Sunday, May 24, 2009

Breath Free Road

The unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The right to bear arms. The right to free speech. The right to vote. The right to drive a car. That's correct, the right to drive a car. I'm having a debate with my wife. I heard some half-wit district attorney jabbering on about how having a driver's license and driving a car in the United States is a privilege and not a right. So I went off, my wife disagreed. Instead of continuing the debate, since I'm a coward when it comes to debating her (she told me to get lost) I've taken to the blog. To caveat, of course, this issue is wrapped completely inside of the drinking and driving debate over the punishment for offenders. But I want to separate the emotion of this particular criminal debate from the right to use our roads in general.

Rights can be taken away as well as privileges. So I want to discuss whether or not, in our country, in our day an age, we should treat driving on the roads that surround us, as ubiquitous as the air that we breath. Is breathing and therefore driving a right or a privilege? Should we breath free road. Perhaps you can see my bias. To me, driving a car is as American as baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie. Since, perhaps the 1930's, did any one of us make it to birth or home from birth without a set of Goodyear vulcanized tires beneath us. Isn't it time to recognize that our society, our economy, and our lifestyles revolve around the automobile and hence the network of roads which surround us? I'm not a civil libertarian and I'm certainly not trying to ease the penalties for drunken driving our our roads, but we have to face it, the use of the roads should be a free as the air we breath.

By considering the use our roads to be a privilege, granted to us by the King vs a right granted us by birth, is as sure as telling us that, although we were born with legs and the ability to walk, to use them as they were intended is at the sole discretion of the King. Fully recognizing that roads do not just occur in nature, and that construction of the roads and their upkeep is a requirement, there is a cost associated with and for their use. And the burden of this cost is shared by the kingdom not incurred by the King. The way these costs are assessed should be a subject for debate not as a discriminator as to who gets to use them. Driver's licenses, for instance, should be a demonstration of the educational mastery of driving, not a source of revenue. And when is the last time the license was actually used to show that you could drive, rather than, ironically, old enough to purchase alcohol.

Thinking about the number of drivers on American roads for instance. Over the course of a lifetime a driver is on the road an average 15,000 miles a year for 70 years or the nice round number of 1,000,000 miles. If we estimate the average speed of these miles to be on the order of 20 mph (it's probably less), that's 50,000 hours in the car. Or about, accounting for the time we are sleeping, 13% of our conscious lives in the car. Try holding your breath from one to two hours a day and you might begin to understand how important driving is to our society.

So let's see if we need licenses to prove we can drive. Of the time that we spend driving, in general, how many tickets are we receiving, and thus we must produce the piece of plastic that says we can legally be on the road. Well, of the tickets I've received, and been convicted of, in almost 30 years of driving (hard to believe I still have 40 years to go) I have received two violations for speeding. That's one ticket every 15 years. That's a ticket every 11,000 hours of driving. Of all the time I've spent on the road, the percentage of time I was using the road in a way that required a correction from the authorities is on the order of 0.01% or one-hundredth of a percent. And the number of times I've needed retraining in order to drive are exactly zero. Since I left the drivers education class in 12th grade, I've not been back. Now if I add in the number of tickets I've received but have not been convicted of -- we will put this in the category of the attempted revenue collection for the King -- we can add 5 more tickets of various nature. One more speeding, running two stop signs, and two illegal turns. That brings the total amount of time the state found me wanting but could not prove it, to 0.06%, or six hundredths of a percent. Again, a ridiculously small number of offenses for the unhindered use of our roads over the course of half a life time. As far a I know my mother has received only a single ticket in over 60 years of driving and my father has not received a single one, or he's not talking. So my mom has misused the road 0.002% or two thousandths of a percent over the course of her life and my dad is just an aberration.

Let's see who pays for the roads we drive on, since, on average it can't be from the revenues collected from those driving irresponsibly and getting tickets. If we believe most of the gas tax goes to pay for roads and highways, we currently pay about $0.36 per gallon in Federal and State takes. Using 2009 as the average tax over a lifetime and estimating the average fuel economy of a car is 20 miles per gallon we pay about $22/month to use the roads in gas taxes or about the same for basic phone service. But we also pay about about $8/month to keep our car registered for use on the roads. In some states where they pay personal property taxes, depending on the car, these taxes can dwarf gas and registration costs. We also pay Federal Income Tax to the tune of $40B a year going to the Federal Highway Administration which adds another $10/month per driver. Again, some pay state income tax as well only driving up their individual tax for use on the roads even higher. So in direct fees to the kingdom we pay, on average, and very conservatively estimated, about $40/month to the King to use the roads around us. I live in Florida. In most states that number will be considerably higher with state income tax, city and county registration fees, and vehicle inspection requirements and fees. So I will just add another $10/month to cover these assorted other fees. So that brings the total up to a round $50/month.

But what about the costs of car ownership. We have to make personal investments and scarifies for the so called privilege of using the roads. What does that investment look like? Well certainly there is the remainder of the gas cost per mile, harder to estimate because the price of gas fluctuate more than the gas tax. But let's say $1.70/gallon. That puts gas alone up at $100/month. How about a car payment? Lets just average that to around $150/month over the life of the car. Then add $50/month for repairs over the life of the car. OK what's left? Car insurance. Easily $50/month. So the necessary investment on our part to be able to use the roads is $350/month.

Where are the hidden costs?

Well first there are the lives we lose on our highways every year. About 40,000 per year on average. Over 70 years we sacrifice almost 3 million of our citizens to the road gods.

Second there is the environmental impact. Each one of us is belching 15,000 miles worth of carbon monoxide into our atmosphere every year. We pay for that in having to breath smog. Our children will be paying an even steeper price as this hidden car tax adds to global warming. There are currently 250,000,000 cars on the road in the US with about 7,000,000 being added and subtracted each year. Every year 28,000,000 million tires join a land fill and 50,000,000 lead acid batteries find their way to some place, hopefully not a land fill. And if everybody changes there oil at least twice a year that's half a trillion gallons of oil finding itself in need of recycling. Now let's look at the environmental costs of the roads themselves. The roads are covered in oil and other chemicals (salt for instance) that find there way into the water table, lakes, streams, and bays. And speaking of oil, of the tankers that transport oil to our country, how much ends up in the oceans, every year, in order to get the oil that we do use where it needs to be. And then there's the environmental impact of drilling for oil. Finally, the roads themselves, and not to mention the necessary parking lots. All of this concrete and asphalt crossing the country, contributing significantly to heat pollution which we all must endure. And then of course noise pollution. Hard to put a cost on this but we all, as individuals, ultimately pay the price for this environmental damage. Not the King and not the District Attorney who believes she is the representative of the King.

Finally, if we believe the Almighty oil to be a big driver of our economic success, and that we as a country are so addicted to it, we might also believe that we have started wars over it's protection. Even if you believe oil to be only a percentage of our war motivation, say 20%, that's $150 billion so far with over 800 lives lost in Iraq.

So is driving and using our roadways one of our basic civil rights that we all pay dearly for, or is it a privilege granted to us by the the granter of things? If you own it, then perhaps you can restrict its use. I think it's clear that we all own the roads, they are bought and paid for in direct and indirect costs every single day. To hear a suggestion from the self-righteous that somehow they have providence over this resource, to me, is akin to claiming providence over the air we breath. So Ms. District Attorney, as you represent the King with your belief that driving is a privilege that you have the power to bestow on your subjects and therefore have the power to take it away from us a well. Please consider who's paying the bill. It's most certainly not you.