Wreck On The Highway

Technology Is Everywhere, But Compassion, Evidently, Is In Short Supply.

By Jeff Smith

I-17 AND BELL ROAD WEST--Isn't modern life miraculous? Thanks to the inventions of the industrial/technological/microchip age, I can put the next hour or two it looks like I'll be spending gridlocked in Phoenix rush-hour traffic to good use.

Smith A quick scan of my fellow sufferers reinforces my gratitude to the twin gods of science and capitalism. Two decades ago, if I were in similar straits, there would be nothing for any of us to do but sit and simmer similarly to the cars and trucks that got us into this metaphorical mess, this precise traffic jam in the first place. And like the radiators in these selfsame conveyances, sooner rather than later some of us would boil over and blow. Fists--perhaps even bullets--would fly and the poor soul whose unfortunate contretemps with whatever unknown immovable object up ahead had caused this tie-up might not end up the only fatality. His would be logged as a traffic statistic and history would record the others as homicides, but the teleology would be the same: death by mechanical invention.

Today, however, I see a well-groomed young man in a Range Rover and white shirt and tie with a cell-phone to his ear. He is gesturing with casual nods of the head and small waves of the hand, controlled, maybe practiced, for the edification of an audience of admirers in other motor vehicles. Cellular telephones are not yet universal in urban traffic, and there still are those who are impressed at the sight of a yuppie doing business at 80 miles an hour. Or at a standstill.

In the van ahead and two lanes to the right I can see the flicker of a television screen. Mom and the kids heading home from soccer practice are catching a film while the Phoenix Metro Fire Department works at clearing the wreck from the freeway up ahead.

We know, thanks to the primitive device of radio, and the just-slightly-less-archaic gimmick, the traffi-copter, that it's a roll-over accident clear the hell up at Cave Creek Road we have to thank for our current, 10-mile backup on I-17. I won't be making it to Jones' house in Flagstaff in time for supper, as advertised. Thanks to cellular technology, which has largely replaced the older, more colorful and more populist CB (for Citizens' Band) radio, I have moments ago learned that at least one person has died in this rollover. I heard this from a truck driver who opened the window of his Volvo for a whiff of that wonderful diesel smoke he couldn't get in his state-of-the-art, climate-controlled, sealed operator's module. You didn't know Volvo had gone into diesel big-rigs? Oh yes. Very aerodynamic and swoopy: Yuppiedom hits the truckstops of America.

Anyway, this trucker heard from another trucker up ahead that there was a body covered with a sheet being loaded onto a DPS helicopter. So it's going to be a while before all of these weary road warriors get wherever it is--or was--they imagined getting before the death of the unknown soldier. Good thing we've got car phones and TV sets and battery-powered video games and my little laptop computer here to occupy what otherwise would be wasted, frustrated, potentially murderous time while we wait for the city-state to clear the road-kill off the highway, so we can get on with our modern lives.

Which brings me to an indelicate question:

How much inconvenience is a human life worth?

I'm not talking in spiritualistic, political, bullshit platitudes about the sanctity of the single soul--the sort of flowery excuse that led us into World War I over the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand at Sarajevo. I'm talking finite, quantifiable numbers--in terms of man-hours lost, dollars of potential earnings frittered away, tons of particulate pollution puked into the Phoenix atmosphere--that we can run through our computers to come up with coolly calculated bottom line that will decide for us when to call out the converted snow-plows and simply squeegee the blood and guts and mangled metal to the side of the road let the rest of us get on with our diurnal commute.

Obviously this is not the sort of question we dare ask of anyone who has recently lost a relative or friend to a traffic accident within the last, oh, couple of weeks. It is by this same logic that we disallow mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, from sitting on juries to try accused murderers of loved ones. Emotions of this order constitute a hindrance to rational decision-making.

And clearly, if we are to continue to live, work and play together in increasingly congested societies of mechanized men and women, we're going to have to make some hard decisions as to when polite ritual overcomes practical sense. Hey, we know that was a human being, moments ago, that is now a mere half-octave-lower adjustment in the tone of the smart-ass traffic reporter ("I'm H. Geeee Listiak, talkin' on the Camel...") and that former person was some mother's son, but keeping 15,000 still-living commuters sitting on their dead-asses for a hour while their frozen yogurt melts and their favorite TV shows fall in the forest without them to witness and make it all noisy, isn't going to bring the Loved One back amongst the quick.

So howsabout let's just clear the table for now, and send a busboy back after dark with a carry-out container, to be delivered to the surviving family members. I know it's cold, but this is a hard-old world we've created for ourselves, and by consciously choosing to live in places like Phoenix, we have made our Faustian bargain. We can't have it both ways.

So what's it to be, Phoenix? America? Planet Earth? Do we want free-flowing traffic? Or are we going to keep on whining about death with dignity? TW

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