Please visit the new home of Majikthise at

« Outsourcing bones: Emaciated models in the global economy | Main | Fugitive "torture pilots" found in North Carolina »

February 19, 2007

New York weighs ban on spinner hubcaps

New York State senator John Sabini is proposing a ban on spinners, those custom hubcaps that rotate independently of the wheels for, uh, aesthetic effect.

Nick Beaudrot sees the proposed ban as an excess of the nanny state. If it's just an aesthetic objection, I'm inclined to agree.

Regardless of the objective merits of the plan, I'll bet there's also a lot of dog whistle racial and class politics behind this proposal. The impetus to ban spinning hubcaps probably has more to do with dislike of the kind of people who tend to have them than with a sober assessment of public safety priorities.

Let's face it, the last thing New York needs is a fresh excuse for the cops to disproportionately ticket young black men.

However, I think Nick is too quick to dismiss the safety argument. It's not just that these spinners are distracting in the sense of being conspicuous or garish.

Hubcaps that rotate independently of wheels can send misleading cues to other drivers about how fast a car is moving--subconsciously, drivers expect that hubcaps are rotating at the same rate as the wheels behind them. Obviously, there are other cues, and drivers generally compensate just fine. However, it seems plausible to me that a split-second miscalculation based on a spinning rim might occasionally contribute to an accident.

A commenter at endgadget put it well:

morcheeba @ Feb 18th 2007 4:18PM

It's not that spinners are distracting... it's that they inhibit my ability to determine if a car is stopped or not. Yeah, of course I look at the car in general to see if it's moving, but the wheels are a good sign, too. Not only am I looking at the direction the wheel is aimed*, I also look at the top of the wheel, which moves at twice the speed of the car.

Personally, I think they look awesome. But, as a motorcyclist, I need to use every piece of information available to me. Most car/bike accidents are left-turning cars who fail to yield -- I need to know if they see me, and I have found that eye contact is not 100% reliable.

So, summary... put spinners on trunk-mounted wheels (which also look awesome... hey, I'm a child of the 70's!). I love under-car lights. Bring on the LED rims... Put as many distractions on the car as you want -- just don't conceal the intentions of the driver (and, yes, that includes limo tint on the driver's side window).

* Don't get me started on turn signals.

So, cognitive psychologists, do spinners pose a safety risk? An auto customization lobby group says there's no evidence that spinning hubcaps are dangerous. But they're not exactly disinterested. Where should I look for an independent assessment of the risks associated with spinners?

I can see a legitimate cause for concern in theory. There are plenty of anecdotal reports of accidents and near-accidents blamed on spinners.

Even if the spinners only pose a slight risk, I think there's a strong justification for banning them. These are decorations, they should be fun and harmless. It's not fair to ask the public to accept even a slight additional safety risk for the sake of someone's car decorations.

It's not like spinning rims are the only way to decorate your hubcaps. Check out these classy LED hubcaps. They can flash your phone number, "Call me!", or even a full-color picture of the driver. Best of all, it's immediately clear that the driver isn't going anywhere with that pickup line.



TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference New York weighs ban on spinner hubcaps:


Even if the spinners only pose a slight risk, I think there's a strong justification for banning them. These are decorations, they should be fun and harmless. It's not fair to ask the public to accept even a slight additional safety risk for the sake of someone's car decorations.

I feel much more strongly about grey cars.

There should be a law! Signal orange paint for all new vehicles!

Suppose that putting spinners on a car made that car 1% more likely to cause an accident than it would have been without spinners. Is it fair to ask the general public to be a little less safe on the road so that someone can have their very favorite type of hubcap? These are public roads, after all. Besides, there are a million ways to customize your hubcaps that don't increase collision risks.

Like I said in my original post, I'm not convinced that there is a safety risk associated with this particular kind of decoration.

New York should leave spinners alone unless, and until, it gets hard evidence that they're dangerous.

My point is that if the upside is spinner freedom and the downside is car accident(s), it doesn't take very many extra accidents to justify a ban.

"These are decorations, they should be fun and harmless"

I don't think every decoration has to be fun and harmless. There is some threat to every distraction in the city, but there is no way that spinning rims are more of a distraction than driving through the blinking lights of Times Square. There has to be some kind of thresh hold for what level of risk warrants infringing on personal rights, and in general, I think that thresh hold should be higher and should be reserved for otherwise unavoidable threats. Smoking in bars? A threat to everyone in the environment unless it is restricted, so fine. People can still smoke, just not in public enclosed spaces. But banning things for being distracted doesn't strike me as something which is unavoidable. The first time you saw spinners, you probably gawked, but they've been around for years and I think unless they really stand out, most people don't notice them much anymore. I find myself more distracted by new license plates that I have seen before than one more set of spinning hubcaps on an escalade.

ANY risk is not enough reason to single out something for censure. There is some risk associated with everything we do, with every action we take in our car, with everything we decorate it with. Has anyone ever, ever heard of an accident caused by someone else's rim, and if so, is there any indication being distracted by these decorations is more prevalent than say being distracted by someone hot crossing the street?

