Yea for Big Brother? -

Yea for Big Brother?

Gallagher, the comic ( famous for smashing pumpkins on stage, once offered a solution to traffic scofflaws. He suggested that drivers should carry suction-cup dart guns tipped with a “Stupid” sticker. See someone making a dumb move? Pop one off at the vehicle. If the cop sees a car peppered with “Stupid” darts, he gives the driver a ticket for being an idiot.

It's an interesting idea. Today police enforcement of traffic laws is capricious and utterly ineffective. The roads are filled with maniacs daily flirting with suicide/homicide to shave a few seconds off their commute. The appearance of a police car barely slows traffic, which immediately resumes to full velocity when the cop speeds off. The system as it is teaches drivers strategies to avoid being caught, not to drive more safely.

But never fear, an embedded system is nearly at hand to save us from our own dysfunctional behavior. An article that appeared on (registration required but reprinted at indicates that U.K. officials plan to equip roads and cars with microprocessor-based systems that monitor certain aspects of driving. Somehow the box will know the road's speed limit and will report violations automatically. Stray over the yellow line and you'll find a citation in the mail.

I watched traffic in Columbia, MD when local authorities installed dozens of red-light cameras. It sure appears to me that many fewer folks there now push the yellow. They're still maniacs, lead-footedly zooming to the next light, then jumping on the brakes to obey the red. A gentler approach might be safer, would surely save gas, and might even be faster.

The Washington Post ( claims red light cameras reduce both accidents and traffic violations.

Some innate quality in human nature drives us toward dangerous highway behavior. During an all-night ride-along with a local police officer, I asked if he obeys the speed limit when headed home at the end of his shift. “Of course not,” he answered, “but no cop will give another a ticket.” What is it, what facet of human nature, leads so many of us to act so wildly when behind the wheel?

Many drivers feel they're safe at most any speed and a system that automatically tags them for creeping over the limit does nothing to improve highway safety. Let's suppose, though, that we can build an embedded application that truly identifies dangerous behavior, such as tailgating, wild lane changes, or whatever. Suppose it's deployed everywhere. Drive dangerously and you get nabbed. Though rather Orwellian, is it reasonable?

We already have systems that snare shoplifters. No one complains about them, though when the guard at Best Buy examines my shopping bag and receipt I feel like a petty thief.

My son acquired his driver's license a few weeks ago. It's awfully tempting to instrument the car to monitor his use of this new and scary privilege. Reluctantly, I haven't because there's a certain level of trust that must be maintained between parents and their kids. A ubiquitous system, however, removes that issue.

There's little doubt in my mind that police forces will tend to increase electronic surveillance of the highways. Perhaps the proper approach is to not issue citations; rather, send the violations to the drivers' insurance companies, which can increase premiums for those who run the biggest risks. Want to drive like a maniac? Fine, just expect astronomical insurance costs.

Recently, a 19-year-old complained bitterly about his latest speeding ticket. I told him that I'd found a cool trick that kept the cops off my tail, one that worked every time. He leaned forward, eyes bright, eagerly awaiting this way to foil the fuzz.

My trick? Don't speed.

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. He founded two companies specializing in embedded systems. Contact him at . His website is .

Reader Feedback I would have no problem with the proposed U.K. enforcement system if the speed limits were set to reasonable levels to begin with. Think of it this way–would the cop with whom you rode speed on his way home if somewhere in the back of his mind he didn't feel like it was safe to do so (not in terms of being caught, but in terms of getting home in one piece)?

I'm pretty sure you've heard this before, but I'll say it again: if the speed limit on a road is set well below the maximum safe driving speed for that road, traffic enforcement amounts to a tax on those drivers who are more concerned about watching the road and driving safely than they are about glancing at their speedometer every few seconds to make sure they haven't exceeded the speed limit.

I realize this argument is exaggerated to some extent, and I agree that there are drivers on the road that ought to be ticketed for their behavior, but I've also found that people in general are pretty good at finding a safe speed to drive regardless of the posted limit. The speed limit drops from 40mph to 25 mph but the blue-haired lady in front of me drives 30mph in both zones, because she knows her reflexes aren't what they used to be, and already feels like she's going slow enough when the lower speed limit arrives. She knows what she's capable of regardless of what the sign on the side of the road says–driving 40 might not give her enough time to respond if a child runs into the street, and driving 25 means she'll have to monitor her speed (farsightedness being a factor) rather than monitoring the children playing near the road.

