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In Baghdad, car crashes now claim more lives than war

Posted by on December 20th, 2010 at 10:40 am

“… a far more common sight than a chassis shattered in an explosion is now one destroyed in a nasty crash.”
— The Economist

The Economist, one of the world’s leading news magazines, has an article in this week’s issue that really caught my attention (it actually had several, but this one is relevant to BikePortland).

Turns out that that car crashes (unfortunately referred to as “accidents” by The Economist), are now more dangerous than war in Baghdad. According to their story, “the health ministry estimates that six times as many people now die in car accidents as fall victim to political violence.”

Apparently in Baghdad, “reckless driving is the norm.” What’s worse, is that it appears Americans are exporting their disregard for road safety to countries we invade/occupy/are at war in. The Economist reports that one major problem that is leaded to deadly car wrecks is “A tendency to beat the traffic by driving up the wrong side of the road—learnt from American security contractors…”

Interestingly, the reporter posits that Iraqis’ relationship with “imminent death from a bomb or a bullet” has leaked into their view of roads as a battlefield; and this isn’t about insurgents and car bombs, which remain a threat the Economist says, “But a far more common sight than a chassis shattered in an explosion is now one destroyed in a nasty crash.”

And if you think we’ve got it tough here in America trying to get folks to improve their behavior on the road, Baghdad has its own set of unique challenges:

Nonetheless, there are limits to the government’s commitment to road safety. Politicians, security forces and American military convoys (often with Iraqi escorts nowadays) still tend to drive down the middle of Baghdad streets, forcing everybody else to stop. And on December 15th the Karrada district was congested for hours when roads were sealed off for the official opening of the new headquarters of the traffic police.

Read the full article here.

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  • cyclist December 20, 2010 at 10:53 am

    I may be alone here, but I don’t believe this article belongs on this site. It has nothing to do with the mission of the site, which according to your “About Us” page is:

    “BikePortland.org is a daily, interactive news source that covers the Portland bike scene. From street-level activism to the backrooms of City Hall — we cover the culture, personalities, businesses, breaking news, and important advocacy issues that define America’s most bike-friendly city.”

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) December 20, 2010 at 11:02 am

      cyclist,

      You’re probably not alone in thinking this article doesn’t belong on this site. But I think it’s interesting and relevant. I think the dominance of cars in cities and the consequences that come with that qualifies as “important advocacy issue.” What’s happening in Baghdad speaks (somewhat) to the strength of America’s car culture and it shows that unregulated encouragement of private motor vehicles are not a sane method of promoting urban mobility.

      Not every story published here will feel right to every reader. Luckily I try to publish several articles a day and hopefully you’ll find at least one or two of them valuable.

      I appreciate your feedback.

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      • cyclist December 20, 2010 at 11:05 am

        “[P]private vehicles are not a sane method of urban mobility” sounds a lot like you’re creating a “bikes v. cars” story that you’ve previously decried when issued by the Oregonian et al.

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    • wsbob December 20, 2010 at 1:10 pm

      I’m very much interested in the maneuverability of different cities around the world. The way in which motor vehicles are allowed to be used for transportation in cities can have a very pronounced effect on the viability of transportation modes other than motor vehicles.

      China’s big cities are one example. From a general transportation standpoint, what’s happening in Baghdad with regard to the use of motor vehicles certainly is interesting. I tend to think the U.S. must have some of the best transportation and road system engineers in the world, but somehow, that hasn’t figured into the planning and management of Baghdad’s street infrastructure, or the enforcement of traffic regulations that would help reduce collisions?

      The excerpt from the Economist story that maus includes in his story states:

      “A tendency to beat the traffic by driving up the wrong side of the road—learnt from American security contractors…”

      American security contractors. It seems that providing examples of bad driving to Iraqi’s would be far from the first bad thing the contractors have brought to Iraq that’s come to be attributed to an ineptitude and mediocrity on the part of the U.S. in general, regarding its efforts to help reorganize and stabilize a troubled nation.

      I wonder if the person that did research for the Economist story checked into what driving habits and traffic conditions in Baghdad were like before the war.

      The U.S. has mucked up so much else of its occupation of Iraq. If the situation is that the U.S. has somehow allowed lethally bad driving habits to establish themselves or continue on that shouldn’t come as any big surprise.

