Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Who are worse drivers, women or men?

I was out for drinks with coworkers and talking about last week's blog post, which complains about cars. Being New Yorkers as well, most of my coworkers were sympathetic. But then the conversation took a surprising turn. One guy mentioned that there was one thing he would never do: get in a car with a woman behind the wheel. Women are terrible drivers.

This made me livid, and I immediately lambasted him for such a sexist claim. Perhaps that's something you would hear when hanging out with a group of friends, but with coworkers? And there was a woman in the group, as well! Most of us can see that this would normally be considered inappropriate.

I immediately took out my phone and started looking up stats to prove that, in fact, men are worse drivers. I didn't know this already, but assumed it must be the case. And it was. In nearly every measurable factor, men are worse drivers than women:

  • Men tend to have more crashes
  • Mens' crashes tend to be more serious
  • Men are more likely to speed
  • Men are more likely to drive while intoxicated
  • Men are more than twice as likely to have fallen asleep at the wheel

And this is why, naturally, men's insurance premiums cost more than women's. Like many "secret" trends, it's surprising how straightforward these stats are, and how simple to find. (You can trust that a subject will be well-measured and analyzed whenever there is money riding on it.) Yet, many people still insist on holding inaccurate beliefs.

(There are many stats about this online that agree; here is the source for those above. And, despite what my coworker tried to rebut, the stats are based on rates, not absolute numbers, so the number of drivers doesn't matter.)

Trouble is, in retrospect I realized that I argued the case all wrong.

It doesn't matter that men are in reality worse drivers than women. Knowing this, would someone now make the decision to never get in a car with a male driver? No, that would clearly be absurd.

The reason it's absurd is that we've all been trained to think of men as individuals, not as a group. Some men may be bad drivers, but we can all realize that this doesn't mean ALL men are, and we can all think of examples of men who are good drivers.

That line of thought is a logical, good thing. What's sad is how much harder it is for some people, such as my coworker, to apply the same logic to women. It's unlikely that there are any women who "would never get in a car with a man behind the wheel", even though - surprise! - they would be at least a bit more justified in that than my coworker is with the opposite.

My coworker's worst crime, his biggest flaw in logic, was not in thinking women were worse drivers than men - they very well could have been, on average. It was extrapolating an average characteristic of a group to apply to every single member of that group.

This is the root of all sexism, racism, and prejudice of any kind. There are always two flaws in logic at work - the details of the assumption, and the fact that you're making an assumption at all. Of the two, the latter is worse. After all, the details of the assumption may very well be positive, but it would still be incorrect to make an assumption. Even if a statement about a group is true on average, you can't extrapolate that to individual members of the group.

Our mission should not be to inform people that, in fact, men are worse drivers than women. They are, on average, but it doesn't matter at the individual level. Our goal should be to realize that assumptions never apply to individuals. Group-level information is still useful, of course, to identify trends and work on solutions. But if I'm about to get in a car with a male driver, there is no way I can correctly guess if he is a good or bad driver based solely on his gender, or aggregate statistics about any of the groups he belongs to.

What's the Secret Peace trend here? Just the trend that more and more people are making this realization and refraining from group stereotypes (you can reference the equality chapter of my book for lots of stats on that.) It was nice when out at the bar to hear that none of my other coworkers joined in the sexist argument; in fact, the only reason it was so notable is that it was an anomaly.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Cars are terrible ... but there is hope

I read an Earth Institute report recently, "Transforming Personal Mobility", that, well, transformed the way I think about personal mobility. (Also known as: cars.)

Last week, an Amtrak train derailed spectacularly, and this was rightly treated as huge news, an unbelievable disaster. The death toll was 8 people, sadly. Meanwhile, cars kill 35,000 people a year in the US alone, but this is never news. That terrible number is actually a huge improvement over previous decades, believe it or not, and other countries have it worse. In total worldwide, cars kill 1.2 million people a year (and injure countless others). No one seems to think this is a problem. There are no news stories about it, no one is in front of the White House picketing cars. We all just accept that this is a totally normal price to pay for the convenience of personal transportation.

The sheer inefficiency of cars is a huge contributor to global warming, wasted energy, and air pollution. Manufacturing them uses huge amounts of energy as well: building one for every person, and then every few years, building another one for every person.

In addition, cars are also extremely expensive per person, not least because of the insurance required (due to all that aforementioned death). If subways or trains or buses were available and efficient everywhere in the country, an individual doing a cost/benefit analysis would rarely opt to own a car.

