I read the below tweet from Megan McArdle about middle class driving habits (under the cut) while I was riding the Long Island Railroad and a couple of minutes later a woman asked me if people ever tell me I look like Sammy Hagar, and then asked to take my picture to send to her boyfriend, who apparently is a big Sammy Hagar fan.
That’s as good a lead in as any for this post, which is about the notion of a “law abiding citizen”, norms (especially the hyper-norming power of insurance and the internet both), and the (interesting to me) omission of driving habits from the (so called) culture wars.
When I met my wife she had two cats, an orange tabby named Toby, and a runty grey tabby named Pickles that she got to keep Toby company. When we moved from the city to Montauk, the cats went from being full-time indoor apartment cats, to indoor/outdoor suburban cats.
Pickles especially thrived in her new life. She got bigger, hunted voles, and generally seemed to enjoy her new found freedom and expanded horizons.
She also got dead.
One Summer day I went out to check the mail and found her body laid out on a piece of cardboard next to our mailbox, and much to my surprise, I was bitterly grief-stricken, sobbing piteously and wailing horribly next to her lifeless body until a neighbor came over and took me back into my house. I emerged several hours later with a large laminated sign with big red letters that read “How Fast Were You Driving When You Killed Our Cat?” and staked it next to the road.
The speed limit on our street is 30mph, as it is on all of the residentail streets in Montauk. But it’s wide and well-paved. It’s not uncommon for people to go 40, but I’ve clocked drivers going as fast as 50 (I set up some marks 100 yards apart and spent a few hours on a Summer day timing cars with a stop watch.)
Pickles’ death and the anguish it provoked caused me to re-evaluate my driving habits.
Before she was struck, and like everyone else, I routinely drove 5, 10, maybe even 15 mile per hour over the posted limit, depending on conditions of weather, traffic, visibility and, of course, likelihood of getting caught.
After her death I resolved to drive the posted limit on surface roads (and on the slow side of the speed of the traffic on controlled access roads.)
My reasoning was quite simple.
Under normal conditions the posted limit on surface roads feels painfully slow. One can feel completely under control going 40 down a residential street.
But the limit is not there to account for normal conditions, it’s there to allow the non-Mario Andrettis of us (which is to say all of us) some reasonable chance of dealing with unforeseen circumstances (a cat or a child running into the road for example) and to mitigate the effect when we can’t.
Or to put it in an economic context, driving the speed limit (and whatever delays that entails) is like putting money in the bank to be better able to deal with the inevitably of the Black Swan Events that are only unpredictable in the form they will take and the exact moment that they will occur. In as much as whether or not these events will happen, these “unforeseeable events” are an absolute certainty.
Of course my new found piety made me a pariah on the roads. Where ever I went traffic piled up behind me, raising everyone’s blood pressure and causing a condition probably as hazardous, if not more hazardous that excessive speed.
S/V INTEMPERANCE, scooning along under full canvas, commercial banner carried proudly.
In the previous post, Making a Living in the Wake of the Pelican Disaster, I outlined the genesis, form, and enforcement of Subchapter T of the Code of Federal Regulations, the laws that govern boats that carry passengers for hire.
I also explained that in Montauk the enforcement of the passenger count aspect of these rules is more or less on the honor system.
Inspected Vessels (boats certified to carry 7 or more passengers) do get inspected every year, but only because by being certificated they have put themselves on a “watch list” that mandates their inspection. I’ve never heard of a boat carrying more than six passengers being stopped to see if it was a commercial trip. Indeed, how could this work? The vessel would have to have a banner on the side (like ours did) proclaiming that it was for hire. Otherwise an illegal trip is indistinguishable from a pleasure boat, and pleasure boats are not subject to a passenger limit.
Not too surprisingly, there are unscrupulous and/or uninformed operators who take advantage of this.
There has been in Montauk for some years now a 38 foot foreign-built*, undocumented, uninspected sloop making trips with 10 or more passengers. The skipper is a local fellow and (until recently) advertised with handbills and word of mouth.
And then last Summer, a 63 foot catamaran sailed in and also began running trips out of the yacht club with illegal passenger counts.
This vexed me and the other legally run charter sailing operator terribly. When the Summer crush hit we started turning down business to stay in compliance, only to watch the pirate operators go sailing by with people stacked on their decks like cordwood (well not really like cordwood, but it felt that way!)
Progressive Insurance’s Snapshot Device
Unlike me, Progressive Insurance does not care how fast you drive (so long as you don’t get caught!)
