Friday, July 29, 2011

It'll Be a Very Warm Time in the Old Town Tonight

I know hot weather. I have been in heat: foolishly trying to walk to an appointment while wearing a pressed, briefly crisp white shirt and tie in Hong Kong heat and humidity. Strolling the Las Vegas Strip when the temperature hit 117F. Shopping in outdoor markets on a sweltering Mumbai afternoon. Stopping at a desert camp for a meal in the United Arab Emirates in weather that was far from chilly.

And I live in California, where temperatures - or temps, as our local TV weather forecasters call them - can reach triple-digits. Yet, unless they actually do reach triple digits, the aforementioned weatherpersons will not utter the H word on the air: Hot. Forecasts this week, for example, call for seven consecutive days with highs at 90F and above, yet the TV weather map reads "Very Warm.'' Excuse me, that's hot. Why the reluctance to utter the H word?

Denial of climate change, consciously or unconsciously? Could be, as said weatherpersons virtually never address global warming in their reports. Or maybe it's a California thing. The Golden State is, after all, famous as the land of sun and fun. With lots of sun come lots of high temps. They are virtually never dampened in the dry summer months by rain - er, precip (forecaster-speak for precipitation). So, maybe it's bad PR for the state, even when directed at people who live here.

Ah, well. It's supposed to hit 98F shortly and that means just one thing: It'll be a very warm time in the old town tonight.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Airheads and the FAA: 70,000 More Worries

As noted here in earlier posts, the U.S. Congress - the House of Representatives and the Senate - have each passed legislation to fund the Federal Aviation Administration, but can't blend - 'reconcile' in Washingtonese - differences in the bills. Moreover, an attempt to pass a 21st temporary funding measure for the FAA failed.

This latest example of governmental dysfunctionality caused 4,000 FAA workers to be furloughed on Saturday, Day 1 of the crisis. Today, Thursday, Day 6, they have been joined by 70,000 more workers who were laboring on badly needed airport expansions and other infrastructure upgrades; these have been halted for lack of money. This means no paychecks and no spending money for these people and their families. All this at near-record highs in nationwide unemployment, when throwing 70,000 more onto the unemployment rolls means U.S. retail outlets, automobile dealerships, construction companies and other busiensses will lose revenue.

Does Congress not understand that putting 70,000 out of work - not to mention the legions of federal workers targeted by presumptive future cuts in the federal budget - means adding significantly to short- and perhaps long-term unemployment?

As slowing growth in international air-travel shows, pace the International Air Transport Association's statistics ( a big influx of newly unemployed means the already-staggering business community won't see enough demand to hire these people and switch their employment to the private sector from the public sector. Result: Deep structural unemployment.

What a mess. Well, at least the air traffic controllers are still on the job and the planes are still flying. But without federal funding, without the revenue from suspended federal taxes on air fares and without continuing research on long-delayed next generation air traffic control systems, the crucially important U.S. aviation market is flying into turbulence and no one knows when it's going to fly back out.

Monday, July 25, 2011


Like many, I have spent the last few days trying to wrap my mind about what happened in Norway last Friday: Namely, the slaughter of 70-odd innocents by a heavily armed white, rightwing, anti-Muslim extremist who may or may not have acted alone.

The facts of the case are difficult enough to absorb without wondering what has happened to the peaceful, beautiful, largely harmonious nation of 5 million people.

When I think of Norway, I think of the wonderful Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, the Oslo-Bergen train ride over the mountainous spine of Norway, the skiers gliding up to high-country rail stations and clattering on board the train with their gear, a father and daughter in Bergen harbor bobbing up to dockside with a load of fresh fish they had caught themselves in a small boat. It's difficult to reconcile these memories of Norway with the cracked concrete and blown-out windows in Oslo and the perfectly horrible sight of bodies in the water off the island where the mass shooting of Labor Party youth took place.

