We Should Worry About Cars

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 17 min.

WARNING: graphic content, mention of road deaths, guns, suicide.

My mom’s mom died in a car accident. Decades later, on a high-of-one Chicago afternoon, my mom was hit by a car (she recovered, it wasn’t fun). My dad was hit by a truck as a young marine (he recovered with life-lasting injuries). A woman kidnapped my dad’s dad at gunpoint during a test drive of a car he was trying to sell her, but she didn’t shoot him, and the gun-forced drive, which started in one town and ended in another, yielded no collisions, so it doesn’t really count here but I thought it worth mentioning (as did the Shreveport, LA papers at the time).

One day, in high school, two student desks were conspicuously empty: that of a guy who had often made fun of me and that of a gal who had always been nice to me; they had died in the same car accident. Another boy who was in that car—with whom once, thanks to his excellent sense of humor, I’d enjoyed breaking down boxes behind the crappy restaurant where we were bottom-rung employees—was henceforth often seen (by me) in the school library (my favorite class-ditching hideout) with a physical therapist relearning how to talk and hold a pencil.

On a different day, the passing of another student was announced over the loudspeaker. I had the full scoop already because my dad was a rescue worker on the scene during the rainy night in question: the boy’s car had flipped, sending him halfway through the open moonroof, before landing upside down and skidding far along the wet asphalt (my dad tried to respectfully deal with what was left of the child, a major difficulty there being that much of his bottom half was twisted up in the steering wheel).

One of my high-school best friends and his girlfriend (a friendly acquaintance of mine) met death together in a car crash not long after I’d graduated and left town.

My ex-wife’s toddler cousin, while playing in front of her house, was struck and killed by a car while her mother frantically tried to stop her from running into the street.

One of my former coworkers lost her husband to a car accident. Another person in that same office was hit by a truck while on his bicycle during a lunch break (he recovered over a long period of hospitalization; I presume his injuries life-lasting). Also in that office, I once had papers go without important signatures because one of our new hotshot up-and-coming cancer doctors—whom everyone liked and for whom we had recently had a jubilant welcoming ceremony—died, along with his girlfriend, in an accident while driving back from vacation.

I recall from childhood at least one car accident in which my mother was injured (I’ll have to ask her for details). I was in the back seat, lying down and unbuckled, I believe, but unharmed. I’ve never been injured in a car (toco madera que no tenga patas). But I once had a close call when—to see what would happen or, more likely, as a joke—I stuck my young head out of a driver-side, single-door car window while it was being rolled up by Mom as we moved along a Florida (Mississippi?) freeway; when the glass reached the obstacle of my neck, she brought out the elbow grease. I don’t remember if her reaction on turning to see me waving my arms and unable to speak was funny at the time, but it’s funny now. Even funnier than the time she slammed our banged-up Oldsmobile’s door on my hand and then grabbed my arm and tried to panic-yank me free (I remember calmly saying, “open the door”).

Other childhood memories include…

…an accident in Panama City, FL, in which an open-topped jeep full of 20-somethings, including one of my mom’s ‘apartment complex acquaintances,’ flipped. Once able to walk around, she was seen for some time in a neck brace and with the sort of marbling one encounters on someone whose lost some skin.

…seeing my mom’s sister in the ER, bloody but laughing because my dad happened to come upon the accident while driving into town to visit me—he was, among other things, a seasoned emergency rescue worker (see above) and was cool in such situations: he was making my aunt laugh (my mom has told me that it was his sense of humor that had won her over when they first met). My aunt survived, but at least one of the people in the other car—strangers to me, but not to the distraught family members sharing the waiting room with us—did not.

Most recently, the universally beloved dean of my college was struck by a car in New York City. He died in the hospital.

(Extra Credit #1: As far as I know, in all the stories above in which a woman died, a man was driving [including the one about my grandmother: her husband was driving, but survived; though come to think of it, I’m unsure about the doctor]. What to draw from this? Begin exploring the question with this 2017 Traffic Safety Store blog post by Dana Henry, who surmises that, while men account for a greater number of accidents in absolute terms, they cause accidents at a slightly lower rate than women do [beware the math there: the article evaluates 1.73 as 30% more than 1.07, when it’s more like 62% more]: “Who Causes More Car Accidents? The Data May Surprise You.” Fair enough, but what about when the reference class is ‘man driving with at least one woman passenger’? Does the accident rate increase? If so, why?)

