Cognitively Trapped By Cars

Consider the following statistic:

As a planning and transportation geek, I understand that each year, in the United States, about 35,000 people are killed in plane crashes and about 2,000,000 are injured. I’ve known those numbers for years and relayed that information in numerous presentations.

That’s a fake statistic. Here’s the real one (boldface mine):

As a planning and transportation geek, I understand that each year, in the United States, about 35,000 people are killed in car crashes and about 2,000,000 are injured. I’ve known those numbers for years and relayed that information in numerous presentations.

But for some reason, last month, while driving on Interstate 95, a particular version of that statistic caught my attention. The number was on one of those electronic signs, above the roadway. The sign said:

716 dead on Georgia roadways this year. Arrive alive.

Seven hundred and sixteen. By mid-July. Perhaps it’s because it was in blazing numbers above the roadway, or perhaps I was just in a mood to pay attention. But it got me. Seven hundred and sixteen divides out to more than 100 people per month. Just in Georgia.

I can’t help but think about the comparisons with other modes of travel. For example, I’m fairly certain that if a plane fell out of the sky and killed 100 people, once a month, no one would be buying plane tickets. Airline travel would be decimated, and we’d have daily news stories about WHAT TO DO.

This is a classic case of learned helplessness (boldface mine):

But in the end, after all the numbers, after all the gruesome crashes, with countless little crosses lining the roadways, here’s what I’ve learned: We don’t really care. We don’t really care how many people die or are injured. We have come to accept that it’s just part of life in modern America. It’s no different than the sun coming up in the morning, or the tides rolling in and out every day. It just is what it is.

Even if we did care, we wouldn’t agree on what to do about it or wouldn’t want to do the things that would make the numbers drop.

We think, for example, that the answers are safer cars, wider roads, and laws against texting. What we don’t talk about is that the “safer” we make cars and the wider we make the roads, the more we enable bad behavior and faster driving. And to put it bluntly, speed kills. Don’t even make me bring up the other obvious point, which is that we’ve designed our communities to compel driving for each and every activity of life. Oops—you just made me bring it up.

The truth is, driving is dangerous. It’s the leading cause of death for nearly everyone younger than 45.

A little under one percent of Americans will die in a car crash–which is three times higher than deaths by guns. As several urban policy wonks have noted, even if you wanted to build a community where walking and mass transit were featured, you couldn’t between zoning laws, lending policies, and other restrictions. We have created an entire transportation and housing system that essentially ‘zones out’ walking–and not coincidentally also ‘zones out’ the poor.

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10 Responses to Cognitively Trapped By Cars

  1. Gingerbaker says:


    do cars make you stupid??

    • Dbp says:

      To an extent, yes. But you also have to factor in the fact that people more or less cannot exist in American society without cars/automobile travel, even with massive infrastructure changes that limit the need for a vehicle.
      Compare that to virtually everyone who goes along just fine without guns, and then factor in the people who “needed” guns who could have done just as well using an alternative (motion sensor lights for home defense instead of a 12 gauge), then you end up with a tiny fraction of people who needed guns, and specifically guns. And the fact that confrontations happen with armed people who probably wouldn’t have started anything without their gun ( George Zimmerman would not likely have tried to hunt Trayvon Martin for sport if Zimmerman lacked a gun). I would say guns punch well above their weight class in the “making you stupid” category.

      • Gingerbaker says:

        It’s interesting that you used individual names for gun incidences, but none for automobiles. That is the internet age magnifying fear.

        And your statement that “virtually everybody” does not own a gun is highly ironic. Perhaps everybody that YOU know does not have a gun. But there are at least two guns for every man, woman, and child in this country. There are a LOT of people who have guns. And almost every single one… heck, all of them to a statistical farthing… are never involved in anything untoward. Ever. Decade after decade. Century after century.

        So, it really looks to me that guns do NOT make you stupid. But, a lot of stupid guys DO use guns.