In the blogosphere, where opinion is never in short supply but facts don't always seem to matter, Left and pro-Muslim bloggers took scant time saying "see!'' and pointing out that Muslims hadn't carried out this latest terror attack, while scoring others for initially assuming they had.

They shouldn't congratulate themselves too much. It took 16 years following Timothy McVeigh's Oklahoma City attack of 1995 for mass murder on this scale to happen in a Western country that wasn't carried out by Muslims. Radicalized, jihadist Muslims - who, it must be said again and clearly understood, don't speak or act for the majority of decent people around the world who happen to be Muslim - have carried out many attacks in many countries in those 16 years, claiming thousands of lives. Condemning the acts of the shooter/bomber in custody, one Anders Behring Breivik, is certainly the right thing to do. It doesn't begin to excuse the terrorist acts of others - many aimed at travelers and commuters, such as the atrocities in Mumbai, London, Madrid and several locations in Egypt, notably the tourist magnet of Luxor.

As for the accused Norwegian killer, one irony here is that he has become a mirror image of the people he hates. This fact has not gone unnoticed in Norway.

"Thomas Hegghammer, a terrorism specialist at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, said (Breivik's online) manifesto bears an eerie resemblance to those issued by Osama bin Laden and other leaders of Al Qaeda, though rather from a Christian rather than a Muslim point of view,'' reports a July 24 New York Times story. "Like Mr. Breivik's manuscript, the major Al Qaeda declarations have detailed accounts of the Crusades, include a pronounced sense of historical grievance and call for apocalyptic warfare to defeat a religious and cultural enermy.''

Once again, it has become clear that we live in a dangerous world - as if we could forget. Among other things, this latest outrage fuels the fatalism of the it-can-happen-anywhere brigade. Indeed, terrorist attacks can happen anywhere, even in peaceful Norway. The facts remain, however, that some countries - India, Egypt, Indonesia, to name three - are targeted considerably more often than others, and most organized, mass attacks in recent years have come from jihadis.

Shattered and shaken, Norway will heal over time. As for concerns about the safety of travel there, I wouldn't hesitate to go back to Norway - and I am not a traveler driven by derring-do. As always, travelers should study the patterns of the threats to safety and go with the odds. There is never a guarantee, but the chances of remaining safe in some places are definitely better than in others, regardless of what relativists would have you believe.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Jittery Generation

I went to a media sensorium the other night and a baseball game broke out.

Not that a lot of people noticed. When they weren't belatedly catching up with plays they didn't watch in real-time by staring at the big video replay screen at San Francisco's ATT Park, they were working their electronic devices thumbs a-blazing, taking cell phone photos and videos, chattering into their mobiles and bopping their heads to music on their Ipods. The game? Well, the face-off between traditional rivals - the visiting Los Angeles Dodgers versus the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants - got their attention from time to time.

It must be said that Giants management did its share to put the sellout crowd of 41,000 in mind of things other than the ostensible draw - baseball.

There was, blessedly, no dot-racing, but there were endless promotions on the video screen, messages of the will-you-marry-me-Amy variety, giveaway T-shirts shot from "guns' into the stands, blaring rock and pop music, a long video presentation on the stadium screen of couples in the crowd kissing. You would have to be curmudgeon indeed not to perform for thousands of strangers. I'll say this - the place rocked. But a good bit of it was orchestrated, as though team management wanted to control the crowd's behavior by prompting fans to embrace programmed activity so they wouldn't do anything weird that they conceived on their own. This didn't stop fans from drinking, to be sure; I saw a few fans wobble so badly they were in danger of tumbling down the concrete stadium steps.

Even in Japan, where electronic consumer crazes have erupted regularly for decades, baseball fans at the the sole game I have seen there seemed much more focused on the game. Oh, they did programmed things, too: chiefly group singing that brought to mind U.S. college football games or European soccer matches. And, yes, the hometown Nippon Ham Fighters had a big video screen installed in the Tokyo Dome, where I saw the game. And, yes, fans seemed to like to catch foul balls - but unlike in North America, uniformed ball girls waded into the crowd to retrieve foul balls and bowed politely when crowd members tossed them back.

