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July, 2009:

Senators aim for national texting ban

Don't be stupidThe privacy of the American motorist to do as he pleases in his own car is under attack again. This time the threat comes from straight from the United States Senate.

The New York Times reports that a group of senators have introduced a bill that would require states to ban texting while driving or face punitive cuts in their highway funding.

Under the measure, states would have two years to outlaw the sending of text and e-mail messages by drivers or lose 25 percent of their highway money each year until the money was depleted.

If this scheme seems familiar, that is because it is. In 1984 the Federal Government used the threat of withholding highway funds to impose a national drinking age of 21 on unwilling state legislatures.

First they used highway funds to take away our right to drink. Now they’re using them to curtail our right to communicate in our own cars. Next they will be banning fatty foods, imposing coke taxes and regulating the consumption of red meat that keeps us Americans big and strong.

Enough is enough!

Call your senator and tell them to keep their noses out of our automobiles.

Michigan to Manhattan: A cross-country scorecard of what makes America great (Part 2).

stay in laneThis is the second of a two-part series recapping my move to New York. If you missed part 1, you can read it here.

Eastern Pennsylvania

After refueling at the Flying J, things in Pennsylvania went pretty smoothly. That is, they went smoothly until about hour seven of my journey, when I decided to turn off my audio book (Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money) in the hopes to catching All Things Considered on the local NPR affiliate.

After about 10 minutes of searching, I finally found the local NPR station, WVIA. Turns out that not all NPR stations are created equal. After years of counting on finding reliably excellent programming on Michigan Radio (WUOM) at any hour of the day or night, I was horrified to find that Pennsylvania stations broadcast marginal music programs during prime drive-time hours.

I struggled to find an acceptable NPR station all the way through Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Observations/Score card: Eastern Pennsylvania

Things that make America Great: none.

Things that DON’T make America Great: Marginal NPR affiliates that give public broadcasting a bad name (you know who you are WVIA and WXPN).

The Garden State

By all accounts, New Jersey dramatically exceeded expectations.

I had never been to New Jersey before (save for Newark Airport), and kind of expected it to be a mix between drab 70s sprawl and an early industrial wasteland that never quite got cleaned up. Oh, and I expected there to be lots of train tracks and oil storage tanks.

But in reality, my trip down the Garden State’s parkways was remarkably scenic and enjoyable. The lush hills and sometimes dramatic vistas reminded me of Northern Michigan, but with wider (and better) roads, nicer cars and charming infrastructure projects dating from the New Deal.

All and all, driving through New Jersey was a pleasant experience. If only they had a decent NPR station…

Observations/Score card: New Jersey

Things that make America Great: beautiful highways and byways.

Things that DON’T make America Great: Unacceptable lack of decent NPR stations. Isn’t New Jersey home to some of the East Coast Liberal Elite? Where do they get their marching orders if not from Robert Siegel and Michele Norris?

New York City

First of all, they charge $8 to get into New York City. You know a place is going to be pricy when they have a cover charge just to take the tunnel into town.

Beyond that, navigating the streets of New York to my new apartment was much less stressful than I had imagined. However, New York’s draconian anti-cell phone laws required me to repeatedly drop my phone whenever the police came near.

Fortunately, the police seemed more concerned with driving around the city at high speeds with their sirens blaring than with pulling me over for using a cell phone, and I was able to make it to my new apartment accident and ticket free (though more than a few cabbies tried to crash into me).

Observations/Score card: New York City

Things that make America Great: Free-for-all streets where lanes are merely suggestions, 24-hour subways.

Things that DON’T make America Great: Cover charges, oppressive European-style anti cell phone laws.

The war on driving

Multi-Tasking and DrivingAn American’s car is his castle, and that castle is under siege.

The assault on American motoring practices began last Saturday when The New York Times published its lede story on the dangers of driving while talking on a cell phone.  The Times continued the theme Monday, citing recently released study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that claimed drivers distracted by their cell phones caused 955 fatalities in 2002—still far short of the 100,000 people killed by doctors every year—but still nothing to sneeze at. Pointedly, the study concluded that there was little to no safety improvement between drivers talking with a handset and those using a hands-free device.