A better question is whether the slight increase in danger is due to passing unfamiliarity with the hubcaps, since they're new. That is, if we assume for a moment that spinners are more dangerous, is that increased danger ephemeral or permanent?

Like morcheeba,' I'm on the streets a lot with little protection--though as a bicyclist. I've even participated in alleycats now and then. (Search for Lucas Brunelle's videos if you're unfamiliar with these.) I ride my bike every day, rain or shine on busy streets, fast streets, empty streets.

As a cyclist, you learn to pick up many more clues as to what other drivers are going to do, because you have to in order to remain safe and, frankly, alive. This can include watching the wheels; though other techniques are superior, frankly.

My experience is that when the spinners first appeared a few years ago, they were indeed taking away one of the shortcuts I used to judge speed and acceleration especially. I was not as strong on the bike as I am now, though I was putting in more miles per week than I do currently. However, now that the spinners are much more common, it's no longer an issue--they make me no more or less safe than before.

In my view, this means that spinners were more a problem with me than with the car--meaning that the obligation is on me not to use shortcuts to judge speed, but to actually look at a fixed point on the vehicle, like where the windshield meets the roof or the sideview mirror.

I am in fact safer now not looking at the wheels—because looking down at them means you see less in your peripheral vision. Any cyclist familiar with riding in very close quarters, such as a racing paceline, will give you a similar opinion.

A similar argument to the one Lindsay makes is to hybrid cars, which at city speeds are much quieter than 'normal' vehicles. If I'm taking shortcuts--that is, listening instead of both looking *and* listening--I can very easily put myself in harm's way with these. But again, the issue is with me, not with the car; unless that is, that cars are too inherently dangerous as a group. (And I might not argue!)

...or a braless woman sauntering down the sidewalk?

I find spinners very annoying, but I doubt they pose any significant hazard. You also make a good point: the NYPD doesn't need "a fresh excuse... to disproportionately ticket young black men."

I doubt that any serious (i.e., professional psychological) studies have been done to date on the safety of spinning hubcaps. I would think that most professionals would view it as a low priority. Until now, that is.

However wetzel brings up a good point, even if it was proposed in a facetious manner: Vehicle color also makes a difference. At night time a lighter colored vehicle is slightly easier to see than a darker colored vehicle. Though it's a small difference it was still important enough for most fire departments around the world to change the paint jobs of their fire trucks from red to yellow-green over the past few decades. Now, does that mean that ALL vehicles should have to be painted light colors to facilitate safety, even if it only made the roads safer by 1% (per your posited supposition)?

Don't get me wrong. I think that studies should be done if legislation banning spinners is going to be proposed. However, I think the results of these studies had better be pretty strong and convincing before they're banned. I'm thinking that more than a 1% improvement in safety will be necessary to convince me that a new law needs to be passed.

Cell phones, eating, doing make up scolding children inthe back seat, etc., etc., etc. are all dangerous. Yet people FREAK when there is talk of bannning any of these. I live in Chicago where cell phones are banned while driving unless you have a bluetooth. I was also a traffic prosecutor and know that the enforcement of any such ban is hard for police.

As for the spinners, this is just a ridiculous ban that would result in racial profiling outrage. Also, a similar ban occurred in IL a couple of years ago. The state banned overly loud radios, you know the ones, with all the bass. Well, a guy got a ticket and appealed it all the way to the state supreme court who struck down the ban as unconstitutional. See People v. Jones, 188 Ill.2d 352, 721 N.E.2d 546 (Ill.,1999.)

The court struck down the statute as content-based restriction on free speech. I can see an argument being made along the same line in this instance.

Though it's a small difference it was still important enough for most fire departments around the world to change the paint jobs of their fire trucks from red to yellow-green over the past few decades.

Actually, my city is changing back from yellow-green to red, and they first made the switch in the late 1970s. They were apparently having a problem with people recognizing them as emergency vehicles (we're a small city of 200K in the middle of a larger metro area). Plus more recent research has found that red fire trucks with reflective stripes are more visible than the yellow-green.

My father once told me that, according to some study, tail and brake lights would be more effective if they were colored blue. (I'm not sure if this was due to the nature of the human eye, or the nervous system.) It certainly seems counterintuitive, but I've never known Dad to lie to me before.

And I feel I should say that my mom is dying to get spinners for her car, but my dad won't let her. Personally, I like the idea of a 65-year-old white lady driving her Cadillac with spinners on it, but my dad seems to think she'd look foolish. ;-)

Look, if spinners pose a safety threat, at all, it's do to their increase weight and rotational mass having an adverse effect on breaking and handling.

If you put on oversized wheels and tires, with or without spinners, on your car, then you're degrading the braking and handling of your car; it'll take longer to stop, and you can't move around an obstruction as quickly.

Besides, if you're that easily distracted by the flashing lights and pretty colors, I seriously doubt your ability to drive a car or motorcycle with alacrity.