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  • Shetha December 20, 2010 at 10:55 am

    I can assure you those practices were not just imported by careless security consultants. I have seen such things there when Saddam was still in power. I’m sure it’s been exacerbated by the lack of infrastructure/enforcement, though

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  • Ely December 20, 2010 at 10:57 am

    yeah I disagree. One of the major challenges facing people who bike is the powerful ingrained car culture. This article points to the pervasiveness of the culture, even to the point of being exported. It’s good to know what we’re up against.

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  • cyclist December 20, 2010 at 11:01 am

    Ely: See comment #2. Was it exported by us 10 years ago?

    Jonathan: Ely’s comment is exactly why I think the article is inappropriate. At best what you’re doing is creating a “bikes v. car” mentality, at worst the article is entirely off-topic and outside of the mission of the site.

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  • Spiffy December 20, 2010 at 11:05 am

    “A tendency to beat the traffic by driving up the wrong side of the road—learnt from American security contractors…”
    they can blame us all they want but people in foreign countries have been doing that for a very long time… just about every season of The Amazing Race shows it happening…

    I’m not sure if there’s a reliable way to compare stats to previous years but I don’t think there would have been a sudden spike due to the US invasion…

    although it’s good to know that we’re no longer killing more of them then they can kill themselves.

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  • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) December 20, 2010 at 11:10 am

    cyclist

    “[P]private vehicles are not a sane method of urban mobility” sounds a lot like you’re creating a “bikes v. cars” story that you’ve previously decried when issued by the Oregonian et al.

    I do not feel at all like that statement creates a “bikes v. cars” narrative.

    And you left out a key part of my quote… “Unregulated encouragement of…”

    Like I’ve stated many times on this site. I am not against car use, I am against car overuse and I am against planning that does not fully recognize the massive negative external impacts the overuse of motor vehicles has on human beings– especially in urban environments.

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    • cyclist December 20, 2010 at 11:20 am

      I don’t see how you couldn’t see this as a “bikes v. cars” story. Your post is about car accidents in Baghdad, it’s got nothing to do with the bike scene here, it’s solely meant to point out that cars are responsible for fatalities in a culture very dissimilar to us. The only relevance this story has (as quoted by you) is the “dominance of car culture.” In other words “cars are bad, bikes are good.” Right?

      Anybody who has traveled overseas knows that driving habits can be MUCH different than our own, I once was on a bus that spent more than an hour on the wrong side of a rural divided highway and was praying the entire way that we didn’t hit someone as we crested every hill. What lessons should we draw from that trip? That highways can be fatal?

      I frankly don’t see how we draw a lesson from this story at all. In the US people drive in their lane, on the right side of the road unless they’re drunk, stoned, or otherwise mentally impaired. The lessons we need to learn in order to make Portland a better biking city are not to be found by looking at Baghdad because we don’t have the problems they have. The fact that you’re trolling the internet looking for auto fatalities is disturbing and in my opinion an incredibly poor way to advocate for better cycling infrastructure locally.

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      • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) December 20, 2010 at 11:23 am

        cyclist,

        It might also be helpful for you to remember that sometimes I post a story simply because I think others might find it interesting and worth reading. Sometimes I do that via my Twitter feed, sometimes Elly and I put them in the Monday Roundup, sometimes I put them on Page Two, and sometimes I decide to put them on the Front Page.

        Not every story is about some deep policy issue or recommendation or lesson we need to learn here in Portland.

        Again, thanks for your comments.

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  • Jeff December 20, 2010 at 11:25 am

    “..it appears Americans are exporting their disregard for road safety to countries we invade/occupy/are at war in. ”

    well, that’s a fairly ballsey and highly generalized statement. wow. I need to quit reading this site.

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  • cyclist December 20, 2010 at 11:31 am

    Jonathan: As I said, the article seemed to me to be in poor taste because it looked like you were purposely trying to create a bike v. car dynamic by posting an article on vehicular fatalities in a country where the road conditions have nothing in common with the conditions in Portland (or the US in general).