I won’t list here the many stories I’ve heard of car-related deaths involving people whose stories are now too vague in my memory, or who are overly distant from myself—such as my former coworker’s cousin (right?) who died, along with his girlfriend (correct?), on his motorcycle on a rainy night; or the member of a different former coworker’s church who one day awoke from a coma to learn that she’d lost her children and husband and mother (correct?) in an accident after said mother had decided she’d like to take the family for a drive: the details are hazy, the radius from my center too long.

In my life, given my upbringing, I’ve seen guns. I’ve shot guns for target practice. The last time I held a gun was 1990, in Air Force basic training.

I’ve never sent a real bullet in anyone’s direction. Though, once, as an 11- or 12-year-old in Mississippi, I shot a BB gun at some teenage redneck bullies who’d busted into my apartment after school to make good on an unprovoked I’m-the-lawn-mower-and-you’re-the-grass threat; they ran out of my apartment screaming, BBs licking at their asses. Those little metal balls couldn’t break human flesh*, but they did sting enough, or maybe the BB gun looked wooden-rifle-like enough, to scare them off. I’m happy to report that nobody lost an eye and I didn’t get beaten up (at least not that day, and never by those particular bullies).

[*I once shot a small bird with that BB gun. It died, I cried. The quiet reality of its needless death was a shock I was unprepared to absorb. I never did anything like that again.]

I myself have not been shot or shot at, but I’ve had guns pointed at me twice. The first time was on the first day of 8th grade, in Jacksonville, Fl: it was breakdance vengeance.*

[*Some new friends I’d made at the bus-stop that day insisted that I breakdance against a locally infamous trash-talker. I did and I won. Later that day, the trash-talker approached us with a crumpled, brown paper bag from which he drew his grandmother’s revolver. He pointed it at me. One of my aforementioned new friends wrestled the gun free and slammed the trash-talker to the ground.

The deeper details of that story are for another day. Same goes for this one:

Several months later I spotted the trash-talker walking, half-hunched, in a red shirt, which I later learned wasn’t red, but white and blood-soaked: he’d been stabbed in a convenient store by the mother of his ex-girlfriend whom he’d physically abused, one occurrence of which I witnessed at our bus-stop, when the same boy who’d saved me from the gun months earlier protected the girl. This neighborhood protector, with whom I lost contact decades ago despite our having spent at least a year as practically inseparable, still ranks high in my Pantheon of All-Time Best Friends.]

I have little more than this to say about the direct effects guns have had on my life or on the lives of those close to me.

That so many close to me have suffered from cars, while so few have suffered from guns, obviously does not mean that gun violence isn’t a horrific and shameful problem in our country, a pointless embarrassment. I favor strict gun laws, as do many of us who grew up in a strictly regulated ‘gun-handling’ environment. (Though let’s not get into the awkward fact that strict gun laws, as found in New York City, may disproportionately lead to the incarceration of social groups we on the Left would like to see less criminalized.)

But we should worry about cars at least as much as we worry about guns. One of the great wins for capitalism is how difficult it is to be taken seriously when expressing deeply felt concern for the 30 to 40 thousand Americans who will die in car accidents in 2020. Allow me to adjust what I just said. Car crashes, not ‘accidents’ (see this 2016 New York magazine article by Cari Romm: “Don’t Call a Car Crash an ‘Accident’”).

Everyone I’ve spoken with about this topic has been touched or torn by car-related tragedy. My hunch is that nearly as many have stories to tell about guns, but these are darker, more personal, more hidden away. One of my coworker’s lost a brother to gun violence (a carjacking, I believe it was), and another of her brothers shot an intruder as he broke into their home. And then there are the suicides. One of the people I mentioned some paragraphs back lost a brother to suicide by gun. It’s strange for me to notice that these incidents didn’t occur to me until now (not to mention that the first paragraph I wrote here, about my own family, has a gun in it!). Such stories are likely far more common than I’m consciously aware.

According to Wikipedia (accessed 11/24/19), in the United States:

In 2017, gun deaths reached their highest level since 1968 with 39,773 deaths by firearm, of which 23,854 were by suicide and 14,542 were homicides.

That death toll rivals that of car crashes, but 60% of those firearm deaths are suicide victims (most of whom, in case it’s useful to consider, were likely middle-aged white men: “White males accounted for 69.67% of suicide deaths in 2017” and “The rate of suicide is highest in middle-age white men in particular”—according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention website* [accessed 11/24/19]).

[*For information on suicide prevention for yourself or a loved one, visit their Find Support page. Or pick a resource that looks more your style from the variety on offer at Kathryn Gordon’s website.]