I think your mom should go for it, M. She's probably one of the only people in the world who can pull off that look. If she does, send me a picture.

Why don't they spend their time and energy banning something useful, like all cell phone use in a moving vehicle. You know, something that actually has been shown to cause a problem.

Short of spinning hubcaps flying off wheels and impaling people, I think banning them is a huge step towards the general stupidity of our society in regards to an over reaching sense of having to protect ourselves from ourselves.

People should lighten up and focus on important things, Not silly B.S. like spinning rims.

All of my action figures are cherry, Stephen Hawkings in my library.

I'm always frustrated with arguments about how we should "focus on more important things." Granted, if this New York senator were my representative, I'd be a little miffed that he was crafting this relatively trivial legislation instead of working on something I care more about. But given that he's drawn up the legislation already, I'm happy to evaluate the proposal on its merits.

Would New York be a better place without spinning rims on public roads? I'm guessing not, based on the apparent lack of evidence of a safety risk. So, I'm a tentative opponent of the legislation on its merits. If we later discover that these things are risky, then I'd change my mind and support the legislation. It makes no difference whether it's the most important bill in the world. Sometimes it's the relatively small, easily doable things that can actually improve people's lives.

I had a delivery job in downtown Detroit a few years ago - spinners never bothered me. I drove a compact car, so I was more concerned with the big semi's that tool around Detroit for the auto industry.

I think that not only will drunk drivers be more likely to be involved in accidents, but the presence of any drunk person in a vehicle is likely to make an accident more likely. Drunk people are not allowed in cars!

Cars are more likely to be in accidents if there is rain. No driving in the rain!

Cars are more likely to be in accidents after dark. No driving after sunset, or before dawn!

No loud music allowed on the streets! No attractive women (or men?) allowed to walk down the sidewalks in view of the road!

No radios! Radios distract drivers!

A friend has an autistic child who can be a huge distraction in the car. He has to stay home, or travel only in a compartment where he cannot pose any distraction to the driver.

School buses are right out!

Let's face it: the "spinning hubcab" rationalization is at best a rationalization. It is the kind of paper-thin, evidence-free argument that is often used to ban things like sex education, vaccination, fluoridation of water, etc.

Now if the City were degenerating into a Ben Hur-situation where spinning hubcabs were regularly causing accidents, then there would be a justification to impinge on people's freedom.

Why don't they spend their time and energy banning something useful, like all cell phone use in a moving vehicle.

Or ban listening to iPods while you're crossing the street.

Wait! Brooklyn's State Sen. Carl Kruger is ALREADY trying to do that! Maybe spinners chopped up one of his staffers into little pieces like the tires of that Mustang in Goldfinger because he just wasn't paying attention as he crossed Avenue U while "distracted by an electronic device!"

I think we should reconsider the aesthetic objection for banning these things. These things are so damn hideous and gaudy, I'd certainly support any proposal (up to capital punishment) if it meant I never had to look at those things ever again.

I think we should reconsider the aesthetic objection for banning these things. These things are so damn hideous and gaudy, I'd certainly support any proposal (up to capital punishment) if it meant I never had to look at those things ever again.

I feel the same way about Ska. No one should listen to that crap. If you do you are an enabler of shitty music. I also wouldn't support capital punishment, though. I'd only support legalized involuntary abortion of Ska fans.

I wonder if anyone has done a study on the effects of public nuisance bans on political participation. I know even actively apolitical individuals (i.e. I hate politics and refuse to vote) will become vocal and motivated when the government starts making a law that affects their hobby or vice personally.

For the record, I think this is a dumb idea with racial overtones, and unless there's some actual data regarding accidents caused by spinners, as opposed to anecdotal "this might affect people" thought experiments, it's a useless law.

I'm skeptical that spinners are a safety risk.

It's proven that black cars get into more accidents. It's proven that talking on the cellphone while driving distracts drivers. Let's address those issues first.

The silly to safety ratio here is a bit overblown. However, I think there is something might seem equally silly but actually would improve safety if banned: darkened rear and side windows (for obvious reasons, it's already illegal to darken the front windshield). The more visual information that one can glean about a given situation—what's on the other side of that car at an intersection, what's up ahead on the highway, etc.—the better for drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists. For example, drivers instinctively look through the windows of the car in front of them to see what's happening beyond, e.g., the brake lights of cars up ahead, that can give them a safety edge. Driving behind a car whose windows are blackened is like driving behind a wall, where the only information about what's happening up ahead is the reaction of the driver in front of you. When fractions of seconds can make a difference—being able to see that truck blowout a few cars ahead might just give you more time to react to it, rather than just the last in the chain of events it will trigger.

i'm sorry, but all i can perceive in this idea is plain old racism. KC lights are a distraction, are they included in this ban? no, because it's mostly white exurban folks who waste their money on those things.

i'll add this one to my "beat down on the uppity negroes" file. it's patently ridiculous and racist.

The comments to this entry are closed.