The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Thursday, January 13, 2005

BRAKES, OR THE LACK THEREOF: I know that there are veritable hordes of automotive cultists who will damn me to the deepest part of Henry Ford’s pit of motorized perdition for saying this, but I wish there were some way to eliminate that peculiar abomination, the anti-lock braking system. Before everyone jumps up shouting about what a terrible Luddite I am and how dare I say such a thing about this wonder of American technological genius, or that I must be some sort of ignorant backwoods troglodyte out to resurrect the pretty little surrey with the fringe on the top and the velocipede from the dank and musty storeroom of technologies left behind by the forward and inexorable march of human progress, let me just say that while I do not loathe anti-lock brakes as much as I loathe liver in any of the permutations that aren’t supposed to taste like liver but do anyway, no matter how many onions you put on the meat, or even asparagus in either its green or white variety, I certainly do not loathe said anti-lock brakes less. And that’s saying quite a lot.

Over the course of my driving life, which covers some thirty years now if you include those adolescent years when I had to wheedle the family car away from my parents, I have developed a simple, civil, and mutually beneficial relationship with my brakes. This relationship is based on one central premise: when I press my foot down on the brake pedal I expect the car to slow down and then, at a point designated by myself, to come to a complete stop. In return for this service, I will keep my part of the bargain and maintain the brakes in the style to which they have become accustomed over these many years. It is, as I said, a simple, readily understandable relationship, in which I get what I want, i.e. selected automotive inactivity, and the brakes get what they want, i.e. new, improved, and often overpriced rent free pads at the time and place of the brake’s choosing.

We have no illusions about this relationship or each other at this point, but live in a sort of peripatetic harmony with one another. I lead my life; the brakes do as they please when I am not around; and we meet when I need to use the car. I think at this point we stay together for the sake of the car and for no other reason. As for the expense, well, there’s little that anyone can do about that, of course; all such relationships run into money; there’s simply no way around that. But in return for this extravagant outlay of money I expect something in return. I expect instant, mindless, absolute obedience to my craving for deacceleration at red lights. I expect that brakes will, nothing more, nothing less, stop the car whenever I feel the need to stop the car.

Instant indulgence of my inertial needs is not what I get from my automobile’s anti-lock braking system. The name itself should have tipped me off that there were troubles coming my way in great battalions. Brakes were once just brakes; an anti-lock braking system is brakes plus several relatives telling the brakes what a cheap bastard I am while sponging off of my money. I am willing, up to a point, to put up with the expensive and annoying little extras that having an anti-lock braking system entails, even if they are robbing me blind behind my back. What I am not prepared to tolerate is the snotty attitude I get from the brakes nowadays.

When I put my foot down on the brake pedal I expect the car to stop. That’s it; no ifs, ands, or buts about it at all. It’s as simple as that. I do not expect the brakes or the attendant anti-lock system to cure an infectious disease or end hunger in the Third World or plumb the deeper mysteries of quantum mechanics or even understand what the hell I am talking about in this essay, but I do expect them to stop the car. To me, this is their reason for being, the purpose the Ford Motor Company installed said brakes and their related anti-lock system in the car in the first place. So I don’t expect a long, drawn out debate complete with a moderator and a bunch of guys who will, no doubt, be major political figures someday but who are, at the moment, just a bunch of pimply faced geeks and wonks who couldn’t get a date to the junior prom if they waved a fistful of fifties in the red light zone of your choice saying, resolved, we should stop the car because the horse’s patoot behind the wheel is slamming on the brake pedal because the jackass from out of state in front of him just decided to stop in the middle of traffic and get his bearings, and don’t you just hate it when that happens? All I want is for the car to stop, period, end of story. This, and nothing else, is what I expect.

What I expect and what I get, however, are two different things, and that this abyss between theory and practice is the fault of the anti-lock braking system. There are few sights more terrifying to the average American motorist who is doing his civic duty and stopping at a red light than the sight, in his rear view mirror, of an automobile advancing towards the rear of his car at a fairly good speed and noticing that the driver of the second car is pumping his brakes with tremendous vigor and with absolutely no effect. The drivers of these autos are recognizable by their distended eyeballs and neck muscles, clenched teeth, and the look of utter horror frozen on their faces. With more extreme cases, identification is possible by noting the right foot protruding through the automobile floorboards and the third set of skid marks on the road. In such circumstances one is apt to think that if it worked for Fred Flintstone it might work for you, however odd that might appear to the casual observer.

I am not sure why the anti-lock braking system is called that; it seems a misnomer at best and false advertising at worst, since the purpose of such a system is obviously not to stop the car but to annoy the hell out of you first, and then give you a good scare and then stop the car if the system feels up to it today. Winter driving with anti-lock brakes is the worst, especially driving in snow, since it’s clear that the brakes don’t want to work in this weather and would just as soon be in Miami soaking up some sunshine on the beach instead of driving along at twenty miles an hour in mostly stop but some go traffic on roads that someone, and by someone I mean the guys in our happy little burg’s vaunted highway department, should have plowed and salted by now.

When I am driving in winter conditions I do not want to discuss the advisability of stopping the car at certain times with my brakes, which I believe I’ve already made clear here. A cardiac surgeon does not discuss the finer points of heart transplantation with his scalpel, nor does a fighter pilot engage in a discussion of the development of fighter tactics since Oswald Boelcke formulated the first set of such rules during the First World War unto the present day or have a discussion of the finer points of Thomas Aquinas’ theory of the just war with his weaponry. No, this does not occur; the surgeon’s scalpel cuts, the fighter pilot’s guns and missiles fire, and all of this without the prolonged pumping and violent swearing that accompanies the use of an anti-lock braking system on a snowy road. I don’t know who dreamed this abomination up, but whoever he or she are they deserve no special thanks for foisting this thing on the unsuspecting American motorist. You know, now that I’ve given it some thought, a velocipede doesn’t sound half bad.


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