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April 12, 2013

Vent It Out Friday: Speed Perception

Measuring a car’s speed by the kilometers it covers in an hour is as obsolete as the eight-track tape. Drivers need a speed measurement that reflects our go-anywhere-fast lifestyle, and kilometers per hour just doesn’t cut it anymore. We must replace kilometers per hour with meters per second—before it’s too late.

The next time you’re driving your Honda Civic or Lamborghini Gallardo or whatever it is you’re driving, look at the speedometer. What do the numbers read? 20 kilometers per hour? 60 kilometers per hour? 100 kilometers per hour? Whether you’re stuck on EDSA (which is pretty much every single minute these days) or flying like a low-altitude jetfighter on the NLEX, what do those numbers actually mean?

Kilometers per hour numbers have little to do with our body’s sensory response to forward motion. As much as the inner ear’s spatial-orientation center knows, we could just as well measure a car’s speed any which way we wanted to.

Add to that, any car actually feels slower or faster than the speedometer’s reading suggests. Anyone’s who’s gotten a speeding ticket on Commonwealth Avenue or Macapacal Avenue will know it’s true. Just think about how often you’ve looked down and been surprised at the number on the speedometer, then realized you’ve been flagged down for speeding; or how the needle doesn’t even nudge up when you’ve spent half the day going from Orense to Guadalupe on everyone’s favorite avenue.

Still, we measure speed in kilometers per hour because that’s what all our speedometers say. But why is that?

Back in the 19th century, stagecoaches ran on a time table derived by calculating how long it took a coach to travel the distance between two points (and the violent holdups that can happen along the way). When trains came along, we employed the same measurement, even though people back then thought passengers would suffocate if a train went over 30 km/h. Those people must have felt silly sitting onboard in helmets when trains started hitting 50, 80 and 100 km/h.

But now, as cars travel independently of fixed stations or stages, the quantity of ground we cover in one hour seems far less important than the ground we covering right this second.

Imagine yourself stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Won’t it be easier to visualize traveling at 1 meter every 10 seconds as opposed to travel 0.36 kilometers per hour? By the same token, when you’re whooshing down a highway at 30 meters per second, won’t you find it easier to understand that you’ve dispatched the span of 100 foot-long hotdogs every second (1 foot is about 0.3 meters) or screamed past the Eiffel Tower laying on its side in ten?

Indeed, slapping the appropriate number unit on something greatly affects our perception of its intensity. Internet connections for example, is now commonly measured with mbps (megabit per second) rather than kbps (kilobits per second), a far more appropriate manner given our increasing data speeds (unless you’re on Globe, in which case, you’re still living in the kbps era).

Another example comes from Ireland a few years ago, amid a controversial switch from Imperial to metric units. A judge reduced a speeding charge against motorist David Clarke, who’d been caught flying down the road at 180 km/h. Just as Clarke was about to lose his license, the judge realized his speed didn’t look quite so bad in miles per hour, so he let him off with a warning.

Perhaps we’d forge a closer connection to speed if we considered how many meters we’re knocking off at each tick of the watch, instead of how far we can drag a coach across the plains or how many stations we can traverse in an hour. Maybe then we’d prove ourselves capable of driving as fast as our technologically advanced vehicles would like to take us, without smashing into each other because of over speeding once in a while.

With everything evolving to reflect our go-fast, we want it now attitude, this kilometers per hour thing is rapidly getting old. Everything, mostly in the tech world, has been carefully recalibrated or modified to take into consideration the newer stuff mentioned. Sadly, how we measure our road speed isn’t one of them. Measuring how fast we drive has been pretty much left alone. Given our ever-changing world, I think it’s about time for a change.

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