Friday, July 17, 2009

Photo radar? There’s an app for that

Noting that Washington, DC, law enforcement has raked in nearly $1 billion – with a B – from photo radar cameras since 2005, the District’s police chief has naturally condemned an iPhone app that alerts users to the location of speed and red-light photo radar units.

Police Chief Cathy Lanier said using the app is a “cowardly tactic” and vowed the areas various police departments would step up efforts to nail speeders and red-light runners.

Developed by PhantomAlert Corp., the Trapster app uses GPS satellites and user feedback to locate, update and signal iPhone users that they are near a photo radar setup. The DC area has some 290 such setups.

The chief argues that photo radar has reduced collisions and helped to tame the hell-for-leather attitude of many area drivers – who are to my mind no doubt so frustrated after hours of crawling along the Beltway or other so-called “thorough” fares that they can’t help but mash on the pedal.

More than once I’ve spent more time driving from the Baltimore airport into DC than I did getting to my departure airport and flying to Washington.

Personally, this sounds like something that gives you fair warning, just as a sign would, and then it’s up to you to decide whether to stop or back it down. And unlike radar detectors, it’s not illegal.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

It’s all in how you ask the question

Anybody who has flipped on the tube to some courtroom drama has heard the phrase: “Objection! Leading the witness.”

The point of the objection is, you can’t ask a question that provokes the answer you’re looking for. Too bad that rule doesn’t apply to surveys and polls.

A great example of a survey loaded with leading questions was one recently released by a group pushing for increasing the size and weights of heavy trucks on the National Highway System. Supposedly, the poll reveals that people are overwhelmingly in agreement that we need larger and heavier trucks on the highways.

Being the skeptic I am, I immediately requested a copy of the poll and the questions asked. And, honestly, I am not surprised by what I saw.

The pollsters surveyed 1,000 people. Presumably, these people were “Average Joes” not familiar with the dynamics of truck weights, highway fatigue, stopping distances and such.

They were asked questions like this:

Considering the state of our economy, if it could be demonstrated that a reasonable increase in the truck weight limit could contribute to safer roads, greater fuel economy and more productive highway transportation by enabling companies to consolidate loads and deliver products with fewer trucks, would you favor or oppose higher weight limits for properly outfitted tractor-trailers?

That is one big “if” in that question.

The survey questions leaned on causes like cleaning up the environment, reducing congestion, improving highway safety. And the way they were worded, if you opposed adding weight or increasing the size of trucks and trailers you were against – the environment, highway safety, etc.

Anyone with any real knowledge of the trucking industry knows that increasing the size and weight of trucks on the road will cause more problems than it solves.

Trotting out opinion surveys based on leading questions asked of people ill-equipped with the knowledge to know what they are really saying is just another smokescreen.

Truckers know that universally increasing the size and weight of all trucks using the National Highway System is a bad idea. Land Line has an in-depth piece on this very subject in its July issue.

Hopefully lawmakers will continue to listen to the truckers who know what they’re talking about instead of giving even a second thought to a survey of 1,000 people who had five minutes to kill answering a few leading questions.

Greensburg revisited

I thought she was kidding.

Sandi Soendker, Land Line managing editor, told the staff at our morning news budget meeting that Greensburg, KS, had been hit by another storm, tearing down at least one wall of the town high school.

Greensburg made worldwide headlines in May 2007 when 95 percent of the city was destroyed by a rare EF-5 tornado that killed 14.

Now another storm has damaged one building that was being rebuilt. Read about it here.

I was fortunate to be sent on assignment to Greensburg in the aftermath of the 2007 tornado, where I joined photographer Greg Holmes and radio reporter Patsy Terrell, two veteran Kansas journalists.

The town’s ties to trucking were intriguing. Greensburg’s proximity to U.S. 54, a major trucking route linking Kansas to New Mexico and the West Coast, as well as I-35, made it an attractive hometown for many trucking families.

We spent two days interviewing several OOIDA members and townspeople, all amid flattened houses, yards scrubbed clean of grass and strange sights such as a two-by-four lodged halfway into the body of an old car.

Greg and I may have violated some military rules when we snuck across town to see President Bush up close and got to meet the late Tony Snow, former television journalist and then press secretary.

But back to the point: The tornado’s carnage knew few bounds.

Looking through pictures of the town’s massive rebuilding efforts, I was struck by a stark contrast.

See the difference between Greg’s pictures, available here and recent shots of futuristic city and school buildings and homes, seen here?

However, centuries of improvement in engineering, materials and knowledge still don’t beat Mother Nature.