I should try to be just as precise with the car-related numbers. According to the Association for Safe International Road Travel website (accessed 11/24/19, which is where the below comes from; the linked article has since been updated), in the United States:

Over 37,000 people die in road crashes each year;
An additional 2.35 million are injured or disabled;
Over 1,600 children under 15 years of age die each year;
Nearly 8,000 people are killed in crashes involving drivers ages 16–20.

Got it: road crash, not ‘car’ crash. I presume those numbers include struck pedestrians.

Now, I don’t know what percentage of car crashes are suicides. I imagine that’d be good to know when comparing gun- and road-related deaths—a potentially important distinction being that a gun suicide usually kills one person, tearing into just that person’s circle of relations, while a suicide-by-car can cause a pileup.

Which reminds me. When I was a teenager, a 20-something man I knew drove into oncoming traffic in an effort to kill himself along with his daughter and divorce-seeking wife, who were in the car with him. I believe the daughter and wife survived, barely, but he certainly did not, nor did at least one person in the car he hit.

I’ve recently heard that I should fear being shot while watching a movie in public. I’m more worried about being killed in the Uber on the way to the theater. Again, this isn’t to say that gun violence isn’t a threat. Rather, it’s an honest testimony of how I feel, for better or worse, in light of my personal experience. Of course, my life experience, which extends back to the 1970s, also accounts for my outsized fear of sharks (thanks Jaws*); I’ve been often told my shark fear is statically unsupportable, to which I always respond that my chances of being attacked by a shark decrease drastically if I don’t get in the water.

[*I also have a memory, likely false and also thanks to Jaws, of once slowly noticing myself to be the only person in the water while a beach full of people, orange-clad lifeguard included, were yelling “SHAAAARK!!” at me and waiving me back to the distant shore.]

To be clear, I do fear (among other things) being shot in public, and these days I especially feel it when I notice myself in a crowded, confined space like a movie theater. I imagine this is likely due to some combination of my media consumption and my experiences—which is to say that I take the fear I personally feel to be naively outsized in light of the data within the reference classes to which I belong (e.g., non-suicidal middle-aged white man living in New York City).

My fear of cars—especially when in and near them—is larger. I can’t help but think this warranted given my experience, and even given my knowledge of the data (insomuch as that’s at all emotionally meaningful). And, again, particularly when taking reference class into consideration. Probabilistically speaking, this talk of ‘reference class’ is a call for appropriate conditioning on all the information I have: I (as luck would have it!) only ever see real guns in police holsters, and the sorts of incidents I’m asked to be afraid of in movie theaters are rare, vanishingly so in a place like New York City.

But cars are everywhere. And, in my neighborhood in Queens, people brazenly run red lights and stop signs and, well, you’ll find the purest expression I’ve seen of this city’s general car-bullies-pedestrian ethos (lest the pedestrian steal the car’s right of way; and it really does seem that pedestrians will just keep on crossing if cars don’t bully their way in at green; for more on local street safety see NYC.gov’s Vision Zero project). The point is: zooming cars are everywhere and loose guns aren’t, and I keep being told to fear guns.

I won’t say we should fear cars, but I will say we should worry about them as much as we do guns.

I’ve heard that parents these days risk losing custody of their children for doing what all parents did in the pre-stranger-danger day’s of my childhood: leaving them in the car for a 15-minutes to pop into a store (how I cherished that alone time). People fear the exceedingly rare likelihood of their child being abducted by a stranger from a stationary car, but apparently shrug off the astronomically more common event of the kid being killed or injured in a moving car.

We should worry about cars. What’s to be done about it? For starters, we should demand self-driving cars sooner rather than later (I imagine that, in 50 years, when people accustomed to autonomous vehicles see old TV shows in which parents drive their children in around a car, it will appear to them at least as backwards as it does to us now when we see parents driving and smoking in a car with their children playing freely in the backseat.)

And we should prioritize safety even more than we already do, which may mean traveling less often. Maybe you’re more concerned about climate change than you are about road deaths: convincing people to travel less often now to avoid dying now might be a way to nudge them towards your goal of people traveling less often now to avoid dying later.

To be clear, though, driving would not be a safe travel alternative even if they were running on clean energy. It has been estimated that, in the twelve months following the 9/11 attacks, would-be fliers fearfully opting instead to drive resulted in 1,600 additional road deaths (see this 9/11/02 article at Max-Planck-Gesellschaft: “More Traffic Deaths in Wake of 9/11“).

