Your Wide Behind May
Weight on Commuting
Planes, trains and automobiles. Subways and ferry boats. Pretty much all forms of transportation these days are going through a gradual but inexorable change: all are widening their seats to accommodate our enlarging girths.
In other words, either transit authorities accept our outsized behinds or they’ll be the ones to be kicked in you-know-where. It’s a costly change, to be sure. But there’s something else, besides concerns about bottom line costs, or comfort, at play: safety.
It’s a bit ironic then that some of New York City subway trains are manufactured by Kawasaki, a Japanese company. And that it comes from there too the latest innovation in car seats: the butt-recognition system.
THE JAPANESE EXCEPTION
It’s ironic for two factors. As the U.S. population, as most industrialized nations, is getting alarmingly fatter, Japan has the lowest obesity rate in the developed world: 3%, compared to the whooping 32% for Americans.
The other factor is that in the 1980s, another Japanese company, Hino Motors, got a contract to build NYC buses and failed miserably. The reason: the seats were too tight. Something you can still see it happening on the Kawasaki R-62 model train, used on the No. 3 line.
One would think, thus, that concerns about overweight commuters wouldn’t have much traction with Japanese transport researchers. But one would be wrong, of course, as Tokyo is, after all, the world’s most populous city.
For that’s exactly what’s behind the Advanced Institute for Industrial Technology’s new car seat. It can automatically identify the person who is sitting on it, and remember what it feels like to be sat on by various people.
As a butt-recognition system, the seat may serve to other purposes. It can track and serve as an early warning device to your weight gain or loss, for example. And more; if such gain is too extreme, it could, in theory, refuse to turn on your car.
THESE SEATS ARE TAKEN
In the U.S., the debate over obesity is way overheated and tends to involve everything but your grandma’s recipe for corn muffins. Public health, certainly, personal freedom, most likely, prejudice, very often; feel free to jump in and add your own spice to the mix.
What’s not usually associated with it is public safety, though. But it is a concern, specially to determining crash-test standards for trains and buses, and for operators of commuter ferries.
The Coast Guard, which issues guidelines for passenger vessels, has revised in December its Assumed Average Weight per Person rules, to adapt to Americans’ growing girths. It added 25 pounds to the 1960s average, to 185 pounds per person.
Again, safety, not comfort, is the main goal here. And, for ferry operators, the possible impact of the changes on their bottom lines, as they’ll need to reduce the number of seats to accommodate larger commuters.
Companies all over the U.S. may be affected, from Seattle to Georgia to New York, but many almost never operate at full capacity. Leisure boats, such as the World Yacht and the Circle Line in Manhattan, for example, already operate on purpose at about 50 percent of capacity.
WANT FRIES WITH THAT?
Calculating how much Americans weight is not an exact science, but it does require scientific research. The Cost Guard used the Center for Disease Control’s average male weight, 194.7 pounds, and female, 164.7 pounds, then added a few pounds for clothing and personal items.
Boat operators don’t have to weigh passengers but a miscalculation can be obviously fatal. A group of 100 schoolchildren may not be hard to fit under a boat’s overall capacity. One hundred members of the Giants delegation, on the other hand, would be a completely different matter.
But as we said, the issue of rising obesity is loaded with a lot of extras, making it difficult to have a ‘one size fits all’ solution. Something could be said, though, about the increased amount of public resources used to deal with, without actually tackling, the problem.
Local governments and private companies go out of their way to handle the growing demand for larger seats, sturdier toilet bowls, roomier walkaways and even bigger extra-large clothing.
ROCKING THE WEIGHTY BOAT
But it’s when it comes to eating habits that the issue causes heartburns, as eateries serve each time larger portions, while more people obsess about their weight by developing eating disorders and psychological traumas.
There’s very little argument as to whether it’s a matter of public health. But most attempts at establishing an educated discussion about personal choices capsize under the er weighty concerns over the role of government in regulating private lives.
Besides, for slender commuters, it can’t hurt having a few inches more to spread their tired bones after working in tight cubicles, and on their way to even slimmer quarters. And one can’t help but be thankful that there’s such a thing as a legal average limit per commuter.
Hardly a month goes by without another overcrowded commuter train or ferry crashing or capsizing in an impoverish country. Even when the accident has less to do with lack of resources than with official corruption or simple negligence.
In any case, excess weight, not weighty commuters, may have been one of the causes of the worst tragedy in the New York harbor, the sinking of the PS General Slocum, which caught fire in June of 1904 and killed over one thousand German-Americans.
We owe to those members of the St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, who were on their way to a church picnic, a lot of the present rules governing the New York waterways, including, as you may’ve guessed, how much weight each boat is supposed to safely carry.
It may take much more than the hundred-year old sinking of the Titanic, though, to make people finally exercise some restrain and tell the server: I’ll have the salad.