Smile for the Camera

I could dedicate an entire blog to Americans and their deliberately awful driving habits. Think about the last time an impatient driver just about kissed your rear bumper – practically screaming you over to the slow lane (and how you stayed in the lane anyway just to make ’em madder).  Or how about merging onto a rushing interstate highway, only to be denied by drivers who want to “win” the right lane?  Lately, a new habit takes the checkered flag for most-annoying: drivers sneaking through intersections when the light just turns red.  You know these evaders; the car dashing through after the car sneaking through on the yellow.  For these drivers, it’s time to smile.  Colorado Springs has installed red-light cameras.

Red-light cameras have been around for years, but our fair city decided it’s finally time for the photo ops.  At two of our busiest intersections, the city just put the finishing touches on the cameras.  For the next thirty days they’ll kind of test the waters; see how much action they get.  No tickets, just photos.  To that I say: forget the thirty-day trial and begin the citations.  Eleven hours after the cameras started snapping last Tuesday, the city had already recorded sixty-two red-light violations.  Sixty-two!  Do the math and you amass 4,000 violations per month.  Do the math again – at $75 per violation – and you bank $300k.  That’s two cameras and only two intersections.

This photo shoot will get fun in a hurry.  After the thirty-day trial the city adds another two cameras at another two intersections, with another thirty-day trial, and so on and so on.  The entire program is easily funded by all those $75 fines.  I don’t know the cost of a red-light camera, but at the rate we’re going we’ll have the entire city camera’d in no time.

My opinion on red-light cameras is hardly below board.  I think they’re a wonderful use of technology.  Not a day goes by where I don’t witness an “extra” car in the intersection.  When it happens, two thoughts come to mind.  First, it’s a miracle we don’t have an accident.  Second, the violator bought into this opportunity long before it happened.  Think about it.  The light turns red at the same time the cross-light turns green.  There should be an accident.  But the red-light violator banks on the delayed reaction of the driver accelerating on the green.  He/she sneaks through before the opposing car really gets going.  It’s a gamble on human lives – every time.

Speaking of the $75 fine, a moving violation is supposed to set you back $150.  Yet getting caught by a red-light camera doesn’t count as “moving”.  Care to explain that?  Aren’t you “moving” as you deliberately break the law?  Regardless, they’re making this program as friendly as possible.  The police review the infraction and the photos in all cases.  You must enter the intersection after the signal turns red to be cited.  You don’t even get points on your driving record.

A few years ago, my son got a ticket from a red-light camera in another city.  He didn’t realize his infraction (or so he claims) until the citation arrived in the mail.  Conveniently, you get a URL for the photos so you can see exactly what happened.  The technology is remarkable; five or six pics, including the license plate on the vehicle (front and rear), a full shot of the vehicle in the intersection while the signal is red, and that smile-for-the-camera shot of the driver.  With photos from all angles, there’s no arguing the infraction.

As if to underscore the need for this program in Colorado Springs, last Friday a driver blew through a red light, collided with two other cars, and sent several people to the hospital with serious injuries.  Just happened to be one of the two intersections where the city installed the cameras.  I’d say they got this right.  I’d also say this program is long overdue.  No more “colorblind driving”, people. Red is red.

Refining Buy-Products

Let’s chat about your last visit to the gas station (assuming you don’t own a “plug-n-play” vehicle).  Chances are you hit the pumps in the last week or so.  If you’re like me you drove in and drove out, mindlessly fueling to be on your way again as fast as possible.  But lately I’ve learned there’s more than meets the eye as you fill-er-up.  We’re all unknowingly playing the great retail chess game known as dynamic pricing.

Here’s the drill.  My local Shell station asks me a lot of questions before I get my first drop of unleaded (which makes me crazy but what choice do I have?)  Cash or credit?  Rewards Program number?  Zip Code?  Car Wash?  Paper Receipt?  All that info is “pumped” out of me (ha) up front.  Even then I must choose the octane before I finally get what I came for.