Cars also have more subtle consequences that are no less awful. Increasingly, evidence is showing that long commutes make people miserable. These commutes are long (even if they're not by car, though most are) because our suburbs have been designed based on the concept of cars. I just finished the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Power Broker, which examined the deadly consequences of destroying urban communities to put highways in cities, as we did throughout the twentieth century. The book posits that over-investment in highways (and thus, less funding for schools, hospitals, and police) and their disruption of communities contributed to New York's decline and crime wave in the 1970s and '80s. Only recently have we started learning better ways to organize cities and undo that damage.

Wait, there's more. Think of all the space wasted by parking garages, and the ugly blight of street parking. Cars line every street in every city, doing nothing but taking up space. The vast majority of people who own cars use them primarily for commuting, meaning they sit idle 90% of every day, decaying.

Lastly, consider the geopolitical implications if we weren't as reliant on oil. At a minimum, several dictators worldwide might have a harder time holding onto power, and we wouldn't need to help them. The people who argued that the Iraq war(s) were ALL about oil never made sense to me, but nor do those who deny it played any part at all. Oil is always at least a factor.

To sum up, self-owned, self-driven cars:

  1. Kill and injure millions of people.
  2. Are a huge contributor to global warming.
  3. Are responsible for much of our air pollution.
  4. Drastically increase our energy needs.
  5. Are unecessarily expensive.
  6. Make people miserable.
  7. Take up lots of room.
  8. Destroy cities and communities.
  9. Encourage wars and prop up terrible regimes worldwide.

So how can we transform this dire situation? Well, one possibility emerges as a plausible solution if the following trends continue:

  1. Right now, ride-hailing apps such as Uber (ugh) and Lyft are booming. They make it easy to just press a button and get a car to appear at your doorstep and take you where you want to go.
  2. Other alternatives to owning a car, such as ride-sharing and temporary rentals like Zipcar, are emerging as well.
  3. Self-driving cars, advocated by Google, are finally on the cusp of availability. Eventually, they will likely become mainstream.
  4. We are all now addicted to social media and entertainment and would much rather watch a movie and tweet about it than drive. (I enter as evidence all the car accidents now caused by people texting.)
  5. We are also pretty desperate for more free time.

Where do those lead us? Let me walk you through one way the future might go:

  • Once self-driving cars become legal, companies like Uber jump on them. Their expenses will go way down if they don't have to pay drivers, nor do they have to worry about variable quality.
  • Individuals buy self-driving cars, too. It's much more pleasant to watch a movie on the way to work (or even do work) than drive. This change alone doesn't help the environment or our energy needs, but it will quickly improve safety. Once perfected, self-driving cars will be much better drivers than us humans.
  • Once a critical mass of self-driving cars are on the streets, accidents decrease, and as a result, insurance premiums could go down. With the money saved, more people can afford new, self-driving cars (ideally, in the form of upgrades to existing cars.)
  • Now accustomed to not driving cars themselves, people grow less attached to them. If they are no longer an extension of our wills and decisions, they will no longer seem like extensions of ourselves.
  • This creates an environment ripe for many companies, or even the government, to offer self-driving on-demand rides like Uber and Lyft. Without drivers, these organizations could afford more cars on the street, making their service even better. They would be able to extend their service to more suburban areas, not just city downtowns.
  • The cost of using that service is so much less than owning a whole car, that many people switch.

Here's the epiphany: Eventually, we have a world in which no one owns a car, but just requests a driverless one on-demand whenever they need a ride.

The streets would be filled with these cars; there is always one available instantly. The interior of each car adjusts to each person's personal settings, and is a rolling workstation/entertainment center. You could watch a movie or conduct a meeting in one; some might even offer lunch. No one will ever waste time commuting, since commuting will just consist of doing whatever we were doing anyway, but in motion. Regular commuters would have pickups scheduled, with no risk of unavailability. The number of cars on the streets would be the same as today, but each car would be more energy-efficient than a mistake-prone human driver. One-person trips would use smaller cars, that don't have to be larger based on the off-chance four people need a ride. There would be no need for parked cars at all - just like how you don't see many parked taxis today - the fleet is always in motion. So the total number of cars manufactured would be much fewer. This would free up millions of acres of room and just plain make all our streets look better.

The main downside is that self-driving cars would put a lot of people - taxi drivers, chauffeurs, truck drivers - out of work. Hopefully the transition would be gradual. And the savings would be equally spread to all car users. Only the world's richest people can afford to have drivers waiting on them today; soon, an equivalent could be available to all of us for a fraction of the cost.

At no point would we need to make people-driven, individually-owned cars illegal, of course. Compelling incentives to voluntarily change are always better than a ban. A few eccentric people would probably continue to own and drive cars, just like today's vinyl record-collecting hipsters or the few superstitious writers still using typewriters. Eventually, these drivers would be shunned for the risk they put everyone else in.

