Baby on Board announcements dovetailed with the decline in the United States’ spending on infrastructure. / Rusty Clark
Helaine Olen,  May 18, 2015

America: Dangerous Curve Ahead

Baby on Board announcements dovetailed with the decline in the United States’ spending on infrastructure. / Rusty Clark
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At some point in the early 1980s, a large yellow placard began turning up in the back window of cars proclaiming “Baby on Board.” At first it seemed a joke, an inadvertent high-sign that the driver was someone who took this parenthood thing a little too seriously. Even as the shiny placards became omnipresent, a lot of us dismissed them as yet another badge of Baby Boomer self-importance.

Of course we were wrong. It’s now conventional wisdom that the Baby on Board sign was one of the precursors to a more widespread change in parenting from a time when, to us, children appear to have been neglected to our present situation in which doting over children is every parent’s self-congratulatory purpose in life. But those Baby on Board announcements dovetailed with something else too, something we don’t normally connect them with: the decline in the United States’ spending on infrastructure. As we were begging people to give special consideration to this babied-up car or that screaming station wagon, even as we were increasingly crazed with protecting our own individual children, we were not exactly securing their future.

According to a report released last year by the Council on Foreign Relations, spending on transportation went from more than one percent of the gross national product in the 1960s to just under one percent by 1980. That latter percentage point, which would have seemed at the time to be low, is now considered a 35-year high point. If you are looking for a common point of reference for our nation’s crumbling bridgeswhich received a C+ for maintenance from the American Society of Civil Engineers for 2013or train derailments, like last week’s fatal Amtrak wreck outside of Philadelphia, look hard at that number. The most recent grade for our overall infrastructure? A D+.

The collapse in public funding for our transportation needs did not lead to anger by the vast majority of the population, however. While our leaders ran the country off the road and into the ditch, we coped. And truly, no one seemed to want to pay the tax bill to fill potholes, but we were happy to spend more and more of our money on things ranging from ridiculous bright yellow signs begging other drivers to take care of our children to purchasing ever larger cars and trucks that we thought would keep us personally safe, and damn everyone else.

Those driving SUVs certainly thought they would receive a safety boost, and didn’t seem to care that it came at the cost of driving a weaponized car known for a design that actively and provably caused disproportionate damages in collisions. As New York Times Hong Kong bureau chief Keith Bradsher noted in his 2003 book High and Mighty: The Dangerous Rise of the SUV, market research showed many consumers buying the behemoth automobile were “self-centered,” willing to “endanger other motorists so as to achieve small improvements in their personal safety,” adding “the public perception that SUVs provide considerable protection in a crash has been an important factor in their sales for many years.”

And if something did go wrong in an SUV? Well, the sad tale of Ellen Brody, the suburban New York City woman who drove her Mercedes SUV onto the tracks at a notorious Westchester County Metro-North crossing this past winter during a massive traffic jam, is instructive. Six peopleincluding Brodydied when the safety gates came down and, apparently discombobulated, she drove onto the tracks instead of backing up.

But inquiries into how and why Ellen Brody ended up making her fatal wrong move seem almost designed to obfuscate the fact that if it hadn’t been this luckless woman, then it would have been someone else on those tracks eventually. As it turns out, there have been transportation reports going back to 1970 begging for investment in the area and recommending sane reforms such as eliminating the crossing entirely or at least adding gates and lights to make the sight lines significantly safer for drivers. None of it happened.

The Amtrak derailment last week is bringing us more of the same blame game. There’s the open question of why the train’s engineer permitted the train to reach 106 miles-per-hour as it approached a curve with a speed limit of 50 miles-per-hour, for example. And the accident exposes the political lobbying that persistently enervates our society, possibly preventing the installation of a safety system that would have slowed this train automatically. These are all legitimate and important lines of inquiry to pursue. But the search for individual villains and lunge toward stop-gap safety solves is also a wreckage clearance and scrubbing operation, allowing us to forget that the number one cause of the Amtrak accident is the United States’ tax and spending policies and priorities that have left us with transportation system falling apart a little more every day. The kids grow up, the world spins in reverse.

Hmm. What about those goddamn Baby on Board signs? A survey from 2012 found they might have contributed to an increase in car accidents by blocking driver sight lines. Self-absorption left too many of us blind to the curve ahead.

Helaine Olen is the author of Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry, a contributing editor for Pacific Standard, and a regular Slate contributor.

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