Progressive insurance does care about a few other details of your driving habits; how hard you accelerate and brake, what time of day you drive, and how much you drive.
The reason I know this is because they want you to let them monitor your driving habits in exchange for (the possibility of) lower rates. The way this works is that you let them put their Snapshot device in your car.
In their video promoting Snapshot, Progressive Insurance affirmatively states that Snapshot does not monitor where you drive or how fast you drive. It does monitor acceleration, miles driven, and time of day when driving, and presumably there is some sort of actuarial correlation between these metrics and the likelihood of accidents.
Here’s the other thing.
Progressive says that data from Snapshot cannot make your rates go up, only down, and down by as much as 30%.
This suggests that because Progressive is unable to able to distinguish between high-milage, hard-breaking drivers caught in rush hour traffic and those of us who work from home, brake gently, and make a point of traveling at off-hours, we safer drivers have been subsidizing less safe drivers by paying rates that are not justified by our driving habits, and that Progressive believes is they can identify and capture more cautious drivers, they’ll be able to add to their revenue out of proportion to their increases exposure.
Now I suspect some of you have your arms akimbo after reading the above passage, and I’ll grant you that suspicions of an insurance company’s motives is warranted. But in this case I’m inclined to give Progressive the benefit of the doubt.
Why? Because recreational boat insurance is incredibly cheap. Let me explain:
Our sloop S/V INTEMPERANCE was a 1979 Catalina 38 that we bought in 2007 for $23,500. I thought that was under value, so when we got recreational insurance against lost and liability I asked for a stated-value policy of $30K, plus another $1K for personal effects. That put the insurance company’s exposure at $1,000,000 if someone got hurt or if I ran into someone’s boat, or if I had an oil spill, and another $31K if the boat was wrecked.
The annual cost for this coverage was $525, and if you compare that to a commensurate amount of loss and liability coverage for a private automobile, it’s a fantastic deal.
Why? Because unlike most private cars, which are in near daily use, most private boats are tremendously under-utilized. It’s taken as axiomatic that on a per use basis for what it costs most people to keep and operate a 35 foot private boat they could hire a luxury charter for each outing and still end up ahead. But the sheer (mere?) joy of ownership is something people are willing to pay for, and the relatively low risk of their boats sitting idle subsidizes the rate that I pay, even though I use my boat a lot.
The Atlantic Monthly, November, 1857
In his 2009 essay Audience Atomization Overcome: Why the Internet Weakens the Authority of the Press Jay Rosen makes this assertion:
“In the age of mass media, the press was able to define the sphere of legitimate debate with relative ease because the people on the receiving end were atomized– meaning they were connected “up” to Big Media but not across to each other. But today one of the biggest factors changing our world is the falling cost for like-minded people to locate each other, share information, trade impressions and realize their number. Among the first things they may do is establish that the “sphere of legitimate debate” as defined by journalists doesn’t match up with their own definition.
“In the past there was nowhere for this kind of sentiment to go. Now it collects, solidifies and expresses itself online. Bloggers tap into it to gain a following and serve demand. Journalists call this the “echo chamber,” which is their way of downgrading it as a reliable source. But what’s really happening is that the authority of the press to assume consensus, define deviance and set the terms for legitimate debate is weaker when people can connect horizontally around and about the news.”
Maybe that’s how it looks to Professor Rosen, but it’s not how it looks to me.
My explanation for the difference in our perception is that Professor Rosen has been on the faculty of NYU since 1986, fully ensconced in the halls of power, and because of this he mistakes shifting in power in “big media” for the erosion of power of “big media.”
I, on the other hand, have lived the last 15 years of my professional life on the margin between Rosen’s “sphere of deviancy” and his “sphere of legitimate debated”. The work I’ve produced provoking on one hand dismissive scorn from internet commentors and sanction from industrialized Western democracies, and on the other, an invitation to guest blog for James Fallows here at The Atlantic.
From that strange perch I see the high water mark for the independent blogger as being somewhere back around 2004(?) when Andrew Sullivan signed on with Time.com, and in the subsequent years journalist (ie sanctioned purveyors of information) have become more powerful than ever in defining what lies within the “sphere of legitimate debate”.
From my point of view the flood of information and sources has only served to make provenance and credentials that much more important. (Which is why I spent the last 3 years more or less laying digital siege to The Atlantic, in the hopes of embedding my ideas within the brand’s protective embraced.)
Video from the New America Foundation panel Dictators or Dissenters?