I haven't driven a car in almost ten years. I'm excited for the possibility that by the time my daughter reaches driving age, this will have become the norm instead of the exception.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Children are much safer today

From The Week, April 3, 2015:

Despite the fears of modern parents, children today are much safer than they were two decades ago. The physical abuse of children declined by 55 percent between 1992 and 2011, while sexual abuse declined 64 percent. From 1997 to 2012, abductions by strangers also went down, by 51 percent.

Think about that. There is LESS THAN HALF AS MUCH physical abuse, sexual abuse, and abductions of children as there were in the nineties.

What I find encouraging, even more encouraging, perhaps, than knowing how much better today's children are doing, is how much better tomorrow's adults are going to do. These less-abused kids are going to grow up. What other negative indicators decrease when the adult population has a much lower history of abuse in their past? Is there even less crime, less sickness, less unhappiness?

And then think about how much less likely these healthier adults are to pass down more abuse than were their parents. This is an incredible trend that should pay dividends for generations.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Amputee makes history

A few months ago in a post, I mentioned a new type of prosthetic arm that can touch and feel. Suddenly, it seems like news on this front is everywhere. It's thrilling to be living in a moment when this technology is breaking through and advancing at an astonishing pace. Here are some more reports:

First, an amputee made history by becoming the first person to control two shoulder-level prosthetic limbs. As the Youtube description says:

A Colorado man made history at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) this summer when he became the first bilateral shoulder-level amputee to wear and simultaneously control two of the Laboratory’s Modular Prosthetic Limbs. Most importantly, Les Baugh, who lost both arms in an electrical accident 40 years ago, was able to operate the system by simply thinking about moving his limbs, performing a variety of tasks during a short training period.

This is the world we live in now, where this is possible. The video needs to be seen to be believed:

Secondly, this video blew up social media last week. In it, Robert Downey Jr., channeling Tony Stark, delivers an Iron Man arm to a charming young boy.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

We will never have a perfect world ...

Pleasant surprise to run into a Steven Pinker quote randomly in Chipotle today.

"We will never have a perfect world, but it's not romantic or naive to work toward a better one."

If you're looking for a great huge book to tackle in 2015, you can't go wrong with Pinker's brilliant The Better Angels of Our Nature.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Don't take our parks for granted

I'm reading the classic Pulitzer-Prize-winner The Power Broker, a history of New York City as seen through the biography of Robert Moses. Moses was the most important figure in the city's 20th-century history, having built much of the infrastructure of the city (and Long Island, and elsewhere) that we use today - for better or for worse. His legacy is a fascinatingly mixed bag, and that includes some serious caveats with his masterpiece, Riverside Park. But on the whole, it's easy to appreciate how far New York's parks have come. Here's a passage describing Riverside in 1914:

Sometimes, of course, Moses would tell the cab driver to take him straight home. But often he would ask to be dropped off across the West Side, on Riverside Drive, at the end of Seventy-sixth Street near the Hudson River. And as he climbed out of the cab there, he climbed out into a scene far different than the doormanned serenity of Central Park West.
He would be standing on the high bluff that was Riverside Drive, behind him, if he looked up, stately apartment houses would appear to be swaying over him against a backdrop of moving clouds. But he would be looking down. Below him, along the edge of the river, was a wasteland, a wasteland six miles long, stretching from where he stood all the way north to 181st Street. The wasteland was named Riverside Park, but the "park" was nothing but a vast low-lying mass of dirt and mud. Running through its length was the four-track bed of the New York Central, which lay in a right-of-way that had been turned over to the railroad by the city half a century before. Unpainted, rusting, jagged wire fences along the tracks barred the city from its waterfront; in the whole six miles, there were exactly three bridges on which the tracks could be crossed, and they led only to private boating clubs.
The engines that pulled trains along the tracks burned coal or oil; from their smokestacks a dense black smog rose toward the apartment houses, coating windowsills with grit. The smog had an acrid odor, but people who lived in the apartments hardly noticed it; it was scarecely worth mentioning alongside the stench that seemed to hang over Riverside Drive endlessly after each passage of a train carrying south to the slaughterhouses in downtown Manhattan carload after carload of cattle and pigs. When, despite the smell, Riverside Drive residents were driven by the heat to open their windows, they were kept awake at night by the clank of the couplings which hooked the cars together.
Walking in the park was an adventure; the walker sank at intervals into the landfill of which it had been constructed, for water has eaten away much of the fill from below. In many spots, it had broken through the crust of the fill to form little lakes. Every year the park grew smaller, as its edge crumbled into the river.
Areas that were still solid had been appropriated by the railroad for wood-lined pits in which coal was piled. Lying along the river were heaps of rotting timbers, stored years before by some city department and forgotten. At Seventy-ninth and Ninety-sixth streets, untreated garbage mounded toward the sky; the Sanitation Department used those areas as dumping grounds from which the garabage was transferred to scows which towed it out to the open sea, but somehow the rate of transfer was never fast enough to clear the refuse away entirely. Other solid spots held human refuse: derelicts who had built tar-paper shanty towns considered so dangerous that the police stayed away from them. At night, the open fires over which the derelicts cooked flickered in the darkness below the Drive.
Looking south, Moses could see the bluff sink and the park narrow until both disappeared, and houses, factories and warehouses crowded close to the waterfront. The railroad tracks wended their way between the buildings, making several sharp curves, and then emerged on Eleventh Avenue, along which, at street level, trains inched their way in a straight line down to the foot of the island. In front of every train, to warn away pedestrians and drivers, rode a cowboy on a horse, waving a large red flag. Since the trains came at frequent intervals and moved extremely slowly along the avenue, traffic was frequently backed up for blocks. Often, a driver would become impatient and ignore the warning flag. For that reason, Eleventh had become known as "Death Avenue." For years, the city had tried without success to find a solution to the problem posed by the presence of the railroad along the West Side.

