05 October 2014

Runaway horses

 There are about 48,000 wild horses on our grassy Western plains, which is nearly twice as many as the range can support, according federal wildlife managers. Obviously, the range is currently supporting all those horses, so talk about how many horses the range can support is an oblique way of talking about competing calls on that range. And the most obvious competitors--or at least the most vocal--are ranchers, who don't like all those horses eating grass and drinking water that could be going to their cattle.
   What definitely seems unsustainable is our current wild-horse policy. Since 1971 it's been illegal to capture or kill wild horses. So to keep numbers down, the Bureau of Land Management has been rounding up wild horses and storing them in feedlots and fenced pastures. The Bureau is now responsible for some 50,000 warehoused wild horses, which it can't euthanize or slaughter. The horses can be adopted, but adoptions have never kept up with removals, just as there have never been enough removals to keep the wild population to a "sustainable" number. The Bureau currently spends $50 million a year on its horse hotels, which leaves too little money for additional roundups.
   I learned all this from a New York Times article, the most interesting feature of which was the startling omission of two words: invasive species. Horses are not native to the New World. The wild horses of the American West are the feral descendants of domesticated horses brought over by the mainly Spanish early settlers. Like many other immigrants to our shores, the horses found America a great place to settle down and raise a family.
   People pretend to object to invasive species, but that only applies to species they don't like. Everyone has a fondness for horses, so attempts to wipe out these four-legged invaders are not in prospect. Indeed, we tend to pass over the uncomfortable fact that they are invaders; the Times article noted that unchecked horse populations could decimate grass and water on public lands, potentially leading to "starvation among horse herds and other native species" (my italics). You're in, guys!

02 October 2014

How many ignition switch deaths? Postscript

   On Monday I posted a note on a New York Times story (from the preceding Friday) about the GM ignition switch disaster, the gist of which was that the particular accident the Times focused on in that story didn't seem to be caused by the defective switch.
   The following day the Times did a follow-up reporting that the ignition-switch death toll, as determined by Kenneth R. Feinberg, who administers the compensation fund GM set up, had risen to 23. Once more the Times illustrated the story by pointing to a particular victim, an infant rendered a paraplegic in an accident in which his great-grandmother and 13-year old aunt died. But through some evil chance, the Times managed to again alight on an accident that also seems unrelated to the switch problem.
   The particular accident is not mentioned in the massive Valukas report commissioned by GM, but was described in a Times' July 16 story: "Less than a mile from the Matthews family's home, another car swerved into their lane and crashed head-on into the Cobalt." The air bags did not deploy.
   As I briefly described the situation in Monday's post, and at greater length in posts referred to there, GM's theory that connects the ignition switch to the failure of the airbags is that there is an initial bump, as when a car goes over a curb or hits a bush or small tree, followed by a more serious crash into another object, such as a tree. The initial bump causes the defective switch to jump to the ACC position, which (after a delay of 0.15 seconds) turns off the airbag sensor. Almost all the accidents described in the Valukas report conform to that scenario, but that is clearly not what happened in the case described in Tuesday's Times. There was no initial bump that flipped the ignition switch, just a head-on crash.
   The Times has now unfortunately spotlighted the only two reported fatal accidents that don't seem connected to the ignition switch. (The Valukas report describes one other non-fatal non-conforming case.) It's not clear why the airbags didn't deploy in these cases, and the ignition switch could ultimately turn out to be the culprit. But the GM theory not only accounts for most of the accidents, it's the only theory we have; no one else has conducted engineering tests to determine if there are other reasons for the airbags not to deploy.  Perhaps a certain number of airbags fail to deploy for unknown reasons across all car makes and models. Or perhaps there is a deeper problem with the GM airbags that is as yet unappreciated. In any case, the Times coverage casts doubt on the extent of their reporters' understanding of what is going on.