Tuesday, August 12, 1997
A cure for car addiction

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

It looks like an ad for some kind of rehab program. There's a woman searching frantically for something - drug paraphernalia? a pint of gin? a Hostess HoHo?

Nope. Just her car keys.

A man who sounds very sad to be giving us this news says, "It affects just about every man, woman and child in America. A habit that is four times as hard to kick as smoking, that causes more health problems than alcohol. In fact, it is ruining our cities and has been blamed for thousands of deaths every year. Yet none of us can or will ever give it up. It's called the automobile."

Judi Craig from the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI), which is responsible for the ads, calls it their "skip a trip" campaign to battle smog. She says those of us who live in Hamilton, Butler, Warren, Clermont, Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties take 4.5 million car trips. Every day.

Scary part

As most Americans know, pollution is caused by emissions from other people's automobiles while they are taking unnecessary trips. Judi would like to persuade all of us to leave our cars in the garage more often.

Everybody? Even me? Including my absolutely essential excursions to Graeter's and to Kroger for Diet Pepsi, then to UDF because I forgot milk? Then out again for a video rental and popcorn?

"I'm not talking about a big trip," she says. "Just one short errand every week would help. Try to think ahead. Combine trips." She says we could get rid of 10 percent of pollutants this way.

"Our goal is to educate," Judi says. Of course, that is a worthy goal, but I'd suggest stronger measures. First, let's scare the hell out of everybody, then let's make it harder for them to be a user. Let's call it tough love.

The scary part is easy. The Regional Ozone Coalition says smog is caused by engine exhaust and other air pollutants in the presence of sunlight, which is why we have so much of it in the summer. Smog is not necessarily bad unless you like to breathe. "It irritates the mucous lining of the throat and lungs, causing coughing and even choking."

And if that doesn't scare you, how about this from OKI: "Studies estimate that if our air does not get better, 12,000 jobs will be lost by the year 2000 in the seven-county area. Well, I think it's safe to say that the people who run the show around here will put up with a little coughing and choking, but they draw the line at losing jobs.

Ditch orange barrels

So, here is what I would propose.

Get rid of all the orange barrels. Cold turkey. Just say no. Orange barrels and temporary lanes are almost as dangerous as smog. Just watch the way people merge into traffic in an orange-barrel zone. They don't. They just close their eyes and gun it or they perch at the edge of traffic until rush hour is over.

When the potholes get so deep that they are eating Miatas, we should simply close down the highway and fix it. Maybe the highway construction crews will be so grateful they will work faster. There certainly would be fewer distractions. How would you like to be bending over a jackhammer 2 feet away from some nut traveling 45 mph while picking his nose?

We could use the money we save on orange barrels to print helpful little signs: "If you rode the bus, you'd be there by now." We could prohibit cars through construction zones, but allow bicycles and joggers.

I'll bet people driving around like rats in a maze trying to find a new route around a closed road would discover an interest in car pools. They'd notice how often they climb into the car if it took them twice as long to get to the grocery. Surely they'd take fewer trips. Or they'd push for light rail.

Maybe you think your addiction to motoring is nobody's business but your own and dodging an orange barrel or two is a small price to pay. This is America, after all, land of personal freedoms. If you would like to keep things just as they are, don't raise your hand. Keep them both on the wheel in case you have to swerve around a barrel.

Just signify by coughing and choking.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.