Of course, I saw professional baseball in Japan a decade ago; it may be more like the frenetic North American major league experience now.

In any event, what we have is a jittery generation so locked-in to electronic play and distraction-by-gadget they are probably both incapable of and uninterested in enjoying the slow, thoughtful, summery feel of old school baseball. Ebbets Field, Sandy Koufax and the 1927 Yankees are very far away in time and distance and my latest experience with the peanuts and popcorn and Cracker Jacks set tells me that none of it is coming back.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Airheads, Continued

That post yesterday about a threatened partial shutdown of the U.S. Federal Aviation Admistration due to partisan political gridlock in Washington? It's going to happen. Starting tomorrow, when 4,000 workers are furloughed and badly needed expansion of the dilapidated U.S. airport system is postponed due to lack of a funding agreement.

This is small-beer measured against the almost perversely infantile posturing of a just-day-no Republican House of Representatives and U.S. President Barack Obama's leading-from-behind style, but it weakens air safety and efficiency for millions of travelers. And of course, it hurts workers at a time of already high unemployment.

Today's Washington Post ( reports "FAA Administrator J. Randolph Babbitt said that the furloughs of FAA workers would not affect the safety of air travel, but many of the agency's functions and its ability to collect $200 million a week in tax revenue that fund its operations will halt.

" 'The FAA employees who will be furloughed perform critical work for our nation's aviation system and our economy,' Babbitt said. 'These are real people with families who do not deserve to be put out of work during these tough economic times.' ''

But, hey, who cares about them when you are Masters of the Universe?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Airheads: Playing Politics With the FAA

You would think essential travel services - such as the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration would be too important to become playthings of powerful poitical interests.

You could think this. But you would be wrong, especially in the heat of the mean season of U.S. national politcs, which features mild, middle-of-the-roaders like President Barack Obama and his supporters versus livid, far-right activists in a struggle to see who will dominate. The FAA, which oversees the world's largest civil aviation system, is one such plaything. Wrapping up its 20th temporary funding extension, the agency faces a temporary shutdown tomorrow, absent a 21st funding extension. By Saturday, it may have to furlough 4,000 FAA workers deemed non-essential. Air traffic controllers would stay on the job.

Of course, furloughing federal workers and shutting down the government is no problem to people who are hostile to federal regulation - and, in extreme cases, to the very idea of government. Inconveniencing and perhaps even imperiling the safety of travelers? That's no big deal, either.

The nub of the issue is, of course, money. The mild, Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate has approved $34.5 billion to fund the FAA for two years - $17.25 billion a year. The conservative Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives has passed a four-year bill totalling $60.1 billion - about $15 billion a year. Those couple billion extra in the Senate bill would go to fund badly needed infrastructure upgrades and airport expansions. The two houses of Congress have been unable to reconcile their different bills - which would replace all those extensions.

There are some other snafus, too. The Republican chair of the House Transportation Committee wants to end a subsidy to airlines that underwrites air service to small towns left hanging when the U.S. civil aviation system was deregulated in 1978. The Republican hails from heavily populated Florida; several key Democrats represent states such as lightly populated Montana that rely on the subsidy. The ease or lack of it with which federal workers can join labor unions is also at stake.

Evidently nothing is too petty in this mean season in American life to be out of bounds in a political struggle. And if that means causing workers to lose their jobs in a time of already stubbornly high unemployment and travelers to be incovenienced or endangered, well, that's just the way it goes. Know what I mean?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Mumbai, Again

Mumbai, India's maximum metropolis, has been hit by terrorist attacks eight times since 2000, the latest arriving today when unknown killers set off three bombs in what appeared to be coordinated attacks. The explosions were timed to go off in crowded places during the evening rush hour, ensuring that a large number of innocent people would be killed or maimed. Early Indian media reports put the number killed at 21, the number of wounded at more than 100.

