Author Jeffrey Zaslow

Feb 13, 2012

There’s a funeral today for best-selling author Jeffrey Zaslow, who was killed on a snowy Michigan road Friday morning. He had been at a book signing event in Petoskey the night before.

Zaslow, who lived in a Northwest Detroit suburb, left early the next morning so he could get home by the time his youngest daughter was out of school. But his car apparently skidded into the path of a tractor-trailer and he died.

This hit me pretty powerfully for two reasons. I knew him very slightly, and he was an extremely decent man. But we were also driving on that same stretch of road that same day, five hours later.

It was awful, even then. We suddenly hit unseen ice and went careening into the oncoming lane. Fortunately, no one was coming. Less than a minute later, when our car was back under control, a huge eighteen-wheeler hauling propane whizzed by.

We passed one dreadful wreck, and at one point six ambulances passed us, with sirens blaring. Later that night, I talked with a lawyer who constantly drives all over the north country.

“Never underestimate the capriciousness of Northern Michigan roads, and big trucks in winter. I know this stretch well,” he said. “Never assume that a road is plowed, salted or sanded in these days of reduced manpower,” no matter what they say.

Well, the stretch I was on did not appear to have been treated at all, though I don’t know for sure. I also have absolutely no idea whether road conditions had anything whatsoever to do with Jeff Zaslow’s accident. But I do know we need to spend more to maintain our roads and we aren’t doing it, and that puts us all at risk. Traffic fatalities have been declining for decades, thanks to safer cars.

Even so, about thirty-three thousand people are killed every year in this country. That’s more than six times the number of Americans killed in more than eight years of fighting in Iraq.

Every one of those deaths has a terrible impact on many other lives. Unsafe roads put more of us at risk and cause us to have to spend more maintaining our cars. Yet MDOT, the Michigan Department of Transportation, is going to spend almost a hundred million dollars less this year improving roads in the Metro Detroit area. This is partly because construction costs are rising, and gas tax revenues are down.

If the state doesn’t start investing a lot more in our roads soon, MDOT says that less than half our roads will be in acceptable condition by the end of this decade. Governor Rick Snyder agrees.

He proposes to raise the gas tax nine cents a gallon and car registration fees by sixty bucks to do so. But  he is facing resistance from members of his own party in the legislature.

Too many are afraid of any tax, no matter how necessary. Well, the fact is that the governor’s bill may actually save us money. Federal data show the average Detroit-area driver pays five hundred and thirty-six dollars a year extra in fuel costs and car repairs because of the poor conditions of our roads.

There are legitimate ways for government to save. Skimping on road maintenance and repair is not one of them.