John Buell

Our Cars, Ourselves

Civic leaders around the country are properly interested in public health measures to extend our children's longevity. Though I have not always agreed with the methods employed to curb teenage drinking, obesity or smoking, healthy lifestyles are a worthy goal. Our largest public threat, however, remains under the radar -- literally and figuratively.

Every day, every one of us plays Russian roulette. Adults and teens get into automobiles and drive off to work or to the tennis court. Every year over 40,000 die in auto-related incidents and another 200,000 are seriously injured. Our media characterize these events as accidents. Yet when a teen places a bullet in a revolver, spins the chamber, pulls the trigger and dies, we don't term the death accidental. There was a determinate probability that the teen would die. He must have had "a death wish."

The automobile is a source of preventable and predictable destruction on a vast scale, yet we treat most auto fatalities as isolated accidents. Some years ago a newspaper in Saskatchewan ran an eye-popping headline: "165 People Killed! 7,562 Injured! Over $100,000,000 in Property Damage! Provincial Government Helpless! Expects Same Carnage Next Year!"

Were Saskatchewan residents worried about future Gulf Coast hurricanes veering off course? No, the headline refers to the cumulative annual damage from what the paper calls the province's "meat grinder transportation system." Monetizing the value of a human life merely in terms of lost lifetime income, the paper calculated the cost to the province at three-quarters-of-a-billion dollars in largely uninsured costs. And even these costs don't factor in fatal and non-fatal respiratory problems occasioned by the auto. One study done for another Canadian province, Ontario, points out that the smoggy air causes about 6,000 premature deaths a year.

So when adults or teens get in a car they are loading a gun, spinning the chamber, pointing it at themselves and their neighbors, and pulling the trigger. Their random victims end up paying. An invading force that killed a tenth as many of our citizens would long ago have been nuked into the Stone Age. Yet years ago when my wife asked a public health professional why far more attention is devoted to teenage smoking than to the hazards of the auto, she was told that "we choose to smoke, but everyone has to drive."

Even President Bush suggested at least once that we are "addicted to oil," but many liberal public-health advocates treat driving as a necessity and smoking as an addiction. I regard driving as an addiction that could be substantially alleviated if addressed in a broad, holistic manner.

For starters, we surely don't need to speed. There has been much well-placed attention to the consequences of drunk driving but relatively less attention to speed. Speed kills more of us than drunks do and many accidents classified as alcohol-related are also speed-related. Most people recognize that going 100 mph is dangerous, but few know that even five mph over the speed limit on some of our winding rural roads is a major risk. Speed limits were put there for a reason. Nor do most of us know that the impact of a crash varies exponentially with the speed of impact; i.e. doubling your speed quadruples the impact. 75% of all drivers admit to regular speeding, yet speeding often plays second fiddle to other trendier law-enforcement priorities.

Even in the strictest "law and order" communities many citizens resent police enforcement of speeding laws. Speeding is not a victimless crime. Citizens act as though not only is driving their birthright, but driving fast and with cell phone in hand -- a risk equal to drinking -- is also their right.

Does driving as much as we do have to be our birthright? Perform an intellectual experiment: The price of gasoline goes to $10 a gallon overnight. Adults and teens would dramatically change their habits. Car pooling, not merely to work but to grocery stores and other retail establishments, would become commonplace. Business and working schedules would adjust to accommodate car pools. Buses to school would be something more than second-class transit. Extracurricular schedules would be adapted to public-transit options, freeing time for parents of younger children. Working at home with expanded use of Internet and other communication technologies, the full potential of which has scarcely been tapped, would be dramatically expanded.

My speculation here is more than just fantasy. World-War-II America was a less auto-dependent society but a majority of Americans owned cars and routinely used them for business and pleasure. Gas rationing dramatically changed commuting and recreational patterns. More interestingly, rationing -- unlike Prohibition -- provoked relatively few attempts by well-placed individuals to undermine the system.

Policy and lifestyle changes were impelled not merely by fear of a common enemy but also by strong nationalistic and civic commitments. These commitments also, however, carry obvious risks. Perhaps today we might ask ourselves how the quality of life might actually be improved by an increase in gas prices. Properly addressed, such price increases could give us more time at home, more opportunity to interact with a community that grows in its interests and diversity by the day, and more time to experience a variety of recreational amenities in our own backyards.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2006

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