No one has yet claimed responsibility for attacks, but if events follow true to form, this latest outrage will be traced back to politicized Muslim extremists in neighboring Pakistan or in India, itself.

This is the biggest terrorist attack in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) since Islamic fanatics assaulted two luxury hotels, a Jewish cultural center and the central train station in November 2008, killing more than 160 innocents. One begins to run out of words when contemplating yet another assault on civilians in this vibrant, gritty, sprawling, difficult, exciting city that has the grave misfortune to be located on a hard-to-defend seafront not far from Pakistan. The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka and Mexican drug cartels have also employed terror tactics, and are just as culpable.

This time, travelers didn't appear to be primary targets, as they were in the attacks on 5-star hotels filled with Indian and international visitors in 2008. This time, it was the hard-working, long-suffering people of Mumbai who were targeted.

Pundits and police will pick over the story as events continue to unfold. There will be an investigation, perhaps a commission, statements of regret. U.S. President Barack Obama, who visited Mumbai last year and stayed in the Taj Mahal Hotel and Tower, one of the hotels set on fire and raked with gunshots in 2008, has already exorssed solidarity with India. Indian security, which was very visibly ramped-up when I visited Mumbai in November 2009, has again proved insufficent.

Should travelers stay away from India, or at least Mumbai? Some, inevitably, will stay away. I put off my visit for nearly a year out of security concerns, but when I did go, I was glad I went. Everyone has to decide for himself.

What is to be done? Security officials can't turn every marketplace, hotel and airport into a fortress, but smarter security is sorely needed. Some will argue that the best way to fight terrorism is to eliminate its root causes, one of which is poverty. Yet, many of not most of the terrorists in the Sept. 11, 2001, horrors in the United States were well-educated and middle class. Fanaticism, while fed by poverty, is not created by poverty alone.

Somehow, the principle has got to sink-in that the end - heaven? a global caliphate? simple revenge for perceived wrongs? - does not justify the means - jihad, bloodshed, heartlessness toward 'the other'.

And we, as travelers, have got to use prudent common sense - and persevere. The worst thing in the world, and for the world, would be to abandon it.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Highest Hotel in the World

Mark DeCocinis gets high every day at work. But not to worry, he's not breaking the law. He's the regional vice president and general manager of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Hong Kong. Topping out at 490 meters high and towering 118 stories above the West Kowloon district and Victoria Harbor, it is the highest hotel in the world.

It's always nice to have bragging rights, but it wouldn't mean a whole heckuva lot if the hotel didn't measure up when it comes to service and splendor, too. It does both. The hotel, which opened in April of this year, simply shines. The views on a clear day are stupendous. Hong Kong doesn't enjoy clear days every day, to be sure; I peered out from my club level room on my first day to see a grey soup of clouds and smog. On the second and third days of my recent visit, however, the skies cleared and the view through the floor to ceiling windows was breathtaking.

DeCocinis, a native of Salerno, Italy who grew up in the United States, managed the Portman Ritz-Carlton in Shanghai after serving as GM at the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco in the 1990s. His experience and flair shows in the way the 312-room Hong Kong Ritz-Carlton is run. Staff are friendly, attentive, anticipatory. Decor, by leading-edge Japanese designers, pushes the boundaries of design without becoming ridiculous or outrageous for its own sake.

If you visit Hong Kong, be sure and go up to the 118th floor, where the Ozone bar occupies the highest perch in the hotel, even if you're not staying. Ozone is trendy without being chilly and has an outdoor terrace from which to drink-in the view. Western cocktail culture hasn't fully taken hold in Hong Kong yet - a fact reinforced when a fellow travel journalist ordered a manhattan and had to explain to the barman what bitters are and how to mix it all up with bourbon. But the bar crowd is attractive, the bar food is tasty the the vibe is appealing.

