Back that thing up!

Martha St. Bridge
It's just a bend to the right... And then a crash to the le-e-e-e-ft.

I’m scouring the paper this morning looking for police reports of yelling and other peace disturbing behavior coming from the home of a local elderly couple.  But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.

You see, I live near the Erie Canal, and there are several elevated one-lane bridges that are still the main way to get from here to there.  These bridges usually have blind approaches, and so have their own protocols for who gets the right-of-way and who has to back-up and yield the bridge.

Usually this works without a hitch, but last night, one old lady and a particularly non-linear bridge approach combined for a physical comedy routine that was funny and painful at the same time.

On this particular bridge, you need to bear to the right as you approach, which the old lady did with aplomb. However, as she reached the bridge, she found me about ready to exit the bridge on her side.

As per the protocol, and without hesitation, she popped her car in reverse to yield the bridge.  She needed to back up about 10 feet while steering gently back around the curvy apron in order to let me by.  Easy-Peasy… or not.

Instead, she backed up twice that distance while keeping her wheel dead straight, meaning that she now blocked the entire street.  My son and I watched as her head flipped back and forth and the reality of her current predicament settled in.

As we all know, nothing solves a problem like doing more of what you’ve been doing, but doing it harder and faster.  So with renewed zeal, the sedan starts again down the hill… on a straight trajectory… heading toward the guardrail on my side of the road.  The car jerked slightly to the left and right as the woman tried to see over each shoulder in turn. Yet she remained oblivious to the the outcome that was obvious to me as well as the cars now queued at the bottom of the hill behind her. We all watched, helpless, as the stupidity unfolded.

It was just a Yakkity Sax soundtrack from watching a Benny Hill skit.  Traffic was frozen as the car stuttered towards its demise.  There was nothing to do but add voice-over commentary for my son. “No! Stop! Turn right! DOH!”

It didn’t take too long before the sound of metal-on-metal filled the evening air as the driver’s side of her car was molded to the unyielding guardrail.  I expected to see a look of horror and/or panic on the poor woman’s face, but the incident didn’t appear to register.  In fact, she even gassed the car a bit to make sure it was firmly seated against the rail before making her next move.

Fortunately, her next move was forward, a direction that she was more comfortable with.  She managed to pull the car back to her side of the road and come to a stop.  And trust me, no one else on the road last night was going to move until she finally came to a complete stop.

We rolled past her, looking at all the crinkly sheet metal.  I gazed at her face to see if she was okay after her ordeal, but from her expression you couldn’t tell that this wasn’t just another trip to the grocery store.  Who knows?  Maybe it was.  Maybe this was not an atypical bridge negotiation for her.  Maybe that’s why I didn’t see a police report in the paper about her yelling husband.  Maybe.

The Shame of Rochester’s Red Light District

Red light camera (by Derek Jensen)

It’s been 6 months now since Rochester, NY deployed its new red light camera system in an effort to keep us safe.  That is, if you are using the word safe in the same way that you might use the word “fruit” to describe a Pop-Tart.

As I’ve written previously, these systems are not remotely about safety.  That’s just the marketing spin.  In most cases, safety actually declines.  These systems are about generating revenue.

Rochester just revealed its statistics on the first half-year of operation, so let’s see how it’s going.  Police have issued 5,158 automated tickets for running red lights.  That’s a fair number of violators.  I wonder how the accident rates at those intersections compared with previous years?  Apparently, so does the city.  Executive Deputy Police Chief George Markert said,  “It will take some period of time to determine that.”

How can that possibly be?  If you install a system with the expressed purpose of increasing safety, don’t you plan to measure that expected result?  This is not advanced math.  There are doubtless statistics for historical accident rates at these intersections.  Compare those to the rates for the same period this past year.  Is A < B?  Perhaps I’m just cynical. but I’m pretty sure we’ll never see that data.

Okay, so what about the revenue part?  Are we at least raking in cash to the city coffers?  It turns out, not so much.  While the city has collected $141,045 in fines so far, that’s only half the amount that’s outstanding because over 50% of the tickets remain unpaid.  Nearly 1 in 4 tickets are in default or in collections, meaning the chances of ever getting paid are slim.

But hey, $141k isn’t pocket change.  That’s a good profit, right?  It turns out, not so much.  You see, the cameras were installed and are maintained by Arizona-based vendor Redflex Traffic Systems.  Over the same period, they have billed the city $145,164 for operating the system.  Fortunately, there is a clause in the city’s contract with Redflex saying they can’t be billed more than they take in.  So, all totaled, the city has seen a net cash influx of… let me work the arithmetic out here… carry the 1… ah, yes… $0.

On the other hand, they have managed to relocate $141k of money from Rochester to Arizona.  Even if all of the tickets had been paid in full, while they would be sitting on $140k profit, they still would be sending 50% of the money they raise to Arizona.  Doesn’t it seem there should be some tax or fee that could be enacted to raise a similar amount of money from area residents without requiring us to pay double that amount in order to subsidize business in another state?

In summary, it does appear my earlier assessment was wrong.  This venture isn’t about revenue for the city, it’s about profits for Redflex.   And it’s still not remotely about safety.  The city’s complicity in this program doesn’t make them opportunistic or greedy.  It makes them chumps.  There… feel better?

Your car now needs a different kind of firewall

FirewallGrowing up in my father’s auto repair business, I came to understand that a car’s firewall was that piece of the body that separated the engine compartment from the passengers.  Back in the day (as my teen son is wont to say despite sporting such a paltry number of days), this was pretty essential hardware as engine fires were not uncommon.  The advent of several safety systems as well as the demise of carburetors has made such fires comparatively rare.  But modern digital automotive systems now have different safety issues requiring a different sort of firewall.

Security experts from the University of California, San Diego, and the University of Washington have successfully hacked into a car’s onboard control system using a variety of attack vectors. In one case, they used a car’s cellular connection (similar to OnStar) to access the vehicle’s computer.  In another, they took control using an Android phone connected to the car’s Bluetooth interface.  In the third case, an MP3 music file, loaded into the car’s sound system, was infected with a Trojan that successfully loaded itself into the vehicle’s firmware.

Now in your average car, there is a limited amount the hacker can do once he gains access to the firmware.  He could futz with the fuel mix and mess up your gas mileage, or change all the presets on your radio.  While this is annoying, it’s not terribly dangerous.  It’s also not interesting enough to warrant the efforts of would-be hackers unless this is their thesis project.

However, many higher-end cars may be unlocked, started, or in the case of vehicles with a self-parking features, even driven away under computer control.

While this is a scary prospect, it mostly reflects car designers not yet realizing the impact of networking the vehicle control systems.  Cars will simply need to employ the same sorts of firewalls and security software used by other computer systems.  Which also means the same sort of constant updating to address more recent exploits and attack vectors will also be required.

Ironically, I left the automotive field to pursue a career in computers.  I know my life will have come full circle when the first family member calls because their car has a virus.