My own thinking on the nature of how the internet does or doesn’t shift power and to whom was hugely influenced by James Fallows post Internet: Friend of Dictators or Dissenters?, and the 45 minute long video from the 2010 New America Foundation board retreat featuring Eric Schmidt, Alec Ross, and Timothy Woo. (Appended above.)
The short version of my take-away from the panel, and concordant with my own experiences is that for however much horizontal connection tips things towards the “the little guy”, on the balance, that same connectedness and data generation ultimately tips more to the powers that be. Like the difference between the small workshops that could create state-scale weapons in the 18th century (sabers, rifles, canons, sailing ships) vs the military/industrial complex needed to design, produce, and maintain state level weapons today (B2 bombers, M1 Abrams tanks, LCSs) we have entered an era where the production and sorting of information takes place at a state or quasi-state corporate level, and the simple and unavoidable act of participating in the information industrial complex transfers power upwards disproportionately to any small, sort-term gain at the lower ranks.
In this day and age you simply can’t do business with handbills and word of mouth. Whether you’re running a pirate charter operation or an escort operation, have to be on the internet and you have to make yourself easy to find. And easy for your customer to find you means easy for the authorities to find you too. It’s like having Snapshot installed in every aspect of your business that involves the exchange of data.
By way of example I offer FaceBook, which Montauk’s pirate charter sailing operations, like many other businesses, find increasingly indispensable to their operations, but which also put their dubious activities on display for enforcement authorities in a way that their actual operations don’t. For a rumination in the norming power of the internet that maybe hits a little closer to how most people use the Internet, please see NSFW (But Then Again, Safety is Overrated) elsewhere on this site.
A billboard from a New York City DOT speed awareness campaign
I don’t have Snapshot in my car.
Mostly this is because I have coverage through USAA, and unearned benefit of being the son of a father who served his country, and USAA’s rates beat the hell out of Progressive. But even without a driving habit monitor in my car, I already have significant incentive to drive cautiously.
When we started running S/V INTEMPERANCE as a six-pack charter we had to upgrade our insurance from private recreational to commercial. We carried the same loss and liabity coverage, only instead of costing $525, it cost about $1,275. My inference is that a boat that is in regular operation poses greater exposure to the insurance company, and the rates are commensurately higher. This inference is further supported by the fact that there is an intermediate level of six-pack coverage if you assert that you will have fewer than 20 days of commercial operations.
As a condition of coverage, I had to sign a waiver allowing my carrier to see my New York state driving records. My inference there is that insurance companies have found that driving records are a useful proxy for general jack-assedness. This inference is further supported by the fact that when we took out a builder’s risk policy (insurance against fire, theft and other loss of material and labor) for the construction of S/V MON TIKI I once again had to sign a waiver releasing my driving records, even though the builder’s risk policy specifically does not cover operation of the vessel by me or anyone else. And I expect it will I will have to do the same when I apply for operational insurance.
But despite the incentives I have to drive cautiously, something terrible happened while I was driving home last year.
Last October I was east-bound on highway 27, right near the triangle park near Toilsome lane. It was rush hour, just after sunset, traffic was heavy and even though it’s a mixed commercial and residential area with a posted speed limit of 30mph traffic was moving along at about 40, and I was keeping up. Even still, the car behind me was on my bumper.
In the fading light I saw the shape of an animal bolt out onto the road. It was black and white, which meant it had to be a cat, about 15 yards in front of me.
Every fiber of my being wanted to break hard or swerve, but my father was a doctor who got called to the hospital whenever an ambulance pulled into the ER, and I had it drilled into me that people get into terrible wrecks, hurting themselves and others trying to avoid small animals.
I pulled my foot off the gas pedal, but I resisted the impulse to step on the breaks.
I felt an urge to swerve onto the shoulder, but instead locked my hands at ten an two.
The cat disappeared under the horizon of the hood of my car and I hoped.
I felt the front wheel go over the cat, then an instant later a back wheel.
My first thought was to pull over, go back and try to get the cat’s body off the road before it was rendered unrecognizable. But I thought about whether or not the hazard of dashing into rush hour traffic at dusk balanced against retrieving the cat’s body and I decided it wasn’t worth the risk. I drove home, and didn’t tell anyone about killing the cat until now.
* Aside from the passenger count issues, there is also the question of the Jones Act, which requires that all vessels engaged in coastwise trade be US build (or be exempted via an act of congress) and that all vessels over five gross tons that are engaged in coastwise trade be documented. The Jones Act is plainly protectionist, and has no bearing on the safety concerns that the T-boat regulations are intended to address. None the less, it is the law.