Are we too stupid to make decisions for ourselves?

So I was just ranting about my stove’s cooktop and how much it pisses me off that I can’t simply set a burner temperature to one constant level by turning a knob. I’ve had a lot of trouble using this range, and I just found out from the owner’s manual that the cooktop will “keep the burner set to the temperature that (I) have selected.” I was marveling that I didn’t select a TEMPERATURE, I’d selected a RANGE of temperature for the burner, which I am prepared to adjust if it’s not exactly what I want. So the stove is yanking that rug right out from under me, and to me that’s presumptuous–how can the damn stove know what I want??!

This started me thinking about all the advancements in safety and convenience that are now built into everything. I can recall when anti-lock brakes were introduced for automobiles, and how they were trumpeted as a great safety advancement. For me, they were a great disappointment and frustration–I’d grown up driving cars that had plain ol’ power brakes, and I learned to FEEL the brake pedal and the car when I was braking in slippery conditions. If I discerned that the car was losing traction and the brakes were beginning to lock up, I would let up on the brake, adjust my braking tension and let the wheels become free-rolling again, and maintain control of the car that way. Never had any trouble with standard power brakes.

In fact, I believe I’m a better driver because I learned to drive in Northern Michigan winters without them. As a result, I am very aware of how my vehicle handles in slippery conditions, and how it responds to my adjustments.

Oh, and I was always careful to AVOID FOLLOWING TOO CLOSELY OR DRIVING TOO FAST FOR CONDITIONS. That helped keep my ass out of the fire on MANY occasions. But now there are anti-lock brakes on every vehicle, and drivers have adapted to depend on them functioning even during regular driving conditions, when locking up the brakes would signal to old-timey drivers to SLOW THE HELL DOWN AND GET OFF THE ROADS.

It’s been proven that vehicles with four wheel/front wheel drive and antilock brakes create a false sense of security in drivers because those features mask the very real hazards of bad-weather driving. Just because four wheel drive gives you better starting traction, that doesn’t mean that you should drive as fast as you would in normal conditions. And four wheel drive may help you go faster but it doesn’t help you stop faster on slippery roads, either. Oh–and while antilock brakes may help you stop in a more-controlled fashion on bad roads, they’re going to INCREASE your stopping distance, so it’s even more important NOT to drive fast and tailgate in bad weather. If you’re already driving beyond the prudently-safe speed because you’re depending on four wheel drive and antilock brakes, then you have no tricks left to pull from your sleeve from in a crisis.

What happens to modern-day drivers who might be accustomed to depending on these safety features to keep them safe, and fail to learn safe defensive driving techniques? What happens if the anti-lock sensors FAIL?

If you drive a car with anti-lock brakes, you’re instructed to apply constant, increasingly-firm pressure on the brake pedal when stopping, and to allow the anti-lock sensors to “pulse” the brake pads for you, which avoids locking up the wheels and loss of traction. If you’re old enough to remember driving with plain old power brakes, or even *gasp* non-power brakes, you know that when you’re stopping and you feel the car lose traction, that you’re suppose to “pump” the brake pedal, to slow the wheels without losing traction. With non-antilock brakes, your brain acts as the ‘computer’ to evaluate incoming data, make a decision, and choose a reaction strategy, and then to instruct your body to execute that strategy.

Note that the proper reaction to using antilock brakes in slippery conditions is completely opposite to the technique for using non-antilock brakes. Yeah, it took a little bit of getting used to–just like learning to react to a skid in a front wheel drive vehicle, as opposed to reacting to a skid in a rear wheel drive car. Ideally, you’re supposed to steer INTO a skid if you’re driving a front wheel drive vehicle and you lose traction–this is supposed to allow the front wheels to regain traction and to pull you through the skid. If you’re driving a rear-wheel drive vehicle, you turn the steering wheel in the opposite direction of the skid to counter the unwanted direction, and get the back wheels “back under” the car.

I’ve been in a skid in both types of vehicles, and have found that (as long as you have the presence of mind to REMEMBER THIS SHIT AND THEN PUT IT INTO PRACTISE) it’s very helpful to drop the transmission into neutral while you’re steering into the skid. This disengages the front wheels from the engine and thus from the torque of the engine while it’s winding down, and it allows the front wheels to regain traction much more quickly than they would if they were still being controlled by the speed of the engine. HAH! Make an automotive computer that will do THAT level of thinking for you.

I’ll never forget the first time the antilock brakes deployed on my mother’s car. I was screwing around, trying to do doughnuts in the Glen’s Market parking lot in Rogers City late one snowy night, and all of a sudden the brake pedal felt like it was trying to take off from under my foot. I thought I’d broken it, thought it was going to blow up underneath me. Mind you, I’d deliberately mashed that thing to the floor, TRYING to lock up the brakes and put myself into a nice funhouse skid. But the antilock brakes said “OH NOES! This is not safe! You’ll lose control! Don’t worry–I’ll save you!”

Crap. No more doughnuts, no more motorized daredevil screwing around. Score one for the fun governors of the world. These are probably the same killjoys who insist that we put doofy-looking helmets on our heads while we’re biking and four-point harnesses with high-back seats in the new Radio Flyer ‘wagon.’

Come ON, people! That’s not a wagon! THIS is a WAGON, complete with a metal bed upon which you can clonk the back of your head, hard plastic wheels that will take the skin off the top of your foot when it runs over you, and a steel handle suitable for tying your faithful family dog to (or hitting yourself in the forehead with–that’ll leave a mark).

I wonder if we’re losing the ability to think critically and react effectively to crises because we have so many machines to “think” for us. Even in something as basic as writing a letter (er, e-mail), the spellchecker makes it unnecessary for us to have to actually look up a word in the dictionary…heck, Merriam-Webster online makes it unnecessary to even have a physical dictionary in the house!

I’m all for safer products, but only to a point. I have to wonder if all these ‘safety features’ and conveniences added on to modern products are only serving to dumb us down rather than make our lives easier. If I don’t have to THINK about the burner setting on my range, does that make me less-capable of dealing with things that I DO have to think about, such as what speed I drive my car? If I don’t have to THINK about steering the wagon while keeping the handle away from my face, does that make me less-vigilant about OTHER objects approaching my head at high speed?

Going back to the Radio Flyer, it was a rite of passage for us children to have dumped out of the wagon on the terrifying and exhilarating flight down the hill in Geoble’s Woods–it was fun until the wagon started tipping, then it was scary, then it was painful. We learned valuable lessons from that–don’t navigate hills that are beyond you and your wagon’s capabilities, and sometimes something is painful enough to override the fun-ness of it all. I’d like to think that these lessons were corrollaries of natural selection–not quite as harsh, but still serving to highlight the stronger and smarter of the species. Always look for the handle-shaped bruise on the other kid’s forehead before following them down the hill in your own wagon.

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