POWER (HORSEPOWER) TO THE PEOPLE

One of the richest and most attractive counties in the country is about to publish an "Interim Growth Policy." The policy is needed to help deal with intensive growth of the county's economic base -- now ballooning as a center for biotechnology and other high technology industries. It's a problem a lot of counties would love to have.

The draft of the policy reads a little like "Alice in Wonderland." The reader is awash in a sea of delusions and nostalgia.At the heart of the county's proposal is the once-common belief that the traffic growth prob lems that accompany economic development cannot be solved. The only way out of the muddle is to get people out of their cars.

The proposed policy acknowledges that no one has had much success breaking up the love affair between people and their vehicles. The report strikes a plaintive and puzzled note in this regard. Others have pondered this relationship for decades. Ministers in the 1920s complained that churches were emptying because parishioners preferred a Sunday morning drive to the picnic grounds.

A sweet little gray-haired lady in her late 70s recently brought home to me the reason that efforts to break up the auto romance are futile. This lovely, gentle lady had decided to trade in her 1977 Chevy Monza. While the car had only about 45,000 miles on it, the driver's seat had become uncomfortable. It was time for a change and she was concerned about the possibility of losing what the Monza's 145 horsepower engine always provided - power!

"I don't know what to get. When I get out on the highway I like to go," she explained. "I don't want to have to wait behind some slowpoke. I want to be able to pass and get where I'm going." Her Monza, built in the shape of a bullet, was capable of leaving tire-wide trenches in Florida's hot asphalt in the summer when she hit the gas pedal.

This little lady - like all of us - wasn't especially enamored of her car - she simply cannot do without the direct control over sheer power that automobiles have provided since their inception.

In no other way can an individual directly manipulate so much power. The lightest touch of a foot can propel a couple of tons of machinery to high speeds. A scarcely heavier touch can tame the beast. A modest pressure of our septuagenarian's hand can guide the power she controls effortlessly in any direction.

Power in one form or another is at modern society's hand at every turn. Household appliances, light switches, computer terminals, power tools, and on and on. But there is probably nothing that gives the direct, responsive, tangible rush of power that begins when anauto's ignition is turned on. Power boats may come close - but they pale in number and flexibility when compared with motor vehicles.

The appeal of auto driving comes from the control of power. Some people really like to drive. Some really enjoy moving smoothly and swiftly into the daily tides of travelers, visibly sharing their skills at manipulating thousands of horses in harmony. The journey to work is made burdensome, after all, not when we are rolling, but when power becomes useless in congestion.

Other power sources may be even more reliable and useful than the automobile, but where's the thrill? Flipping a light switch unleashes an inspiring chain of events that begins with waterfalls, steam generators or atomic reactors. But a wall switch doesn't give the charge my old lady friend gets when she tromps on the pedal and scoots around some slowpoke.

Those who would limit the power people enjoy as motorists - even for collective benefit - are on dangerous ground. Moralizing doesn't help. National causes, and certainly local objectives, must be tempered to fit the realities of the universal appeal of power control. The county whose growth policy is based on the wistful hope of getting people out of cars is in for a big disappointment. They'd be far better off figuring out how to cater more effectively to the powerful connection people have made with their automobiles.

The wistful dreams of urban planners, the righteous pleadings of protectors of public safety, the concerns of those who warn of an over- reliance on fuels from uncertain sources - all must be tempered in recognition of the human thrill of the mastery of power. Even the most closely controlled societies are subject to this emotion. It is no accident that ownership of private motor vehicles is made difficult and expensive in such places.

The little old lady who casts new light on our love affair with the automobile finally traded in her red-hot Monza. What she got is much less hot, and she mumbles a little about it after occasional journeys. She knew what 145 horsepower could do. She doesn't understand liters very well.

She gets good mileage, but she can't dig trenches in the hot Florida pavement. A little power has been lost by the people. And no, I don't know where you can lay your hands on that Monza. My wife wouldn't let me buy it.

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