John Dinkel still owns the first car he ever bought—a 1964 Triumph Spitfire. His wife drives a 1973 Toyota Celica. He says he isn't interested in buying a new car, because he rarely drives anything but the cars he tests for Road & Track magazine—of which he is editor. Each year, Dinkel drives and evaluates, but does not pay for, hundreds of cars, including Ferraris, Maseratis, Jaguars, and Porsches. It's a tough job, but somebody has to do it.
Dinkel started out as an engineer at Chrysler and still has his "20 shares of worthless stock to prove it." From Chrysler he went to Car Life magazine (later incorporated into Motor Trend), as engineering editor, and in 1972 he joined Road & Track, also as engineering editor. In 1979 he took over as editor. Since then, he has published some of the best analysis of automobile regulations ever to appear.
Road & Track is not the only publication to take a dim view of government interference in the car market, but it has done a particularly thorough job of it. It has even incited inflammatory accusations that Dinkel is a libertarian.
"We are ready to admit it if the government does something good for us," Dinkel says. "But in practically every area, bureaucracies have not acted on behalf of the people—they have acted on behalf of politicians." Dinkel credits writer John Tomlin with much of the work the magazine has done on auto regulations. He says their attitude is to look into an issue without "knowing" what will come from it. "We tell both sides of the story—unlike either the government or Ralph Nader."
Telling both sides of the story is what separates Road & Track from car magazines that subscribe to the Burt Reynolds–"Smokey and the Bandit" school of driving. When the magazine first published articles critical of regulation, Dinkel was not sure what the response would be. But he was gratified by the overwhelming enthusiasm for the service. For example, almost 50,000 people responded to a reader survey asking opinions about the proposed airbag law.
Dinkel says that much of his purpose is to publicize both sides of the car-safety story. "How many times," he asks rhetorically, "has the consumer heard that airbags are ineffective unless your seatbelt is fastened or that they are ineffective in rear, side, or secondary collisions?" In addition to airbags, Dinkel's magazine has taken on the 55-mph speed limit, bumper-reinforcement laws, and even drunk-driving laws that do nothing to take problem drivers off the road, yet penalize those who habitually drive with a few drinks under their belts without ever having an accident.
Concerning regulations that require bumpers to withstand 5-mph collisions, Dinkel remarks: "That's the sort of decision that should be made by the market. The way it is now, the bumpers and their costs are forced down our throats.
"If there are enough people crashing cars in the 5-mph range that it makes sense for insurance companies to offer a discount if you have stronger bumpers," Dinkel suggests, "then there will be a competitive situation where Chevy will have to offer the bumper to keep from losing sales to Ford."
Dinkel blames the lobbying efforts of insurance companies and consumer groups for much of the unnecessary regulation. About Ralph Nader, he says bluntly, "Nader is a guy who doesn't know beans about cars but does know how to get a great deal of publicity by taking stands on controversial issues. Many of his claims about cars have been bold-faced lies."
Dinkel is similarly critical of protectionist measures that would make it difficult for Americans to buy foreign cars. He recognizes that many of the American auto industry's problems were caused by government policies that encouraged production of big, inefficient cars. Protectionism, says Dinkel, "would simply encourage the production of cars that couldn't survive on the open market."
Dinkel mocks the doomsayers who pronounce the decline of the automobile. His basic premise, both personally and professionally, is that "driving is fun"—this from a man who has had two serious accidents (both of which were someone else's fault). And even though a damaged vertebra continues to cause him back pain, Dinkel still relishes the art and technique of driving and works to improve his own capabilities on the road.
One of the ways he does that is by racing. "The average driver uses less than one-third of a car's capability in dealing with bad situations," Dinkel says. Racing enables a driver to learn to use more of the car's capabilities, and that is one of the reasons that he thinks it is a positive sport.
He is also critical of driver's training. Instead of just learning to parallel-park, people "should be exposed to emergency braking and high-speed maneuvers and taught how to look farther down the road to recognize potentially serious situations," says Dinkel. He adds, however, that police are not in favor of such advanced training, fearing people will take advantage of the knowledge in other ways.
What else bothers John Dinkel? Bad drivers, of course. He believes too many people drive cars for the same reason they wear guns—in order to "equalize" their social position. "I'm bewildered by drivers who use cars like weapons," he says. It's too bad, because driving can be a most pleasurable experience. But the combination of regulators and lousy drivers takes a great deal out of that pleasure. John Dinkel is doing what he can to change that.
Patrick Cox is a frequent guest columnist for USA Today and public affairs director of the Pacific Institute for Public Policy Research.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Spotlight: Tracking the Road’s Rules".