This set off  another round of calls to ban the use of cell phones while driving. Most of these people, mind you, don’t want to simply ensure both hands are on the wheel by requiring hands-free sets, they want to ban talking on the phone all together.

But as this blog has pointed out before, an American’s car is not only a machine designed to get from point A to point B, but also a personal sanctuary for eating, drinking, enjoying top-notch entertainment systems and yes, talking on cell phones. In short, an American’s car is his home away from home. And if we are going to start regulating when people can and cannot talk in their cars, we better have a good reason to do it.

But we don’t have a good reason to do it.

Whether it is closing a business deal, arranging to meet someone, reporting a drunk driver or simply ordering a pizza, the ability to talk on the phone while driving is a huge benefit to society as a whole. And despite the rapid proliferation of cell phones—and more distracting smart phones—over the past few years, America’s roads today are the safest they have been in decades.

Is talking on a cell phone while driving dangerous? Sure. But so is fiddling with the climate controls, listening to the radio or driving faster than 10 MPH. We could almost eliminate road fatalities entirely—saving 40,000 lives a year— if we simply prohibited the production of cars that could travel at speeds greater than a brisk walk. But that would not be reasonable.

Neither is banning cell phones while driving.

It is time to lift the siege on American drivers and go back to the good old days of last week, when we were all free to do as we pleased in our cars.

Previous topics mentioned in this post:

#2. Drive-Thrus

#3. Cup Holders

#9. Automatic Transmissions

#16. Cheap gas

The American Dream is alive and well. Here is the proof:

Q: How can you possibly make something as American as a Super-sized Big Mac meal with a coke better?

A: By delivering it. … for free.


That’s right. That is a picture of a real life McDonald’s employee delivering a meal, complete with delicious McDonald’s fountain drinks to a grateful customer.

Three words: God Bless America!

Michigan to Manhattan: A cross-country scorecard of what makes America great (part 1)

This is the first in a two part series recapping my move to New York.

mcdonalds cardboard big breakfast The Departure

Moving day was quite the odyssey.

When I arrived at the car rental place on Tuesday at 7 AM to pick up my rental, I was informed that they did not have a car for me. No apology, nothing. The disgruntled sales clerk simply suggested I “call around” to other Hertz locations. He did not provide a list of numbers.

Fortunately Google picked up the slack and was able to provide me a comprehensive list of Hertz locations in the metro-Detroit area.

Two hours, and ten phone calls later, I had a car from another Hertz location – although not the car the sales person had promised me on the phone 20 minutes prior. But at this point, I wasn’t complaining. Not even Hertz’s European approach to customer service could stop me from moving to New York. I eagerly hoped in my Hyundai, drove thru the nearest McDonald’s for a breakfast value meal and ventured forth.

Observations/Score card:

McDonald’s breakfast makes America great.

Hertz Rent-A-Car does not.

Flying J

The Heartland

Things went quite smoothly for the first leg of the journey. My Ann Arbor engineered Hyundai was a surprisingly nice car (blasphemy from a Detroiter, I know). The Ohio Turnpike rest stops lived up to expectations, and I was able to get a few shots of espresso from Starbucks for $2, which I paid for with my credit card.

However, things went precipitously downhill once I entered Pennsylvania.  It was a solid 100 miles into Keystone State before I came across anything resembling a standard interstate rest area/fast food assemblage. By this point the gas situation was quite dire and I was forced to refuel at a Flying J Truck Stop.

The gas pumps at the Flying J had a user interface so complicated that it made your typical automated telephone support line seem refreshing and simple by comparison. After navigating through about 6 menus and entering my zip code no less than 3 times, I was finally able to refuel my car.

Inside, the Flying J was your typical full-service interstate truck stop: a gas station expanded to include a restaurant, arcade, pay showers and a full party store. This particular location also had an impressive display of Christian memorabilia, including pamphlets advertizing “Christian Brides,” who would move to the U.S. from some distant godforsaken land (probably Europe) to marry lonely Christian men.