The hotel has knocked itself out to come up with sumptuous dining. Tosca is the lively, fine-dining Italian restaurant. The Lounge & Bar is an engaging spot on the 102nd floor - the hotel occupies levels 102 through 118, with an arrival lobby on the 9th floor - and there is a clever Chocolate Library with edible treats in the form of books and other decorative objects. I supped at Tin Lung Heen, the hotel's wonderful traditional Chinese restaurant, and it is hard to beat.

The Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong also offers a sumptuous spa, and has a posh Club Lounge on the 116th floor for executive-level guests. I was fortunate enough to have access to the Club Lounge with its chef-prepared breakfasts, evening cocktails, spirits and wine, express check-out, two free-use PCs with printer and complimentary wireless access. And, of course, there are stunning views from this level, too.

The new Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong makes a big change from the group's former hotel - a traditional gem in the city's vibrant Central district, on Hong Kong island, that was demolished several years back. The new property is much bigger and more contemporary than the earlier Ritz-Carlton. It must be noted that much of West Kowloon - a future arts and culture district rising on landfill where a rail line is also presently being built - is a big construction site. Walking around outdoors is tough to do for now, unlike in much of Hong Kong. However, the hotel sits atop the bustling International Commerce Center - the world's fourth-tallest building - so it's far from quiet or dull. At the base of this ultra-modern skyscraper is a multilevel, upscale shopping mall, which connects via a cascade of escalators to the city's superb train and subway system, so getting around is no problem.

All in all, the new hotel is a triumph - and it marks a triumphant return to Hong Kong for Ritz-Carlton Hotels and Resorts.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Wine Seeker's Guide to the Livermore Valley

If you enjoy drinking wine - especially when traveling on holiday - you've probably heard of Califoria's Napa and Sonoma valleys, and maybe been there. Maybe you've heard of the Golden State's Santa Barbara wine-producing region, too, and traveled there. The Livermore Valley? Not so much.

This state of affairs is something travel writer and radioman Thomas C. Wilmer hopes to change. Wilmer, a veteran print journalist and host of "Audiolog - The Travel Show'' on U.S. public radio stations, has written a painstakingly thorough, informative and, above all, useful guidebook entitled "The Wine Seeker's Guide to Livermore Valley.'' Livermore Valley, located in northern California about an hour from San Francisco in the East Bay, helped midwife the now-booming California wine trade. Indeed, the valley had a robust wine business in the 1880s and 1890s, lost nearly all of it during Prohibition and was dramatically surpassed in popularity by glamorous Napa and Sonoma after Prohibition was repealed.

Wilmer is an affable author and guide who doesn't put the knock on anyone; rather, he's interested in telling you what he likes about the Livermore Valley, a place he considers underrated both as a wine-making region and as a travel destination. He includes text on the valley's past - Charlie Chaplin shot movies there - and incorporates introductions from contemporary winemakers such as Phil Wente and James Concannon, two descendants of pioneer winemaking families. The Wente family brought the first Chardonnay clones to America from France, in 1912.

Along the way, Wilmer, the principal author, recruits contributors to furnish short pieces on what to do and where to hang out in the valley. Such as: Nobel Prize-winning playwright Eugene O'Neill's restored Tao House in Danville, and the, well, downright pleasant downtown in the town of Pleasanton, with its toothsome upscale Mexican restaurant Blue Aguave Club, the Wine Steward - the East Bay's largest wine shop - and the Rose Hotel, a lovely place owned by retired National Football League coach and broadcaster John Madden.

The heart of this nicely illustrated (think good color photography), well-organized 236-page volume is Wilmer's profiles of Livermore Valley wineries. Concise, clearly written, with practical information such as opening hours, driving directions and interviews with the wineries' owners, this substantial section showcases Wilmer's gifts as a writer; you're in the hands of a pro here.

This book - and wine-making region - are most likely to appeal to travelers who have visited the San Francisco Bay Area before, seen the most-famous sights like the Golden Gate Bridge, and want to do something different. If you head east to the Livermore Valley, make sure you have this helpful trade paperback in hand.

