‘Lying speedometers’ and the lure of the gauge

By Jayson Jacoby March 15, 2013 09:42 am

If you ran across a news story headlined “Lying Speedometers” you’d likely assume, as I did, that the instruments in question give false readings.

That when the gauge shows your speed as 65 mph you’re actually doing 62, or 68, or anyway not 65.

It turns out, though, that speedometers are prone to another kind of prevarication, according to The Associated Press.

The article begins by noting that the speedometer in the Toyota Yaris, a subcompact that looks like nothing so much as a mutated mollusk, tops out at 140 mph.

Yet the Yaris in fact can muster only a meager 109, the AP reports.

The story goes on for another dozen paragraphs or so, delving deeply into this apparent conspiracy, which is hardly limited to one Toyota model, but the gist is covered in the opening two sentences.

The article struck me as passing strange in part because the author, in my view, exaggerates what American drivers expect from our speedometers.

Here’s the lead sentence: “The speedometer on the Toyota Yaris says the tiny car can go 140 miles per hour.”

I don’t think it says that at all.

You could argue, I suppose, that the Yaris’ speedometer, because it has “140” printed on its face, implies that 140 mph is possible. But I believe the vast majority of drivers are too savvy to take the highest number printed on the gauge as some sort of contractual promise.

Surely some enterprising attorney would have made a bundle by now if there were a legal case that the discrepancy between the speedometer and the vehicle’s actual velocity constitutes consumer fraud.

You can imagine the testimony, redolent of entrapment: “Your honor, I never would have tried to outrun the state cop if my speedometer only went up to 100 instead of 150.”

The truly sinister aspect of this speedometer saga, though, has nothing to do with fraud.

These overly optimistic gauges, according to some, act as a sort of subliminal devil on our shoulders, exhorting us to floor the accelerator and keep it there in the (mainly) vain hope that the needle will eventually peg.

As most automobile enthusiasts probably expected, the AP reporter summoned Joan Claybrook as a source for the story.

I don’t question Claybrook’s sincerity any more than I do Ralph Nader’s, her better-known auto safety soulmate.

But Claybrook has the dubious distinction of having served as the federal government’s top automotive official even though, so far as I can tell, she doesn’t much like cars.

She was appointed by Jimmy Carter to head the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration during Carter’s administration, 1977-81.

During her tenure, Claybrook pushed the regulation that limited, to 85 mph, the maximum speed shown on speedometers.

Although Claybrook conceded to the AP reporter that there’s no proof that the 85 mph limit saved lives, she continues to believe that it did.

She also described today’s more ambitious gauges — the Yaris’, for instance — as immoral.

“To have a car register any more than the maximum speed limit is really a statement by the company: Drive faster. It’s OK. It’s encouraging people to violate the law.”

This is nonsensical.

If there were even a smidgen of plausibility to Claybrook’s point, which seems to be that people heed all numbers shown to them with the mindless obedience of an automaton, then no car on I-84 would ever surpass 65 mph — which is printed in big black letters on roadside signs every 10 miles or so.

In my experience, which includes a stint as a teenage boy, about the stupidest breed of driver there is, those 85 mph speedometers are at least as likely to entice reckless behavior as they are to thwart it.

A case in point was my parents’ 1977 Chevrolet Nova. Although it was built three years before Claybrook’s 85 mph rule took effect, the Nova’s speedometer had that limit.

I considered this not an edict but rather a challenge.

I harbored a dreadful fascination that the Nova’s speedometer needle, were it ever to reach its apex, would either get stuck there, a smoking gun my dad couldn’t possibly fail to notice, or else tumble off into the nether regions of the instrument panel and get wedged into some inaccessible slot behind the fuse block.

I’m not suggesting that I would have driven more responsibly had the Nova’s speedometer been capped at, say, 120 mph.

(A velocity, by the way, that the Nova, with its asthmatic, carbureted straight-6, could no more have attained than a Yaris can reach 140. That Nova was perhaps the apotheosis of the American auto industry’s mid 1970s nadir, when even thoroughbreds such as the Corvette were, in effect, gelded.)

What I mean is that the predilection of teenage boys to see how fast a car can go is affected not a whit by the numbers printed on a gauge.

This is, rather, largely a matter of hormones, and so immune to the meddling of bureaucrats and other kill-joys.

Jayson Jacoby is editor 
of the Baker City Herald.