    I think it’s disingenuous to claim that you posted it merely because you thought it was interesting, it’s obvious from the article and you’re earlier comments that you were trying to imply that cars are a problem: “I think the dominance of cars in cities and the consequences that come with that qualifies as ‘important advocacy issue,’” “Americans are exporting their disregard for road safety” etc. You’re trying to score points at the hands of people who have died in an occupied country, it’s an incredibly poor decision.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) December 20, 2010 at 11:39 am

      cyclist,

      I’m not trying to score any points. It’s your opinion that this article was in poor taste and you feel it’s a bad decision on my part. That’s fine. You’re entitled to your opinion. Thanks again for the feedback.

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      • cyclist December 20, 2010 at 11:50 am

        If you weren’t trying to score points you wouldn’t have argued that the car fatalities in Baghdad are due to the importation of US car culture. The article claims no such thing and I don’t see how that holds up given the other facts in the article

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    • John Landolfe December 20, 2010 at 12:02 pm

      Cyclist: I beg to differ. I think the relevance of this article to ours or any bicycling community is glaringly obvious: traffic fatalities are not considered with the same crusading urgency as a terror plot or militant uprising. The startling fact here isn’t what’s happening in Iraq, it’s what’s happening here at home, in places like Portland. Almost no one at home (the Economist is a UK publication) is reporting on the real death and carnage happening in the streets of Baghdad.

      Local newspapers report on the Iraq War but not on this because traffic deaths are considered a tragic inevitability and not something to wage war against (and I’m speaking of a war on traffic deaths, not on drivers; I drive on a rare occasion). Our culture and our community is complacent to traffic deaths. Stories like this Economist article throw this in stark relief. People who share the road here in Portland, such as cyclists, ought to be extremely concerned.

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  • Quentin December 20, 2010 at 11:39 am

    I think the story is relevant because there is a logical, yet slightly indirect, connection to bicycles. The debacle of the US invasion of Iraq is an example of how demand for oil makes the world more dangerous and unstable. There is an element of irony in the fact that car crashes are becoming a leading cause of death in the midst of a war to gain control of the very substance that makes car crashes possible. One can’t help but think about how obviously bicycles fit in to the equation to reduce such petroleum-fueled violence and chaos.

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  • cyclist December 20, 2010 at 11:44 am

    I found the article Jonathan quoted in the Economist. As further evidence of Jonathan’s editorial bias, I give you the following quote from the article:

    “As part of a push to improve road safety, the government is handing out licences for the first time since 2003. More than 2,000 have been issued in Baghdad on a voluntary basis in the past month, after a television-advertising campaign. Licences will become compulsory in two years’ time. “Anyone can drive in the streets without knowing any of the regulations,” says Moya Jalil, as he waits to take his second lesson at a Baghdad driving school.”

    The article also mentions a near total lack of signage as another contributing factor. There are others as well, including the lifting of an import ban that caused the number of cars in the city to swell to 1.5 million. None of these factors, of course, have anything to do with the conditions here in the US. It seems to me that Jonathan cherry picked a couple of sentences from the article… but even those sentences don’t really say anything about what it’s like to bike on the streets in Portland.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) December 20, 2010 at 11:58 am

      cyclist (and anyone else reading this exchange),

      I feel like perhaps you are reading too much into this whole thing. I absolutely do not use this site to purposely push any agenda or to try and mislead readers in any way whatsoever. It’s clear you are upset about this article and the way I’ve presented it.

      Thanks.

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  • Vladislav Davidzon December 20, 2010 at 12:01 pm

    @Cyclist, with all due respect, Jonathan has the right to air his perspective on these issues, as this is his blog. You may disagree with his viewpoint, but it’s a bit strange for you to be telling someone what they should or should not write on their own website.

    As a long-time reader of BikePortland, this is exactly the sort of broad coverage I want to continue to see, and truly reflects what makes this website profoundly unique.

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    • Did I miss it? Again? December 20, 2010 at 1:01 pm

      Using this logic, Fox news has nothing to apologize for; it is their station after all. Who are we to criticize them for cherry picking and misrepresenting.

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      • are December 20, 2010 at 3:55 pm

        fox news holds FCC licenses, which someone else could use to better effect. let fox blog their trash instead, and we will see how large an audience they get.

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        • Did I miss it? Again? December 21, 2010 at 12:32 pm

          It would be measured in the millions. Guaranteed.