    • jrkrideau says:

      Not really but it stunts imagination. Many people I know cannot imagine living without a car. The car is an extension of their very being.

      Since I have not owned one in roughly 30 years, I am often looked upon as some strange creature from another universe. How can I exist without a car? Well, walk, bike, bus, train, airplane, ferry even?

      And when I express resentment that I partly pay for their “free” parking in many cases they literally cannot comprehend it. A simple example of my “paying” is that my local inner-city grocery store supplies ≈ 100-120 free parking spots for customers. I and my bike use about 1/10th of one parking spot but my food prices include the cost of parking lot maintenance. If I walk I don’t use any parking. Personally I think I should get a rebate.

      I don’t think I have yet met a driver/car owner who grasps the idea. Silly in a way but I think it shows a cultural mindset that really cannot conceive of no car.

  2. dr2chase says:

    I think it’s a good deal worse than that. There’s been studies on the relative mortality risk of commuting by bike versus not (where “not” is largely driving, I think) with the usual adjustments for risk factors and demographics, etc. The *largest* relative risk for bicycle commuters is 0.79; the largest is 0.66. Turns that around, take “not sitting on your ass in an armored wheelchair” as your baseline, and driving to work is something that raises your expected annual mortality rate by 27%.

    And 85% of the population is exposed to this risk factor. It’s a smaller risk per person than smoking (1.27x versus 1.8-2.1x) but only 18% of the population smokes.

  3. kaleberg says:

    Was it really all that much safer when everybody walked everywhere or rode on mules and horses? Wagons and carriages were death traps for those on board and everyone around them. Even when there weren’t cars or horses, walking places could get you killed just fine. You could slip and fall. You could walk into something. Something could fall on you.

    I’m not a big fan of having to drive everywhere, but I also remember when 50,000 Americans died in car crashes every year. We drive even more now and only 35,000 dead. Wow. That’s a real drop. I think we can make cars and our roads safer, but an awful lot of people die in bed too.

    • dr2chase says:

      We can compare to other countries, and we don’t look so good. See for a newsish summary, they provide a link in the article to the source document, we don’t do especially well (many other countries do much better) whether measuring road deaths per capita, mile traveled, or car owned.

      If you look at safety-related laws, we tend towards the “unsafe” end of the distribution for most of them. We let people drive much drunker than most other countries. Our urban and rural speed limits trend higher as well (interestingly, no particular trend on “motorways”, aka interstates). Our seatbelt wearing rates are generally lower, and we are the only nation that lacks a national seatbelt law (we leave it up to the states, 1 has no seatbelt law, 17 lack a primary seatbelt law). Most countries have a helmet law for motorized two wheelers, but we don’t. 3 states have no helmet law, only 19 states require helmet use by all passengers of motorized two-wheelers (and before anyone goes off about bicycles, per-trip in the use, the proportional mortality risks of a trip in car:bicycle:motorcycle are about 1:2:50). Mobile phone use, very many countries ban hand-helds, we leave it up to the states and quite a few don’t.

      In case you’re wondering, yes, I have amateur-crunched the numbers on how much of our expected lifespan shortfall (vs so many other countries) this causes, and it is not nearly enough — it, along with haha-sure-Ill-accept-your-bullshit-premise-about-infant-mortality and murder corrections, moves us all the way from #49 to #37 (without applying any fairytale corrections to other countries, do note). The lack-of-exercise correction (see above), however, is substantial, and might well do the trick. (See for assumptions, math, and snarky remarks.)

      All these numbers are on the internet, the math skills I learned in high school (weighted average formula plus elementary algebra), are you sure you are not an example of “cognitively trapped by cars”? How did you fail to ask yourself “what about other countries”? Or stop to think that you’re comparing outcomes between pre-car medical care (before penicillin, before widespread blood transfusions, before the tetanus vaccine) vs modern medicine and emergency medical care.

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