Now here’s the rub.  Every one of those data points feeds a Watson-like computer somewhere far removed from the gas station.  Watson brews a big customer-transaction stew, mixing in time-of-day, day-of-week, gallons purchased, and even weather conditions.  The result?  The “optimal” price point, delicately balanced between a) what you the consumer are willing to pay and b) what the supplier wants to net.  It’s a price-per-gallon computation that changes as many as ten times a day.

Coca-Cola may get the credit for the advent of dynamic pricing – with soft-drink vending (almost 20 years ago now).  Coke added a heat sensor and a computer chip to their machines, and as the outside temperature increased so did the cost of a soda.  Bad taste, and bad decision.  Consumers figured out the game and raised a big stink.  The running joke at the time – maybe not so funny today – was Coke would next install a camera to determine how much change was in your pocket.  Pepsi seized the opportunity to lure the unhappy customers and Coke quickly dropped the techno-gimmick.  But dynamic pricing took hold and never looked back.

Dynamic pricing is easier to digest when it targets times or situations where customers don’t notice or don’t even care.  The better example is school supplies.  Towards the end of summer your local Wal*Mart or Target will deep-discount pencils and paper and the like, often as much as 50%.  Kids will flock to the sale and load up on everything they need.  Parents will give their receipts an approving smile.  But guess what?  The store still wins.  That’s because “impulse purchases” bagged up with the school supplies are priced slightly higher than usual, more than offsetting any loss from the sale.

Dynamic pricing is hardest at work in hotels (what rate makes sense to fill that empty room?), utilities (do you really need the air conditioning right now?), and outdoor sporting events (are you willing to watch your baseball team during that unexpected rainstorm?).  And of course, any time you shop Amazon or Uber, dynamic pricing is asking the question, “how much do you really want that product or ride?”

Let’s pull up to the pumps again.  If you use “GasBuddy” or some other app designed to locate the lowest price-per-gallon, you’re winning the battle – but not the war.  I wish I had GasBuddy the first time I filled up as a teenager.  I crunched the numbers: forty years of driving; a tank of gas per week; eighteen gallons or so per tank.  If I purchased at $0.03/gallon less each time I filled up, I’d have an extra $1,000 in my pocket by now.

Thanks to Watson and his endless algorithms however, GasBuddy isn’t much more than instant gratification.  The suppliers are always one step ahead.  Unless you keep an eye on prices (and a few gallons in your tank), you’ll inevitably purchase when your demand takes priority.  Did you know gas is less expensive in the early hours of the day?  That’s because commuters are more likely to fill up at the end of the day, when they unknowingly drive up demand.  The computer is only too happy to adjust the price.

Maybe now you’ll leave the house a little earlier in the morning.  Fill up on your way to work instead of on your way home later in the day.  You will save a couple of cents per gallon if you do that.  And good for you – you’re beating the dynamic-pricing game.

Just don’t buy a cup of coffee while you’re at it.

 

 

 

You Can’t Walk and Chew Gum

In the local news this week, we learned Amy Wilson and her newborn – residents of our fair city – are in critical condition in a Salt Lake City hospital as victims of a head-on collision. Wilson and her newborn suffer brain injuries as they struggle to survive, while two of three teenagers from the at-fault car are dead. The heartbreaking interview with Wilson’s husband here in Colorado included loss of words as he tried to reconcile the happiness of a birth with the tragedy of the accident.

My reaction to this story – besides donating to the “Amy and Baby Wilson Support” GoFundMe campaign – was the teenagers must have been texting at the wheel.  I wonder if they even left skid marks.  Prayers be with them, Amy Wilson and her newborn will survive and their injuries will be short-lived.  But the same cannot be said for the kids in the other car.  As it turns out they were street-racing when they jumped the median.  They might as well have been texting.

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The victims on both sides of this accident will join the rising morbid statistics tied to “distracted driving”, which includes use of smartphones. We just can’t put them down, even with risk of life staring us in the face.  By no coincidence, the Wall Street Journal published an article this week about rising insurance rates tied to use of smartphones while driving.  36% of State Farm customers admitted to texting while driving, up 5% from five years earlier.  20% admitted to taking a photo while driving; another 10% take videos.  In those same five years smartphone ownership among drivers increased from 50% to 90%.