On the other hand, say the flow of traffic with a 65mph limit is 75mph and the same blue-haired lady is driving at the posted minimum of 45mph. While she is technically obeying the law and those around her are not, she is still posing a much greater danger to herself and others than those who, in following the flow at a safe speed, are exceeding the speed limit. That is not to say that she should drive 65mph if she doesn't feel safe doing so (she should probably just stick to side streets), but it demonstrates the fact that the law may not always dictate the safest course of action, or even the most reasonable. Drivers on that same road would be foolish to drive at or above the 45mph minimum in the presence of black ice and heavy snow, and the SUV that tries to do so is a menace.

It makes more sense to hand out reckless driving tickets to those whose speed differential with the rest of traffic reaches dangerous levels than it does to penalize the right-lane commuter who would rather drive a little faster than the limit so that traffic will not be bogged down with a line of cars waiting to pass. This meshes nicely with your idea of an embedded system that would penalize wild driving behavior.

The only thing worse than Big Brother is Big Brother with an attitude problem and no common sense.

Scott Winder

As always, an interesting article. It is interesting to note, that the commercial interest in reducing shoplifting, is easily identified. But the social/human interest in reducing road deaths and injury is so easily left to debate.

In Australia, and particularly in my state, the use of “speed cameras” has reduced the average speed of the traffic. Local authorities are also reducing the speed limit in many areas. The logical step of monitoring the car speed and local limits continuously, could in effect allow the speed limits to be increase, as observance of the limit is almost guaranteed. Limits could also be varied, in accordance with conditions, rain, snow, ice etc.

We spend a lot of time in cars, we also spend a lot of time in mourning, as well as the social and economic loss.

I like to travel quickly, but the monitoring of my speed, reminds me, of the consequences of my actions. Not only the financial loss but the fact that it CAN happen to me, and the loss that I and others would suffer as a result.I always look forward to reading your “Muse,” and your column in

Thank you

Peter Lissenburg
Dir Eng

If our police forces wanted to catch the worst offenders, little extra effort is required. Unmarked cars, only activating radar/laser speed guns when they want to check a speed are simple effective methods.

I'm sick of all the whining about wanting to be safe. Making the drunks walk will probably save more lives than will ever be lost to terrorists. Not three strikes, not probation, you drive drunk you walk.

I would point out that it is possible to drive safely at 80 mph, and incredibly dangerously at 25. It's so easy to say speeding is dangerous, but even you acknowledged that other behaviors are more threatening. Weaving, tailgating, (whisper) inattention caused by cell phones, etc.

Our government is already to intrusive.

Enough said.

Walter Greene

I was surprised by the poll results considering the widespread support given the Patriot Act. At least in theory we have the choice of driving or not and, given the statistics, bad drivers are far more dangerous than terrorists.

S. Vining

Me and my partner in design at Nokia are the odd couple when it comes to cars and driving. I've got a stock Honda that never goes 5mph over the limit. Colin's bought himself a Camaro Z-28, put a supercharger, cam, power chip, headers and other stuff on the engine, then burned out a set of brakes, then figured out racing brakes and rotors might be a good investment. It then cost an additional 2k to get the car through the smog test. His insurance with all his tickets is in the stratosphere. He easily spends 3K a year on tickets, insurance ridders, getting through the smog test. With all his leadfooting he gets half the gas mileage, goes through tires like a tourist in Mexico goes through tequila and diarrhea medicine, and is always fixing something like a burned valve, or sprung drive shaft. The slightest drop of rain, or oil and his slicks send him hydroplaning across 4 lanes of I 635. Seeing Colin pulled over on the way to, or from work is pretty much an office hobby — there are even pools on when he'll get his next ticket.

Electronic monitoring would be nothing more than a challenge to Colin, who would likely hack the box, and change the ID to my Honda's.

Funny thing is the traffic is bumper to bumper most days and you can't go over about 40 anyway — Save the money, don't spend your vacation days going to court, or in defensive driving, and use the money and vacation you saved to go to Hawaii.

Bill Murray
Baseband Engineer

I hear you Jack. Part of he traffic problem is that North Americans are somehow conditioned to believe that they have a right to drive and that they can flaunt authority whenever possible.

Having ads for a 500 HP Benz showing the owner doing a reverse donut coming out of the garage does not help. They ease their conscience by putting “Professional Driver – Do Not Attempt” in small grey print at the bottom of the screen.

Ralph Hempel

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