October 2006


Uncategorized &Vehicles24 Oct 2006 12:07 pm

The tragic death of South African pop star Lebo Mathosa, after her 4×4 rolled over several times, serves as an apt opportunity to review the myth of SUV safety.

I won’t get into the damage that 4x4s and their emissions do to the environment. No one buys one of these vehicles for the sake of the earth. Nor can I argue with those who find driving an SUV to be psychologically necessary.

According to an article in the New Yorker on SUVs:

… internal [auto] industry market research concluded that S.U.V.s tend to be bought by people who are insecure, vain, self-centered, and self-absorbed, who are frequently nervous about their marriages, and who lack confidence in their driving skills.

There’s not much more I can add to that.

I do acknowledge that there are people who regularly drive on roads that are not passable in normal 2-wheel-drive sedan cars. I just hope that they leave their 4×4 vehicles in the garage as much as possible when they get back to town.

What worries me, though, is that some people are buying 4x4s under the illusion that they are safer than cars. Because they are large and high, they feel safe, but those same characteristics give them the disadvantage when it comes to steering, braking and rolling over.

The definitive work on the subject is a book by Keith Bradsher, “High and Mighty: SUVs: The World’s Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way.” A review of Bradsher’s book in the Economist magazine says that SUVs:

… have a kill rate at least three times higher than cars. Poor driving dynamics make them liable to roll over: around 12,000 Americans were killed in SUV roll-overs during the 1990s.

Anyone buying an SUV to haul around their kids should know about a study released this year looking at 4,000 children involved crashes of SUVs and cars. Here are some quotes on the study from the New York Times:

“Our sense was that most people have been assuming [SUVs] were safer and, frankly, we were, too,” said the senior author of the study, Dr. Dennis R. Durbin of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia . . .

. . . But with S.U.V.’s, the new study reports, whatever benefits that come with the added weight are erased by the higher risk of rolling over . . .

. . . While rolling over is a danger for both kinds of vehicles, rollovers occurred twice as often in S.U.V.’s, the study found, and children were three times as likely to be injured in rollovers than in other kinds of accidents.

Even if the vehicle does not roll over, many SUVs are built with a rigid design that makes them more dangerous in a crash. The New Yorker article, by Malcolm Gladwell, makes a telling comparison, though it unfortunately does not use South African vehicles in the example:

In a thirty-five m.p.h. crash test, for instance, the driver of a Cadillac Escalade—the G.M. counterpart to the Lincoln Navigator [a large 4x4]—has a sixteen-percent chance of a life-threatening head injury, a twenty percent chance of a life-threatening chest injury, and a thirty-five-percent chance of a leg injury. The same numbers in a Ford Windstar minivan—a vehicle engineered from the ground up, as opposed to simply being bolted onto a pickup-truck frame—are, respectively, two per cent, four per cent, and one per cent.

Why all the quotes from American and European publications? I simply do not see much written about this issue in South Africa. The myth of 4×4 safety is still strong here. The tragedy is the number of people, perhaps including Lebo Mathosa, who thought they were doing themselves a favour by buying a 4×4, who felt safe and secure right up until the moment of their death.

Global Warming &Uncategorized &Vehicles20 Oct 2006 11:31 am

This is a momentous day for the environmentally conscious in South Africa for two reasons: it’s Car Free Day and it’s the South African premiere of “An Inconvenient Truth.”

So far, I’m handling Car Free Day pretty well. My children caught the spirit and walked to school. They even phoned four neighbour children to join them. It’s a 12 minute walk, and I’m embarrassed to admit that we drop and fetch by car far more often than we walk. But that’s what Car Free Day is all about—spurring people to look for ways to break old, car-dependent habits. Whenever we do walk to school, I find that everyone arrives at school in a good mood. I’m sure we’ll walk more in the coming weeks.

I managed to accomplish my only other away-from-home errand today by bicycle. So far, I haven’t been in a car. My wife, however, has driven today, and I know that it’s easy for me, with an office at home. We both commuted by subway when we lived in Washington, DC, but there is no comparison between the modern Metro system there and the public transport available where we live now in Johannesburg. I do have one neighbour who travels to his job at Wits by bus, however, and he doesn’t complain.

Carpooling is another option. I shared a ride to a choir concert this week with a fellow chorister and we vowed to continue our carpool during weekly rehearsals. The Johannesburg government is encouraging carpooling by setting up a database of people who are willing to share rides at RideShare or RideSmart. (They don’t seem to have made up their mind what to call it.) If you give them your home location, work location and work hours, they will tell you who else works similar hours and lives and works within 1.5 kms of you.

I would love to hear from anyone who had an interesting experience going Car-Free or who has tried RideSmart. I also would like to let people know about what similar efforts other cities are making, if any. Click on “comment” below to add your thoughts.

An Inconvenient Truth opens today at Cinema Nouveau theatres in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban and Cape Town. This documentary explores the issue of global warming, largely through the eyes of dogged environmental campaigner Al Gore. In the U.S., this film was one of the most successful documentaries in years, and received very positive reviews. Yazeed Kamaldien in the Star today dismissed the film as “boring.” Shaun de Waal of the Mail & Gaurdian warmed to it a little bit more, and made it his Movie of the Week.

I can’t judge yet, not yet having seen the film. But it’s worth contrasting Kamaldien’s review with that of Roger Ebert, perhaps America’s best known and most popular reviewer. In the Chicago Sun-Times, Ebert wrote:

When I said I was going to a press screening of “An Inconvenient Truth,” a friend said, “Al Gore talking about the environment! Bor…ing!” This is not a boring film. The director, Davis Guggenheim, uses words, images and Gore’s concise litany of facts to build a film that is fascinating and relentless. In 39 years, I have never written these words in a movie review, but here they are: You owe it to yourself to see this film. If you do not, and you have grandchildren, you should explain to them why you decided not to.

In other words, you owe it to yourself to ignore Kamaldien and make your own judgement.

Garden &Uncategorized &Water Use/Greywater15 Oct 2006 05:53 pm

Bathroom AtriumGreywater siphon in bathtub
It’s mid-October and we’ve had just one decent rain in Johannesburg in the last five months. I’m feeling desperate, but the atrium garden outside my bathroom is looking lush and green. Not because it’s been irrigated; I haven’t run the sprinkler in the atrium this whole year. The plants are living on bathwater. Two or three times a week, I open the window, plunge one end of my handy-dandy siphon pump into the water, and give it about five squeezes. The siphon effect takes over, since the garden is lower than the tub, and in 10 or 15 minutes, the bath is nearly empty and the garden is watered.

The entire cost of this fancy greywater system was R24.30, including 2 m of tube. The pump itself costs just R11.10. I bought it all from F A B Water Engineering in Randburg, but I’m sure these hand siphon pumps are available many places.
My only modification was to use a rubber band to strap a piece of metal (a small, throwaway spanner that came packaged with some DIY furniture) to the end of the intake tube. This weighs down the tube so that it sucks the water from the bottom of the tub. One day, I might buy a longer piece of flexible tubing for the outlet (I wish I had bought 4 m to start with), plug the end and cut various holes along its length to distribute the water around the atrium without ever having to move the hose.

Admitedly, the system only works if you have a bath, window and garden in a usable alignment. And it does require a bit more effort than just draining my bath. But it gives me great pleasure to share my bathwater not only with my wife, but with my garden.