"The Wine Seeker's Guide to the Livermore Valley'' retails for $19.35. It is published by RiverWood Books, Ashland, Oregon ( Tom Wilmer's "Audiolog'' is based at San Luis Obispo, California public radio station KCBX FM 90 (

Friday, July 8, 2011

Lynn Ferrin on Yosemite

Lynn Ferrin, who passed yesterday (see previous post), had a fine combination of lyricism and practicality in her writing. To know her writing is to know Lynn because she invested so much of herself in her work.

Here is a link to a tasty piece published in The Atlantic in 2009 ( that shows this sorely missed writer at her best. Thanks to journalist Laura Del Rosso ( for providing it:

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Lynn Ferrin

Travel writer and dear friend Lynn Ferrin passed away today after a long illness and a too-short life. Lynn was in her early 70s, but seemed younger thanks to a strong body, generous spirit and positive outlook.

Lynn Ferrin was not a household name but you may have read her travel writing; she was, among things, prolific. She worked at Via (formerly Motorland) magazine, the AAA magazine for northern California, Nevada and Utah, for 37 years. During Lynn's last seven years at Via, she served as editor in chief.
She was also a widely published freelancer.

I got to know Lynn through a book-authors' group at San Francisco's Media Alliance, and over time, she became a friend. She may not have realized it, but she was a role-model to me, though she never used that awkward term. Just being around her was a lesson in how to carry oneself, in personal and professional ethics, in sheer enjoyment, in curiosity, in genuine warmth, and, not least, in how to craft a story. After she retired from the magazine, at about age 60, it seemed like she worked even harder and moved faster: climbing mountains, going on treks, rafting, exploring, writing. She had as much energy at 60 as two 30-year-olds and only in the last few years did she begin to slow down.

For years, Lynn hosted an annual holiday party in her San Francisco Victorian. I saw people there I didn't see any other time of the year. She threw the party every year on Dec. 22, the day after the solstice. Lynn's parties were packed and they were ecumenical, bringing together members of the far-flung travel tribe, and attracting writers who were sometimes rivals, ordinarily concerned with securing bragging rights and markets. At her parties, peace reigned. One year, when Lynn decided to take a year off from being a party hostess, people showed up at her door anyway; she invited them in and there was a party anyway.

Lynn was one of a very few people who as far as I know, had no enemies, nor even any serious detractors. She had hundreds of best friends and made each one feel special. She's been gone less than a day and I, we, miss her terribly.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Korean Air's High-Flying Plans

I caught up over coffee recently with Korean Air executive John E. Jackson III - and catching up wasn't easy. This was both because Jackson, a long-time veteran of the company, is a busy guy and because KAL is busy pursuing high-flying plans.

Jackson, an affable American who served as the carrier's first non-Korean marketing director, was perhaps genetically fated to work in the airline business. "When I grew up, both of my parents were working for Delta,'' he says with a grin. "I took my first airplane ride when I was two weeks old.''

These days, the Los Angeles-based Jackson is KAL's vice president for passenger marketing and sales, the Americas. In line with that, he notes that KAL, which flies more trans-Pacific flights between the United States and Asia than any other airline, will be bringing one of its first superjumbo doubledecker Airbus A380s to New York this summer. Next month, in fact, flying non-stop daily service between South Korea's Seoul/Incheon International Airport and New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Here are excerpts from our conversation, with more details about Korean's corporate flight plan:

"We're going to put fewer seats on the A380 than any other airline: 403 - 12 in first class, 301 in economy and 92 in business. We'll devote the whole upper deck to business, the first airline to do so. The aircraft is big but it's not meant to hold 900 people.

"We're also going to install the first duty-free shop on an A380. There will be a bar and lounge on the upper deck, and they will be open for the whole flight.

"We derive 50 percent of our revenue from premium class customers. We have the product to support it. And the route structure, we've got that.

"We anticipate a lot of business and corporate travel on the New York route. A lot of the Fortune 500 companies are in the East, in New York.