I will never understand the urgency to check a text while driving.   Apparently I’m not as addicted as most.  If I’m “late” in responding to a message, I can’t think of a better excuse than “I was behind the wheel”. When my phone rings or a text message dings, I will find a safe place to pull over if I can.  More often I’m not going to answer until I get where I’m going.

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Perhaps I’m more motivated than most, because my son caused a distracted driving accident several years ago in high school.  As he fiddled with the car stereo leaving campus, he braked too late when he saw the red light in front of him, causing a chain-reaction fender-bender involving five cars.  Thankfully no one was hurt, but even at school-zone speeds my son caused a lot of damage.  Because of that incident I chastise my children any time I receive a text from them and realize they are driving.

Technology is trying to improve things, of course.  Voice-activated control is a lot better than it was just a few years ago.  But we’re not there yet.  Until it is commonplace to conduct a stream of communication from start to finish hands-free, the senseless accidents – and the insurance rates – will continue to rise.  Even if you perfect the technology, you still have the distraction.

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Sure, you can walk and chew gum at the same time, but not so texting and driving.  I looked at the photo above and thought, “what if you saw that through the windshield of the car coming towards you?”

The next time you’re on the road and you get that familiar ding, just keep going where you’re going.  No matter the message, it’s infinitely less important than the safety of those around you.

insentient

My 2002 “Red Rock Pearl” Acura has been my faithful companion for the last thirteen years.  She’s racked up an impressive 285,000 miles on Colorado’s streets and highways.  She’s weathered the extremes of winter blizzards, the instability of our roads (potholes! washboard!), and the novice driving skills of my formerly teenage kids.  Through it all she’s given me safe passage with a minimum of maintenance and repairs.

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Back in 2002 when I purchased her new, the salesman claimed she would go 400,000 miles.  More than a decade later I’m inclined to agree.  When I take her in for service and see the newer models, I’m reminded there are still plenty of miles left in her tank.

When you’ve been with a car this long you tend to forgive the little things.  Like, the stereo holds six CD’s but at some point the mechanism jammed and now they’re all stuck inside my dashboard.  Or the GPS system has mapping which is slowly dating itself because it pulls from a DVD instead of a wireless network.  Or the gold accents I added when she was new that have long since fallen off the body.  Hail damage and a run-in with a pasture fence (driver to remain nameless) have left her less than “cosmetically pleasing”.

Recently my wife and I have been talking about getting a new car.  A newer-model Acura or perhaps another make.  Either way, a replacement for the old girl.  And to be honest, I don’t think “she” is happy about it.

Let’s address this “she” thing, shall we?  Somewhere in her early years my kids decided my car was a girl.  They named her “Roxanne”.  Forget the blow to my masculinity; giving inanimate objects names and personalities is just weird.  Cars have no feelings.  They are insentient.  Or are they?

Lately I’ve noticed the little things:

  • At random the gear shift sticks on “P” and you have to jam it with a pen to get it to “D”.
  • The little light in the glove box goes on and off, even when the door is closed.
  • The air conditioner makes a nasty screechy mechanical noise when it comes to life.  It only gives you cold air when it feels like it.
  • Adjusting the stereo volume or tuning radio stations is an adventure.  Whether you use the buttons on the steering wheel or the knob on the dashboard, you never know what you’re going to get. Sometimes it’s better to just drive in silence.
  • The rear cargo hatch doesn’t cooperate. When it’s really cold the door freezes shut.  When it’s mildly cold the door doesn’t stay in the “up” position by itself.

None of these inconveniences compromises my safety or demands an immediate fix.  Instead, it’s as if “Roxy” is finding ways to discreetly disagree with the new car discussion.  I guess I can’t blame her – she’s been delivering me safely from Point A to Point B for almost a quarter of my lifetime.

Hold the phone.  Did I actually just consider my car’s point of view?