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  • George Patton December 20, 2010 at 12:18 pm

    “What’s worse, is that it appears Americans are exporting their disregard for road safety to countries we invade/occupy/are at war in.’

    Ever driven in combat Mr Maus?

    Soldiers are driving to avoid IEDs, they are driving to come to the aid of others, both military and civilian. The manner in which American troops drive while in combat is a matter of life and death.

    These same troops DO NOT come home and drive on public roads in the US the way they do in combat.

    Blaming the troops for bad driving on the part if Iraqi’s is beyond words for me.

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    • Did I miss it? Again? December 20, 2010 at 1:12 pm

      US/UN soldiers lost sight of their mission: act as good role models so the streets of Baghdad can become a safe place to ride a bike (in the midst of a war).
      Perhaps we should have left the armored vehicles here and sent them on bicycles?

      It really is in poor taste to blame US soldiers for Iraq’s traffic problems. Offensive, really, regardless of your thoughts on the war.

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    • VIE December 20, 2010 at 1:33 pm

      By “come to the aid of,” you mean “kill,” right?

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      • Did I miss it? Again? December 21, 2010 at 12:41 pm

        If you are ignorant of the situation, yes, you probably could simplify it down to that.

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  • john December 20, 2010 at 12:18 pm

    I side with the first responder, this has nothing to do with bike culture, and not even anything to do with US driving. I was really confused to find it here. I think many of us readers enjoy the site because its focused and usually information is presented in a more lightly bias manner… But really its Jonathan’s site, so if he wants it to a personal opinion blog its his decision. I would probably just stop reading it then, we all have the option.

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  • cyclist December 20, 2010 at 12:22 pm

    It’s personally upsetting to me because he’s essentially trivializing the situation in Baghdad in order to argue an anti-car perspective. It’s stunningly insensitive considering what the people of Baghdad have been through these last 7 years, especially considering that we’re largely responsible for it.

    Here are some unexplored reasons why traffic fatalities might be so high in Baghdad: the large number of car bombs over the course of the war has made it so that people (understandably) don’t want to be stopped on the street. Maybe that’s the reason they’re driving on the wrong side of the road. Maybe when you’ve spent so much of your life living in a war zone you take more risks because danger is a part of your daily existence. Maybe you drive in the middle of the street because that’s the farthest point from a roadside bomb.

    I find Jonathan’s analysis shallow and demeaning, the people of Baghdad should not be used in a silly bike v. car debate. I will vociferously continue to defend myself in this regard because I believe it’s important not to trivialize the war and its aftermath.

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    • Quentin December 20, 2010 at 1:27 pm

      I find it anything but trivializing. Indeed, maybe Iraqis drive like maniacs for all the reasons you stated, but none of it would be happening in the first place if we hadn’t invaded their country for the painfully obvious reason of gaining control of an oil-rich region in order to fuel millions of lazy Americans’ gas-guzzling SUVs. In a broader sense it is indeed a car vs. bike debate of utmost importance.

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      • wsbob December 20, 2010 at 4:15 pm

        “… Indeed, maybe Iraqis drive like maniacs for all the reasons you stated, but none of it would be happening in the first place if we hadn’t invaded their country for the painfully obvious reason of gaining control of an oil-rich region in order to fuel millions of lazy Americans’ gas-guzzling SUVs. …” Quentin

        Actually, Baghdad’s traffic conditions in the years before the U.S. invasion may already have been chaotic. In an internet search I did before posting my earlier comment, I found a single, passing statement saying that ‘ even before the war, Baghdad’s traffic was notoriously bad’. I was hoping someone reading would have some better info.

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    • toby December 20, 2010 at 1:28 pm

      Dude, 8 out of the 27 posts are yours, I think you’ve made your point. You disagree with the relevance of the article and you think JM has an agenda. Noted, now please move along and beat another horse. Don’t worry, you can still have the last word…

      Having said that, I found it real hard seeing what this article is doing here. Kind of a stretch. But someone above made a good point about how nobody hears about the amount of deaths from driving in Baghdad just as we never hear about it here. Almost as if all we need to do is turn our heads (or blame something else) and the problem will just fix itself. So in that light it is an interesting an worthwhile read which I guess is the point.

