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Name: Tyler
Location: Mountain View, California, United States

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Sunday, November 30, 2008

driving is kind of crazy

It can be fun to ask yourself questions that help re-think our world. An example:

Suppose an advanced alien civilization discovered our human life on earth, and studied it carefully. There would certainly be some things that stand out to them as particularly strange, ironic, or just stupid. Which things would stand out?

I'm willing to bet that our current modes of popular transportation would stand out -- in particular, driving a car somewhere (as opposed to taking a trian, boat, or plane).

Why? Let's evaluate the danger of an action, very approximately, as the frequency you take this action multiplied by the probability at any point during the action that you will become seriously injured, mauled, and/or deadified. On average, this is basically proportional to the number of "man-made" fatalities caused per year in the course of performing an action (I say man-made as opposed to pre-existing medical conditions -- otherwise, we would have to say "having a beating heart" is a dangerous action, since many people have heart attacks).

Along this line of reasoning, it stands out immediately that driving (or being a passenger in a car) is the single most dangerous activity you're likely to perform on a regular basis. And, if you think about it just a little bit, it's not so surprising.

Let's add another test to help discover perilous conducts: does being drunk make the activity stupidly dangerous? Clearly, this is not true for 99% of the actions you take every day. You can read your email while drunk, you can walk around your house, you can listen to music, eat food, watch movies, try to do paper work, chat with friends, play with your dog or cat, read a book, sing karaoke, dance, or play games while drunk without any danger to your person. Yet, clearly, drunk driving is so dangerous that it is a serious legal and societal offense.

I don't seriously expect anyone's behavior to change in light of these thoughts -- I still drive around all the time. But it continues to surprise me to apparently be alone in considering driving, while pragmatically necessary, a highly precarious practice. Certainly we can imagine worlds in which people move about in some way where a strong twitch at the wrong moment can't kill anyone. Packets of information fly around the world following routing protocols and get safely where they're going. Snail mail networks provide another huge and relatively safe means of transportation. Passenger trains, boats, and planes are operated by professionals under careful coordination with much lower risk of collision and higher standards of maintenance. Why not cars?