Road noise can make new cars sound old | OPINION

People are voicing displeasure that shiny new cars leave them less than perfectly happy. They don’t handle as well as they should, they ride rough and they’re noisy. One should expect more after shelling out big bucks.

I have to agree, but that’s because of my noisy new tires, not a new car. After getting a new set mounted I returned to the dealer to ask, “Weren’t these supposed to minimize road noise?” Yup, that’s what they were billed to do but they didn’t because they couldn’t. No tire can make up for roads so worn that wear-resistant stones stick up like cobbles. No tire can neutralize the effect when bits of highway top-coating peel away.

We were headed back to Puget Sound from Spokane via Highway 2. The strip of highway through Spokane’s eastern suburb of Airway Heights had deteriorated enough to remind me of certain Nigerian highways where motorists veer off to the side because driving through the bush is more comfortable than dealing with axle-breaking chuckholes of the main route.

A wry benefit of rough roads is that my wife and I talk to each other more when traveling. More like yelling at each other, that is. The radio pretty much gets swallowed up by the roar from below. Same with audio books we’d like enjoy during long trips. And our chats are punctuated with a lot of, “What did you say?” Of course, some of the blame rests in my ought-to-be-replaced hearing aids.

More of the blame can be attached to uni-body design. When Detroit determined that cars could be milled out more cheaply by integrating the body and frame, we lost a layer of cushy rubber donuts that separated body and frame in older models. Much of the roughness that tires picked up was damped out by those wonderful buffers.

You can still get vehicles with road-isolating cushions but only in big pickups or SUVs that continue to separate frame from body.  That irritates Prius-driving environmentalists like me who drive gas-misers to keep engine exhaust to a minimum. How odd that big is quiet and little is loud. Manufacturers should admit it by offering ear-plugs as standard equipment for today’s economy cars.

To reach my brother’s home we had to drive up Spokane’s Manito Boulevard where deep tire furrows held us in our lane as surely as trains cling to their tracks. The causes: heavy loads, studs, increasingly hot summer days and postponed maintenance due to budget shortfalls.

Think about the recent heat wave that hammered America’s southwest, softening asphalt-coated roads across the region. Trucks braking at intersections distorted sun-softened road-toppings like running children throwing wrinkles into rugs when they put on the brakes.

Sadly, keeping roads up to snuff is more costly than legislators will accept. Roads and bridges are like the children we bring into this world. Costs of birthing are nothing compared with the cost of maintenance over years to come. But government budgeteers seem incapable of factoring new construction into ever-after budgets for maintenance.

There are concrete reasons for escalating DOT budgets. New roads add to the total to be maintained, and because maintenance and construction costs inflate, because culverts across the region have to be replaced to improve salmon runs, because radical weather events take a toll on roads and their maintenance. Note: The cost of stud-related maintenance is dropping as more drivers now understand that good snow tires beat studs for most winter conditions.

Covering the cost has become more complicated. Fifty years ago when most cars averaged 16 miles per gallon, number crunchers could divide the cost of road issues by the number of license plates to get a rough idea of how much each of us should pay. Then trowel it out more smoothly to take into account bus-riders and other non-driving citizens who still depend on roads to get to the grocery store and doctor.

But now my Prius gets three times 16 miles per gallon so I cheat the gas-tax system with each fill-up. Alas, that might end. A 2005-2006 study put GPS monitors in 275 volunteer vehicles to explore the notion of monitored user-fees for every vehicle. Though many complained it was an intrusion into personal affairs, some system must take over to keep hybrids and electrics from getting a free ride.

Our gas tax must go up. Beginning with a penny per gallon in 1921, the gas tax has risen over time, or so it seems. Actually, when corrected for inflation, the 2011-13 gas tax is less than half what it was in 1921. It doesn’t cover costs even when coupled with tolls, ferry fares federal grants, license fees, fines, public transit fares and so on. That’s why we’re being slammed with a necessary additional 10.5 cents per gallon tax.

It just might give all of us a smoother ride.

Comments may be addressed to robertgraef@comcast.net.


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