Q. I know you've explained how Americans came to drive on the right side of the road as opposed to the British. So why is the steering wheel on the right in many boats?
-- T.W., of O'Fallon
A. Ever see one of those funny videos in which an unmanned motorboat goes around in circles until it runs out of gas? Well, years ago, they began putting the steering wheel on the right to help keep that from happening even when someone was on board.
Here's the deal, say boat manufactures and The Straight Dope:
Early powered boats used automobile engines that were fitted with a crankshaft extension to turn a propellor on the boat's rear. Back then, all engines turned the propellor in a clockwise direction (when viewed from behind).
The trouble is that if you have such a high-powered engine on a small boat, the boat constantly will want to veer left. In fact, in many cases, you could even see the right side of the boat lift slightly out of the water as the engines were revved up.
If you then put the weight of the steering mechanism and pilot on the left side, it would add to this problem and might conceivably cause the boat to capsize. So, to keep things shipshape, boat builders put the steering wheel on the right so the added weight of the mechanism and the pilot would counteract the force of the engine and propellor.
Now, they say, this is no longer a problem thanks to modern hulls and other enhancements, but you know how important tradition can be. Although many speedboats and other smaller pleasure craft now have steering on the left to enhance the view of oncoming traffic, many yachts and other boats retain the steering on the right out of custom.
And, it does have a long history. Long before the advent of the engine, boats were propelled by paddles. Since most people are right-handed, they rowed and steered from the right. Later, larger boats incorporated even bigger oars on the right. So I suppose the continued traditional placement of the steering wheel seems like the "right" thing to do.
Q. I recently bought a bottle of Drano and was required to show my driver's license! What gives?
-- N.M., of Marissa
A. I'm sure State Sen. Bill Haine wouldn't agree, but some might suggest that this new Illinois requirement was more legislative overkill for a problem that rarely occurs.
Haine, D-Alton, was the chief sponsor in the senate of what produced Public Act 97-0565, which took effect last New Year's Day. In brief, it requires people who buy certain products with chemicals listed in the Federal Caustic Poison Act to have their driver's license bar code scanned or show an ID and sign a log.
The idea is to record anyone who buys products containing substances with hydrochloric, sulfuric and other acids in concentrations that require the product to display the warning "causes severe burns." These include such commonly used drain-clearing products as Drano and Liquid-Plumr. Failure to comply can result in retailers being fined up to $1,500 for a third violation in a year.
The law grew partly out of several highly publicized attacks in which caustic liquids were thrown at victims. In 2008, for example, Chicago social worker Esperanza Medina suffered burns over 25 percent of her body when another woman, who suspected Medina of seeing her ex-husband, threw acid on her.
A handful of other attacks also have made headlines in the past few years including a 41-year-old Arizona mother and a family argument that led to three people being injured in Ford Heights. But in 2009, another highly publicized case turned out to be a hoax when Bethany Storro, of Vancouver, Ore., admitted her burns had been self-inflicted.
Illinois legislators moved ahead with their law last year, citing public safety and backing by merchants and the chemical industry. Not surprisingly, one customer reportedly threatened to throw drain cleaner in a cashier's face when asked for an ID shortly after the law took effect. (They didn't, and police weren't called.)
I suppose some are wondering how long will it be before athletes will have to show IDs before buying a baseball bat or golf clubs. And, of course, the Internet is abuzz with folks asking why we have to show ID to buy Drano but not to vote.
What is a pangram?
Answer to Wednesday's trivia: The seaman who sailed around toilet bowls as the Ty D Bol man in the TV ads was Daniel Wrzesien -- better known by his stage name, Dan Resin. An actor on both screen and Broadway, he was in such flicks as "Caddyshack" (Dr. Beeper) and "The Sunshine Boys." And, wouldn't you know it, yachting was his hobby before he died of Parkinson's in 2010 at age 79. By the way, Revlon, which helps women feel pretty with its lipsticks and creams, also helped spruce up your bathroom by briefly owning the Ty D Bol company.
Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or firstname.lastname@example.org