety features in both vehicles were found to be adequate in the event that sudden liver failure should send you and the vehicle tumbling over an embankment. R&B

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