More regular posting will return now that the U.S. portion of the book tour has ended. It was a dizzying week, with loads of entertaining radio appearances, and some talks before Microsoft, the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, and Google. The last was particularly fascinating as it was my first visit to the campus at Mountain View, an otherworldly place of lunch-time volleyball games, “Expecting Mother” parking spaces, Chinese language study groups, free smoothie bars and gyms, and, brushing right past me, a pair of cleats in hand, Sergey Brin. The Google audience was very friendly but with challenging questions, and my favorite moment came when one person asked me to sign his speeding ticket — acquired while he was listening to me on NPR’s Fresh Air! I can only imagine the interview was so engrossing he lost sight of the speedometer, or perhaps he was racing to his nearest good book store to snap it up.
In Los Angeles, I had a strange moment as I was out on a shoot with Val Zevala and a crew from KCET. Well, there were a number of strange moments. As we stood chatting on a overpass on the Ventura freeway, I saw a man come along, riding a bike in the breakdown lane, even as cars whizzed past at 60 mph. He maneuvered his way past on-ramps with some difficulty. I’m all for vehicular cycling, but this was a touch extreme. Soon enough a CHP officer came along to ask us what we were doing — someone had apparently called in a report that some people were partaking in strange activities on the overpass (though is there anything less strange in L.A. than filming?)
In the book I quote a line from the film Crash (the one moment in the film that recalls the earlier film Crash, based on the J.G. Ballard novel) when the character played by Don Cheadle notes: “We’re always behind metal and glass… It’s the sense of touch. I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other just so we can feel something.” In any case, I was in a minivan driving through Beverly Hills with the crew, and as we stopped to enter a parking lot, waiting for a vehicle to exit, the trailing vehicle behind us (also from KCET) was struck by a car that itself was struck by another car. There was a loud, almost familiar sound, and the camera guys bundled out to see what had happened (NB: It’s the second crash I’ve witnessed while out on shoots for the book).
It was a classic urban crash. It’s said that close to half of all crashes occur within or near intersections, and in this case it seemed the last car, perhaps rushing to “beat the yellow” didn’t notice the queue of unexpectedly stopped vehicles, and so struck the car (a Scion) behind the second KCET van. The crash raised two issues in my mind: The first, as noted by my colleague Kenneth Todd, being the inherent danger of traffic lights as a design solution. The amber phase tends to encourage people to accelerate to “beat the light,” and they tend to look up at the lights the very moment they should really be scanning the intersection for turning vehicles, etc. Unfortunately, like all signals in traffic, drivers tend not to rigidly obey their command but use them as only another stage in the decision making process: Should I stay or should I go?
The drivers were a bit shaken up, but it was their cars that took the brunt of damage. The Scion driver, commenting on the other driver’s decision at the light, noted how she never accelerates immediately through the green, as so many people are still going through, often at high speed. And she’s right. Engineers in many places have had to lengthen the “clearance phase,” or that all-red moment when no one is supposed to go through, precisely because so many people are choosing to violate the red light.
But the strange Crash style moment came right when the Scion driver emerged and saw the news crew. She looked at Val and immediately smiled. “I love your show! I watch it all the time.” When I thought about it later, the crash was the first actual encounter with another human we had had in all the afternoon’s driving.