Apr. 22, 2002: Look Out Georgia Drivers: Here Comes Zack!

My oldest grandson, Zachary, has just turned 15. (I know what you are thinking – this guy is too young to have a 15-year-old grandson. I agree.)

Zack is now eligible for his automobile learner’s permit, which will allow him to drive on the Georgia autobahns with adult supervision. Fortunately, his mom and dad are good drivers and Zack is wise and possessed of abundant caution beyond his years. Still I worry.

Roughly 6 million people are licensed to drive in Georgia. Of that number, 5,999,997 drive like maniacs. Georgia is the largest state east of the Mississippi River, covering some 59,000 square miles and with over 1,200 miles of interstate highway. Yet fewer than 1000 state patrol officers are available to protect us from each other.

Why so few state patrol personnel for so many drivers and so much territory? First, the starting salary is $28,000, which is less than what Atlanta Braves second baseman Marcus Giles makes every time he bobbles a baseball. I can’t imagine many people are willing to put up with the risks of a job for that kind of money. Why don’t we pay them more? Law enforcement salaries aren’t a priority issue in Georgia because the Legislature has more important items to deal with, like making grits the official breakfast of champions and declaring pecans, Ted Turner and Cynthia McKinney the state’s official nuts.

Besides, if we had enough state troopers and they started cracking down on Georgia’s tail-gaiting, road-raging drivers, we would raise hell and write letters to the editor, defending our constitutional right to act like morons. That would get the Legislature stirred up because at least half of us occasionally vote. The Legislature would then take it out on the state patrol, making it even harder to convince people to work there for a whopping $28,000.

I have told Grandson Zack all of this, but I can tell that he still has questions. Why, he must wonder, do seemingly normal adults act like three-year-old brats when they step into a motor vehicle of any type? Why do generally law-abiding citizens think it is okay to routinely exceed the speed limit by 20 miles an hour, never use a turn signal while changing lanes and run up on the back of those drivers who have the audacity to obey the speed limit? Why, in this time when a bunch of nut cases in the Middle East threaten us with an oil embargo, do we buy gas-guzzling SUV’s and call ourselves patriotic?

Just when I thought these questions had no answers, here come those smart folks at Georgia Tech (Zack’s favorite school, incidentally) galloping to the rescue. Tech has announced a two-year, $3.1 million study on the effects of speed in automobile accidents. The leader of the study is quoted as saying, “What we do not know is if people who are frequent speeders are more likely to crash or not.” They want to recruit 1,100 speed demons to help them find out, which should be pretty easy to do, since they have 5,999,997 from whom to choose.

I am going out on a limb here, but having ventured onto our state’s highways recently, I have this gut feeling that speeders are more likely to crash than people who observe the speed limit and that most of them drive an SUV the size of a Patton Tank or an 18-wheel truck with a “How’s My Driving?” bumper sticker. If my friends at Georgia Tech had asked me, I would have been happy to share this information with them free of charge and saved them $3.1 million that they could have put to better use, like recruiting running backs who don’t fumble.

That leads me to this public service announcement. I love Zachary more than life itself and if I am in the car with him and you tailgate him or if you cut in front of him without using your turn signal, I am going to find you and apply a stick upside your head. This announcement will no doubt give rise to another multi-million dollar study by the wizards at Georgia Tech: Learning how to behave yourself and act real nice when Zachary Wansley is on the road so you don’t have to face an overly protective grandfather who means what he says. Happy motoring, Zack.