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  • JIM R December 20, 2010 at 12:27 pm

    Cyclist, back away from the coffie and take a deep breath.

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  • Nick December 20, 2010 at 12:39 pm

    For what it’s worth, I find this article interesting and I’m not bothered/offended that it’s present on BP.

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  • Perry Hunter December 20, 2010 at 12:47 pm

    I’m with Nick – whether I agree with the content or not, I’m happy to see it broaden out a bit.

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  • pixie December 20, 2010 at 12:49 pm

    BP is Jonathan’s site. He can publish whatever he wants, and everyone else is free to read it or not. Feel free to comment as well, it’s encouraged!

    I’m so affected by this story, and the comments, that I guess I’ll have to keep reading BikePortland as long as both of us continue to exist.

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  • Skid December 20, 2010 at 1:17 pm

    cyclist
    an anti-car perspective

    How is it anti-car to want people to use their cars less and to drive with more regard for safety?

    The main thing that annoys me about Portland and its inhabitants is this ridiculous idea that if you are pro-bicycle you must be anti-car, and vice-versa.

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  • Bob_M December 20, 2010 at 2:14 pm

    No on wants to see auto deaths, but for traffic deaths to out number war deaths seems like a move in the right direction. Now I would like to see deaths of old age out number auto deaths.

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    • are December 20, 2010 at 3:57 pm

      how about famine and disease

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  • matthew vilhauer December 20, 2010 at 2:39 pm

    jonathan-thanks for your broad range of topics on tranportation and safety issues. recent incidents (the angela burke tragedy and the pedestrian hit by a max train) show that no matter your mode chioce of getting from point A to B we share many of the same concerns-namely getting to our destinations safely.

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  • OldTown December 20, 2010 at 6:24 pm

    I would like to add to the comments that agree with the addition of broader topics like this one. Keep it up Jonathan. The history of the modern internet is paved with overly opinionated and argumentative blog comments.

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  • Kevin Wagoner December 20, 2010 at 8:35 pm

    Interesting. Not sure if this is good or bad news.

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  • Paul December 20, 2010 at 10:27 pm

    Cyclist: I have a blog called “I like pancakes.” Can I not post about waffles on my own site? Am I being disingenuous to my readers if I make a post about chicken pot pie? Cheers.

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    • Did I miss it? Again? December 21, 2010 at 12:53 pm

      Not at all. Although to be fair, you would need to find an article someone else wrote about waffles, pick out a few sentences that support your assertion that US soldiers are bad for pancakes because of how they eat their waffles in hostile territory during a time of war while ignoring the fact that that is how waffles were consumed by the indigenous people BEFORE the US military arrived.

      Don’t even get me started on chicken pot pie! Pie designation should be reserved solely for desserts. What kind of dessert has peas and gravy in it?!

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  • Shozo December 21, 2010 at 3:25 am

    My brother lived and worked in Bagdad in the early 1980s. He related the typical Iraqi driver back then ignored the laws of traffic and physics.

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  • jim December 21, 2010 at 5:53 pm

    Does this take into act. cars that run over mines?

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  • Mikey December 21, 2010 at 11:09 pm

    I live a stone’s throw from Iraq in a country with many Iraqi expatriate workers, and I did a brief (totally non-scientific!) survey of two Iraqi women and one man who are friends and coworkers, and it confirmed my suspicion:

    The traffic in Baghdad and many developing countries is nightmarish. That the Economist implies it is due to American occupation is laughable. It was like that pre-invasion, it is like that now, and it is like that in other countries in this region that I live in.

    They all thought it was funny and one joked with me – You Americans want to take credit for everything, even the bad traffic in Iraq!

    Jonathan, I thought this article was interesting; thanks for posting. If I didn’t want to read it, I would have moved on. I wonder when Iraq will be ready for bike/ped/disabled transport planners? Yikes!!

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    • wsbob December 22, 2010 at 12:02 am

      Mikey …excellent work! Just the kind of inquiry I hoped someone would have an opportunity to make.

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  • BicycleDave December 22, 2010 at 3:18 pm

    I agree with Jonathan this is interesting and relevant.

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  • Drew December 22, 2010 at 8:32 pm

    I think that this is an interesting and relevant topic. thanks for posting.

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