Car Carnage

Last week, New Yorker cartoonist William Hamilton died in a car crash. According to reports, he lost control of his car and killed himself*. As I noted when mathematician John Nash and his wife Alicia were killed, once you get past things like congestive heart failure and lung cancer, death by car collision* is one of the leading causes of death in the U.S.

Which brings us to this Atlantic piece about cars (boldface mine):

They waste lives. They are one of America’s leading causes of avoidable injury and death, especially among the young. Oddly, the most immediately devastating consequence of the modern car—the carnage it leaves in its wake—seems to generate the least public outcry and attention. Jim McNamara, a sergeant with the California Highway Patrol, where officers spend 80 percent of their time responding to car wrecks, believes such public inattention and apathy arise whenever a problem is “massive but diffuse.” Whether it’s climate change or car crashes, he says, if the problem doesn’t show itself all at once—as when an airliner goes down with dozens or hundreds of people on board—it’s hard to get anyone’s attention. Very few people see what he and his colleagues witness daily and up close: what hurtling tons of metal slamming into concrete and brick and trees and one another does to the human body strapped (or, all too often, not strapped) within.

In contrast, a roadside wreck is experienced by the vast majority of drivers as a nagging but unavoidable inconvenience—just another source of detours and traffic jams. …Many are aware at some level that troubling numbers of people are injured and die in cars, but most remain unfazed by this knowledge.

…In the 14 years following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, there were eight crashes on American soil of passenger planes operated by regional, national, or international carriers. The death toll in those crashes totaled 442. That averages out to fewer than three fatalities a month.

The death toll on America’s streets and highways during that same period since 9/11 was more than 400,000 men, women, and children. The traffic death toll in 2015 exceeded 3,000 a month. When it comes to the number of people who die in car wrecks, America experiences the equivalent of four airliner crashes every week.

A normal day on the road, then, is a “quiet catastrophe,” as Ken Kolosh, the statistics chief for the National Safety Council, calls it. He ought to know: He makes his living crafting the annual statistical compendium of every unintentional injury and death in the country.

Car crashes are the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 1 and 39. They rank in the top five killers for Americans 65 and under (behind cancer, heart disease, accidental poisoning, and suicide). And the direct economic costs alone—the medical bills and emergency-response costs reflected in taxes and insurance payments—represent a tax of $784 on every man, woman, and child living in the U.S.

The numbers are so huge they are not easily grasped, and so are perhaps best understood by a simple comparison: If U.S. roads were a war zone, they would be the most dangerous battlefield the American military has ever encountered. Seriously: Annual U.S. highway fatalities outnumber the yearly war dead during each Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, the War of 1812, and the American Revolution. When all of the injuries from car wrecks are also taken into account, one year of American driving is more dangerous than all those wars put together.

On the economic side, the median household with earnings of $51,939 pays more to respond to car accidents than it does to Medicare through the payroll tax.

Needless to say, this is not good healthcare policy.

Then there are all of the dead people. Around one percent of people in the U.S. will die from a car accident: if there are twenty people you’re close to (relatives, friends, etc.), you have a one in five chance of having one or more of them die in a car accident.

No, we don’t need to move everyone to urban centers. But our suburbs need to sprawl far less, and be more like towns. The best way to reduce car fatalities is to slow them down and use them less, but our suburban patterns too often do the opposite.

This is an insane way to live.

*Blog policy is to use the active voice for car ‘accidents.’

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2 Responses to Car Carnage

  1. dr2chase says:

    And again, personal hobby horse, crash deaths are the tip of the iceberg. When people study mortality rates for people who drive versus those who choose the “more dangerous” option of biking to work, the annual rate is 25% higher for those who drive. Lack of exercise is an order of magnitude more deadly than car crashes.

    For comparison, I bike to work, giving me 5 hours per week minimum of decent exercise (it’s more energetic than walking, because walking is colder on a winter day despite the reduced wind). It adds up.

  2. David says:

    Close to half of car crashes involve alcohol or drugs (CDC statistic). About a third might be attributable to cell phone use (National Safety Council statistic). Those are far more important risk factors than rural living, and are more readily modifiable.

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