Because Hertz had delayed my departure, I regrettably did not have much time to explore all that the Flying J had to offer.

Observations/Score card:

Buying coffee with a credit card makes America great.

Western Pennsylvania and Flying J truck stops do not.

Check back later this week for Part 2: The Garden State and the Big Apple

What is more American: Big Gulps or Credit Cards?

The US Capital
Big Gulps and using your credit card for everything are two pillars of the American way of life.  But a story in today’s New York Times reports that the companies that brought you the Big Gulp and promulgated no-fee (to the consumer) credit cards are at loggerheads.

At issue: interchange fees.

If you’re a regular reader of Free Refills & Why I Love America, you’ll know that what makes using a credit card in America such a pleasure is that retailers are not allowed to charge customers fees for using them or impose minimum purchase requirements on consumers who pay with them—although many of the merchants in NYC seem to be a bit casual about the latter.

The fact that credit cards are treated like cash liberates consumers from the burden of carrying cash and from the stealth tax of losing money that falls out of your pocket. What’s more, purchases made by credit cards often come with extended warrantees, insurance and customer satisfaction protections that are not available to those paying cash.

From the merchants prospective, the proliferation of credit card wielding consumers means that many more people can purchase things that perhaps they could not otherwise afford, earning the merchant a grateful customer and a handsome profit. For this benefit, the merchant has to pay an “interchange fee” of about 1-3 percent. That fee is divided up between the merchant’s bank, the card issuer’s bank and the good men and women at VISA, American Express and MasterCard who make the whole thing possible.

For cutesy video about how interchange fees work, check out this clip from the electronic payments coalition. They are the lobbying group for credit card issuers, so they should have a good idea how the whole system works.

Recently, many merchants have been scoffing at paying their fair share to make the whole system work. They have been violating their contracts by instituting minimum purchase requirements, charging customers extra fees and lobbying congress to change the rules on their behalf.

That is where 7-Eleven enters the picture. The people that brought us the Super Big Gulp are circulating petitions at some of their stores that urge congress to regulate interchange fees—in effect shifting the burden of those fees on to banks and consumers (in the form of decreased rewards programs).

Normally figuring out who to support in this case would be pretty easy. Using a credit card anywhere, to buy anything is part of what makes America great.

But on the other hand, the good people at 7-Eleven developed the Slurpee and the Super Big Gulp. How can a company that invented the bucket-sized soft drink and paved the way towards Super Size culture be anti American?

Who is more patriotic, the credit card companies or 7-Eleven?

In this instance, I am going to come down on the side of the credit card companies. Sure Super Big Gulps are great, and we will always be indebted to 7-Eleven for their relentless push towards bigger and bigger soft drink servings, but using a credit card for any purchase, even a Big Gulp, is more important than any one company. The free use of credit cards has become a basic American right—and one that needs defending.

When it comes to the Credit Card Companies V. 7-Eleven, the Credit Card Companies win.

God Bless America!

Previous topics mentioned in this post:

An Open Letter to VISA

#6. Chargebacks and Credit Cards

#10. Super Big Gulp

Free Refills is moving to the Big Apple

U-Haul w/ Arizona plateThe Midwest is where America can be found at its finest.

The cars and trucks are big, the houses bigger. Every township and country road is lined with drive-thrus and big-box stores. It gets just hot enough to require the liberal use of air conditioning every summer. All-you-can-eat buffets are only slightly less ubiquitous than free refills and never-ending cups of coffee. And no one would waste the energy to walk somewhere when they could just as easily drive.

In short, the Midwest has it all–except for jobs. But that is another story.

After having lived in Michigan my whole life, I’ve decided to see what some other parts our great country have to offer. So next week I will be mothballing my car and moving to Manhattan.

Posting will continue to be light for a week or so, but will pick up dramatically after the move is complete.

Free Refills is also in the process of a redesign.

Check back next week for more.

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