The passage particularly struck me because I've been planning a sketch meetup to sketch the park soon. For those who don't know, here's what that exact spot described above looks like today, as seen from Google Streetview:

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 closes with a surprising wave of optimism

Let's face it, 2014 was full of lamentable news events, and while I'm usually able to maintain an optimistic outlook by looking at the big picture, I'm also resigned to the media rarely sharing that viewpoint. So I was completely surprised to see a wave of overall "good news" articles popping up in the last week. I've followed (and written) articles like this for years, and I can't remember the last time I saw this many written at the same time.

Some of it is inspired by economic news. By all accounts, the economy has been successfully recovering for a while now, although not necessarily in a way - or at a pace - that benefits everyone. But here's a New York Times article about the economic recovery finally spreading to the middle class in the form of wage gains.

I don't usually talk about specific economic news when discussing the Secret Peace, because I'm more concerned with long-term trends than with any specific economic cycle. The economy goes up, and the economy goes down, once a decade or so, and it always will. That's why I was glad to see other positive articles focusing on issues beyond rising consumer confidence and falling gas prices.

Michael Grunwald's article in Politico, for example, talks a lot about the economy but also raises good points about the press's negative focus and our reluctance to discuss good news. He writes, "This bah-humbug brand of moral superiority has flourished since the crisis: How dare you celebrate this or that piece of economic data when so many Americans are still hurting? It’s awkward to argue with that view, since many Americans are indeed still hurting. But the economic data keep showing that fewer Americans are hurting every month. ... Better is better than worse."

He goes on to write, "Let’s face it: The press has a problem reporting good news. Two Americans died of Ebola and cable TV flipped out; now we're Ebola-free and no one seems to care. The same thing happened with the flood of migrant children across the Mexican border, which was a horrific crisis until it suddenly wasn't. Nobody’s going to win a Pulitzer Prize for recognizing that we're smoking less, driving less, wasting less electricity and committing less crime. Police are killing fewer civilians, and fewer police are getting killed, but understandably, after the tragedies in Ferguson and Brooklyn, nobody's thinking about that these days. The media keep us in a perpetual state of panic about spectacular threats to our safety — Ebola, sharks, terrorism — but we’re much likelier to die in a car accident. Although, it ought to be said, much less likely than we used to be; highway fatalities are down 25 percent in a decade."

For an even more comprehensive look at the big picture, Steven Pinker can always be relied upon for well-researched, compelling updates. In this Slate article, he and Andrew Mack try to get past the sensationalism of the media and examine trends objectively, by tallying numbers. Take a look at some of these excellent charts:

They write, "The world is not falling apart. The kinds of violence to which most people are vulnerable—homicide, rape, battering, child abuse—have been in steady decline in most of the world. Autocracy is giving way to democracy. Wars between states—by far the most destructive of all conflicts—are all but obsolete. ... We have been told of impending doom before: a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, a line of dominoes in Southeast Asia, revanchism in a reunified Germany, a rising sun in Japan, cities overrun by teenage superpredators, a coming anarchy that would fracture the major nation-states, and weekly 9/11-scale attacks that would pose an existential threat to civilization. Why is the world always “more dangerous than it has ever been” — even as a greater and greater majority of humanity lives in peace and dies of old age?"

Topping even Pinker and Mack's charts is this Vox.com article listing 26 important charts that show the world is getting better. Their charts cover wildly different stats - much like my book - that all add up to an improving world. Some highlights:

Lastly, astronaut Chris Hadfield leaves us with this short uplifting look at the state of the world - and an excellent challenge for each of us to make the most of 2015. Happy new year!