"This year,'' he continues, "we'll be adding 20 percent more flights between Asia and the Americas. China is huge for us. (Due to the tragic Japan earthquake and radiation leak), a lot of people who used to transit through Tokyo, are transiting through Seoul/Incheon. A lot of people are experiencing our service. The airport is so well thought-of. It's definitely one of our advantages to have that airport.

''We're flying daily in San Francisco, daily in Seattle. We're going from three flights a week to five in Dallas, doing 10 a week from Chicago. We're up to five daily flights out of LAX (Los Angeles). We're very bullish on the L.A. market. The Korean market there is very important.''

Jackson acknowledges that KAL, like other airlines, lost some altitude during the global recession, but says the worst appears to be past.

"I wouldn't characterize it (business) as strong, but it's certainly coming back. We're probably back to about where we were. So, we've recovered, though we're about two years behind where we'd wanted to be. We've returned to profitability. A couple of years ago, the won (South Korea's currency) really dropped. We pay our fuel bills in U.S. dollars. Hedging fuel prices? No, we don't do a whole lot of it.''

Beyond North America, "We're looking seriously at every country in South America'' for possible explansion, Jackson says. But this will be done prudently. "Everybody's looking for yields thes days before you start to add flights.''

KAL also has a unit that operates business jets, coordinating that service with its regularly scheduled commercial flights. This, he says, is a growing niche. "There are a lot of companies that are using business jets, even those that own their own jets.''

With that, our coffee klatch is over. Jackson is outta here. Catching a plane, of course.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Highway Blues

Thirty-nine million Americans were expected to drive 50 or more miles from home this Fourth of July holiday weekend, according to the American Automobile Association. Millions more were set to hit the road in Canada for the Canada Day holiday weekend.

So that there might be some measure of safety on the highway - achieved partly by holding down drunken driving - many state, provincial and local law enforcement agencies set up traffic roadblocks. Police check drivers' identities and see whether they have been drinking alcohol. This helps reduce the historically high number of traffic fatalities - nearly 34,000 in the United States in 2009, of which about one-third involved drunken drivers. So, this would seem to be a good thing, no?

So one might think. But, of course, no good deed goes unpunished. A Wisconsin-based group called the National Motorists Association complains that the U.S. government pressured Apple and Research in Motion to ban apps showing where roadblocks are set up, bragging that their organization has forged boldly ahead and continues to list these locations on its Web site, so that drivers can avoid them.

The organization links its position to the whole idea of political independence, which its executive director explains thusly:

"This type of harassment seems ironic, given the onset of the Fourth of July holiday, a natonal celebration of our country's independence and enshrinement of individual freedoms. I don't think that being grilled by armed strangers, or having your personal effects scrutinized and searched by government personnel under the presumption of guilt rather than innocence is quite what the signers of the Declaration of Independence had in mind in 1776.''

Doing 80 miles an hour in a motor vehicle may not have entered into the Founders' thinking either. And "armed strangers''? That's one way of describing law enforcement.

Personally, as a survivor of a traffic accident two years ago brought on by an intoxicated 20-year-old - who was speeding and driving drunk at 5 o'clock in the afternoon - I am grateful that law enforcement is on the job and trying to reduce highway mayhem. Fortunately, I survived this sudden and frightening crash, as did my wife, who was at the wheel and driving responsibly. The medics who promptly arrived on the scene put my wife on a gurney and into an ambulance and drove her to a hospital for observation. She emerged without serious injuries and was released that same night. The drunk driver was arrested - those darned armed strangers again! - and ended up paying us a small amount of money for damaging our car, which spun out after we were clipped from behind at speed.

When I read rants like the one I quoted above, I don't think of powdered wigs, quill pens and 1776. I think of my wife in an ambulance, an IV hooked to her arm and me on the phone to her grown daughter telling a shaken woman that her mother was hit by a drunk driver and is in the hospital. As for enjoying the "enshrinement of individual freedoms,'' you have to be alive for that. Ironic, isn't it?