The car was feeling sluggish as I drove my son to school last Monday morning. Slow to back out of the driveway, slow to accelerate. Of course it was cold outside, and I myself am slow to accelerate on Mondays, so for a minute or two I thought maybe it was just me. But finally I pulled over and put it in PARK: "Check the tires on your side, will you?" I asked my son.
Sure enough, we had a flat.
I don't know about you, but having a flat tire makes me feel like a loser. There go all my neighbors, shooting to work in business attire, and here am I for all to see, working the jack and the tire iron in my sweatshirt and white socks and Crocs. A jogger was the only person to stop. "The week can only get better from here," he assured me. I hear you, brother.
Part of what I was feeling was shame: the tires had a good 40,000 miles on them and probably should have been replaced already. You'd let your family drive on tires that old? I'd expected to get new ones when the next inspection time rolled around but had thought that, like the driveway, this was maintenance that could be deferred a while.
Well, no longer. I began calling around for prices on a new set of the same kind of Goodyears I had — they'd served me well till now. I checked Consumer Reports. And, during the football playoffs, I paid extra attention to the tire ads. This one, from Michelin, caught my eye:
Michelin claims this tire, the HydroEdge, will allow you to stop in a shorter distance than other tires, saving the lives of animals that might otherwise get squished. This consequence of driving happens to be something I've thought about a lot: In fact, there's a short chapter on road carnage in my new book. I don't deny my own reluctant role in the massacre — over the years I've kept a guilty private tally of my victims, the chipmunks, the frogs, the sparrows, the snakes. (Let's not even get started on arthropods, the moths and grasshoppers and flies, etc., etc.) And this is from a person who tries hard not to hit things. When you multiply my personal total by the millions of drivers out there, I sometimes think it's amazing there are any wild animals left near roads at all. Animal death is one of the great unintended consequences of road-making.
So being able to stop faster is of course a good thing. If you look at the ad, though, you begin to suspect that Michelin isn't really that concerned about the animals. Exhibit A: the humorous tire tracks imprinted on the carcasses of those that didn't get away on that "sad stretch of road." Thought up, perhaps, by the same kind of mind that brought you The Road Kill Cookbook, hardy har har. Even so, if I could buy a tire that would keep me from hitting animals, I would do it. I'm afraid, though, that I think even if the whole world drove on Michelin HydroEdge tires, it wouldn't save the animals. Instead, we'd all just drive that much faster, because we'd feel we could.
Do good intentions matter? Are we absolved from guilt in animal death because we didn't mean to? I don't think so, not really. Killing things is one of those risks inherent in the using roads, an unintended consequence of wanting to get from here to there just a little faster, of these ribbons of pavement we've tied around the globe.
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Ted Conover is the author of several books including Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing (winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize) and Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America's Hoboes. His writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, and National Geographic. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, he is Distinguished Writer-in-Residence in the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University. He lives in New York City.
Books mentioned in this post
Ted Conover is the author of The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today