Thursday, August 24, 2006

Present-Day Fears

Farhad Manjoo criticizes the response of architects and urban planners to the threat of terrorism:

[W]e're building structures that may last forever but are frozen around our present-day fears.
Manjoo's point is not that we shouldn't do this; he just wants it to be done tastefully. When architecture is too intimidating, or too obviously communicates fearfulness, it darkens the social and political mood of our cities. Disguise the militarization of urban space, though, and you get the best of both worlds: security, and the appearance of tranquility.

Manjoo notes that for many building owners, politicians, and architects, a more heavyhanded style of architectural defense communicates that they're very serious people who are committed to homeland security. They want citizens to be able to see at a glance that steps have been taken, and they want to intimidate, and possibly even ward off, evildoers.

Many of the world's most beloved structures are monuments to fear, of course. The Great Wall of China reflects the fears of its day, but it's no less picturesque for that. And although a chief goal of Baron Hausmann's redesign of Paris was to make it easier to exercise state power over would-be revolutionaries, it also made Paris one of the most beautiful cities on earth. Still, we usually prefer to appreciate the aesthetics of ruling-class paranoia from a safe distance (distance, after all, is the foundation of aesthetics, which is why there's such a fine line between aesthetics and evil).

Anyway, it's often pointed out that Americans are much, much more likely to be killed by drunk drivers than terrorists, and so Manjoo's article makes me wonder what an architectural or design response to this threat might look like. If we suddenly decided that we, as a society, could no longer tolerate the astonishing amount of death and bereavement that drunk drivers annually cause, how might our lives and landscape change?

For starters, we could build a tollbooth-like arrangement at all freeway onramps; you'd blow into a tube, and if your blood-alcohol level were acceptable, the gate would rise. This would result in massive traffic jams, of course. But we've all recently heard air travelers say that they'd rather wait in a longer line than be blown up by terrorists. Why shouldn't drivers feel the same way about blood-alcohol checkpoints designed for no other purpose than to protect them?

Of course, if we built such checkpoints, drunk drivers would simply take surface streets. To thwart them, we could drastically increase the number of random, roving sobriety checkpoints. But the sad fact is that some drunks would inevitably slip through the net. After all, if you see a police checkpoint several blocks ahead, you can usually take the next turn and go around it; I've done it myself.

One way to reduce this problem would be to equip each side-street with the sort of gates that block railroad tracks when a train's coming. The moment the checkpoint's in place, you could close off every exit. Again, the traffic problems would be enormous, but wouldn't you rather get home an hour or two late than be killed by some lush who was too busy bellowing along with Foghat's "Fool for the City" to notice that he was in the wrong lane?

It's all very well to build tollbooths and install gates at intersections, but it's still not foolproof. However, suppose we also made it impossible for drunks to start their cars? New car models could come with an onboard blood-alcohol tester; you'd have to blow into a tube before the engine would start.

There are loopholes here that designers would need to address. Some drunks will be able to convince sober friends or bystanders to breathe into the tube for them. For that reason, the tube should be accessible only from the driver’s seat, and a built-in camera should record each test. Weight sensors in the seat could help, too.

Of course, you could blow into a balloon before drinking, and then use it to fool the machine after your Dionysian revels. A temperature-sensitive sensor would do much to make this impractical.

More tech-savvy boozers will figure out ways to disable the computer permanently. That problem could possibly be addressed by having police officers conduct a test of the system during routine pullovers. However, we also have to worry about malfunctions; what if, in an emergency, your car "decides" that you're drunk and refuses to start? Manufacturers would have to be given blanket immunity from lawsuits, I'd imagine, or the idea would never get off the ground.

It's obvious that none of these systems is going to keep every drunk driver off the road. Remember: we have to be right 100 percent of the time, but a drunk only has to be right once. Still, the combination of placing testing booths at onramps, increasing the number and frequency of random checkpoints while blocking side-street escape routes, mandating a fraudproof onboard testing system in all new vehicles, and bringing back prohibition would all but eliminate alcohol-related auto fatalities. It's true that other substances can impair driving, but it's equally true that once a system is in place for alcohol testing, it'd be comparatively easy to adapt it to drugs like marijuana, cocaine, and heroin.

What's noteworthy here is how each "solution" causes additional problems, and exposes loopholes that must be closed if previous efforts are not to be wasted (would you rather completely scrap an expensive system, or improve it by spending a little extra money, or slightly relaxing a law?). If we were really serious about getting drunk drivers off the road, we'd have to make huge changes to street design, automotive design, and the law itself. And we'd have to make constant improvements thereafter, as criminals adapted their behavior in unforeseen ways.

On the bright side, we might achieve economies of scale in terms of other sorts of social control and surveillance. For instance, the same onramp checkpoint that tests for alcohol could test for explosive compounds, thereby identifying truck bombs.

Or vice versa, for that matter.

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