Recently, I knew I wanted to do a deep dive into how the U.S. has fallen so badly behind on auto safety. I knew about the big cars and pedestrian safety issues and all that. But there seemed more to the story to me, specifically one of government failure, as the U.S. is unique among developed nations when it comes to road fatalities getting worse. I had come across various ways the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) had dropped the ball in recent decades. But I needed to hone in on one as a way to tell the larger story. Then I learned about New Car Assessment Program.
To be sure, NCAP, the program that rates cars on safety, had been ably covered before, most prominently by David Zipper at Bloomberg. But I suspected there would be value in showing readers not just how the program had failed over time, but how it succeeded before it failed, and how sometimes the most effective forms of government are the simplest ones.
Researching these questions took me to a time when the U.S. government was much better. Still deeply flawed, of course, but better in many respects. It addressed real needs, often with bipartisan legislation. And NCAP encapsulates how so many of our problems these days is not because of an absence of laws or rules to address problems, but that those laws or rules have decayed to the point of being useless. Like everything else, good government needs to be maintained or it stops doing its job.
So I hope you’ll take the time to read about NCAP. As with most things, there are no easy answers, but there are very interesting questions.
From the Department of Fucked Up Shit: Tennessee lawmakers want to make it nice and legal to run over protesters.
Remember when Apple and Hyundai (or maybe it was Kia, which is majority-owned by Hyundai so who cares) were going to make a car? I know, it was a whole month ago, who can recall. In any event, way back then I wrote a thing on why Apple is really a car company now.
Some USPS stuff: Don’t expect the USPS fleet to go electric just because Biden wants it to, Firing DeJoy won’t save the USPS, and hey whadya know the USPS fleet in fact did not go electric.
In late February 2020 I started working on an article about why the U.S. is the only country in the world that often connects mass transit to airports with a separate, additional train rather than just having mass transit go straight to the airport. The answer was a little-known FAA rule. I got about three-quarters of the way through the reporting process when we started getting emails from our HR department about coronavirus and very quickly an article about an obscure FAA rule didn’t seem like the best use of my time. Fast forward to January 2021 and the FAA finally changed the rule so we don’t need to build those stupid trains anymore. The lesson here: keep all your old reporting notes.
My rule of thumb is to read at least one book about each feature I write. Often I do more. My boss makes fun of me because in my first month on the job I asked if I could go to the New York Public Library to read an old book they had for in-library use. Is that something most journalists don’t do? Oh well. I worked from the Rose Reading Room for a day, it was bliss. I miss the Rose Reading Room.
Moving Violations: Automobiles, Experts, and Regulations in the United States, by Lee Vinsel. This book is inexplicably $65 from Johns Hopkins University Press. I say “inexplicably” not because it is a bad book—it is, quite the opposite, a very good book—but because that is roughly double the cost of every other academic press book I have ever purchased. I love Lee’s work. I got to know while researching this story on the bullshit innovation myths of Silicon Valley. But that’s an awfully steep price tag. If you can find it for less I highly recommend it.
Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, by Richard White. By a wonderful coincidence I happened to be reading this as the Gamestonks thing was going on and it made 99 percent of opinion columns about current events sound even sillier than they usually do. If you don’t know what 19th Century railroading has to do with stock manipulation by a bunch of people who have no idea what they’re getting into, this is the book for you.
Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, by Rick Perlstein. Each year I pick one “project” book series to tackle. Last year it was the Oxford History of the United States (excluding the foreign affairs editions, not because I don’t care but because that would have been too many books). This year it is Perlstein’s series on the formation of modern American conservatism. I can’t wait to read the rest.
I saw a Signal Problems bag in the wild yesterday. That made me feel good. If the person carrying it happens to be reading this, I’m sorry if I creeped you out trying to take a picture of you from across the intersection. Of course, it was all for nothing, the photo didn’t come out. Here’s a good cat.