The Police Report
The intent of my trip to Europe in the spring of ’96 was to use my ‘cashout’ money (for early retirement from the federal public service) to ‘jump start’ a third career as an automotive journalist, with a specialty in traffic safety, by attending three major automotive engineering conferences, in Vienna, Brussels and Prague. (Over 2 ½ months and, as it turned out, 10,000km on a rental car! Even with the cashout this was only possible because I had married a Black Forest girl in the ‘60’s and was able to ‘sponge-off’ relatives between conferences.)
My general plan was to use my engineering degree to investigate the base data on speed limits and traffic safety and thus make up my own mind whether the speed limits were as effective as public authorities would have us believe. On the way from to Vienna the thought occurred to me that maybe something was missing in that plan. To gather the data I would be talking with government officials, university professors and other ‘desk-riding’ professionals. Undoubtedly wise and well-informed all, but somewhat remote from the action.
Why not go down ‘where the rubber meets the road’ (literally!) and talk with some highway patrol police about traffic safety in general and accident causation in particular. That thought led very quickly to an idea for a fantastic article. I will be in several countries over the next months why not talk with an officer in each country and pose the same question, "What, in your personal opinion and alcohol excluded, is the major cause of expressway accidents?" I can see the article now. The Austrians think it’s X. The Swiss think it’s Y. The Germans think it’s Z but the French are convinced it’s A. Such an article will sell well and fast!
Unfortunately (for my bank account) the five officers I talked with, in impromptu interviews in five countries (and after I had pointed out that I would be leaving without their name or number), blew the article away by all giving the same answer – inattention! Moreover they were subsequently joined by officers from three different police forces in North America. Eight may not seem like a large number but that is only the first officer in each force with whom I spoke. By now I have spoken with over two dozen officers without finding a single one who would argue against the conclusion that inattention (aka the Absent-Minded Professor Syndrome) is the fundamental cause of traffic accidents, on all roads.
It is important to note that all of the responses to the question were instantaneous, without noticeable pause for thought. Several of them were .. aahh … colourful!.
The Austrian: "Zu wenig Abstan …Nein. Zu wenig Koncentration."
The Gendarme: "Les français sont indisciplinés."
The American (New York State Police): "People! People with their head up their arse!"
The Belgian: "L’inattention." He then rocked back in his chair, took an imaginary steering wheel in his hands and ‘drove’ for several seconds while staring straight ahead. He then ‘stopped’, looked around in obvious bewilderment, and said, " J’uis ici deja?!?"