Malcolm Gladwell should dedicate at least one episode of his fantastic Revisionist History podcast* to the road-death problem, call it “We Should Worry About Cars,” a companion piece to his heart-stopping episode, “Blame Game” (S1E8, 8/3/16), in which he persuasively argues that the faulty-break scare ten years ago wasn’t due to faulty breaks after all, but rather, well, here’s an excerpt from the show notes:

“Blame Game” looks under the hood at one of the strangest public hysterias in recent memory. What really happened in all those Camrys and Lexuses? And how did so many drivers come to misunderstand so profoundly what was happening to them behind the wheel? The answer touches on our increasingly fraught relationship to technology and the dishonesty and naiveté of many in the media.

[*Here’s a potential hook. Road deaths carry an air of randomness or, in other words, of a kind of natural fairness. While instances of gun violence come with intentions, motivations, the stuff of stories. This is part of what accounts for differing attitudes about the two phenomena. But are road deaths all that random? Doubtful. (Thus the injunction to use the word ‘crash’ rather than ‘accident.’) Compare this to the many other domains (e.g., related to reproduction) in which outcomes are viewed as acceptable, ‘just a part of life’—or even as precious, a gift—when random, but as a crime of some sort when intentional.]

Speaking of podcasts, here are two episodes of the 99% Invisible podcast we should all listen to. First up is “The Modern Moloch” (E76, 4/4/13). Moloch, a Canaanite god of fire associated with child sacrifice, was sometimes used as a metaphor in the 1920s to represent public attitudes about cars. The public didn’t care for them. Automobiles were especially a threat to pedestrians and doubly especially to children who were accustomed to playing freely in the street.

A platter of children in “Sacrifices to the Modern Moloch” by James (St. Louis Star, 11/6/1923, p 14).

Public attitudes needed to be changed if manufacturers were going to fulfill their dreams of filling their bank accounts with money from car-friendly cities (well, I’m sure plenty of them were less rapacious than all that, but you get my point). “The Modern Moloch” tells the story of that marketing and PR campaign—which involved, for example, encouraging people to publicly shame one another for jaywalking (a term that, according to Merriam-Webster, derives from a derogatory connotation of the word ‘jay,’ as in ‘greenhorn’ or ‘rube’). Though, to be fair, cars were probably here to stay, and a campaign resulting in fewer deaths among those not yet conditioned to coexist with them might have been for the best.

(Extra Credit #2: Pedestrians were being killed in the streets of New York City by horse and buggy well before automobiles came along. What was so different about automobiles? Get started with this 2015 The New Republic article by Kevin Baker, which nicely summarizes the history: “De Blasio Wants to Strike Fear in the Hearts of New York’s Reckless Drivers.”)

Speaking of fewer deaths, the second 99% Invisible episode is “The Nut Behind the Wheel” (E287, 12/5/17). For many years, car manufacturers put design over safety, while their marketing and PR teams were still hard at work sculpting public attitudes in their favor, in particular, one that still exists: cars don’t kill people, people kill people. The sentiment often takes the form: it’s not me I’m worried about, it’s those other drivers!

In the 1960s, we start to see measures taken to increase car safety—e.g., bipartisan-supported legislation, such as the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, signed in by Lyndon Johnson in 1966. This leads to changes in car designs (a gargantuan advancement was the mandatory collapsable steering column) and to the development of a still-growing database detailing the circumstances of real-world fatal road incidents (one source for which are police reports).

The episode also rightly includes an argument that the uncomfortably familiar ‘cars don’t kill people, people kill people’ attitude is no less foul-smelling for cars than it is for guns and that, just as we have done for cars, we should institute safety laws for guns. And, yes, the usual nod is given to the fact that cars are made for transportation, while guns are made for injuring and killing. I agree with the public health professionals, mentioned in the episode, who don’t see this distinction as particularly interesting. In fact, I find it to be a minor, perhaps conceptually cosmetic, distinction at best, and a dangerous rhetorical distraction at worst.

Still, as high as the number of road deaths are each year, according to one of the show’s commentators, journalist Stan Alcorn, road-death rates have decreased over the last 50 years by almost 80%, while gun laws have loosened and gun-related death rates have increased. “For every chapter in the history of auto safety, there’s an opposite chapter in the history of gun safety,” says Alcorn, who then proceeds to list real-world examples in support of that claim.

We are in desperate need of increased gun-safety laws. We must do for guns what we’ve done for cars.

You know what, though? We’re not finished worrying about cars. We should worry about cars.

Not too much. Not to the point of agoraphobia. I love contemplative walks, when I can get them in New York City. Some parts of town are flâneur friendly, but not my neighborhood, where the cars don’t see red (sometimes because there’s literally no stop sign to see). Still, my circumstances are such that I walk. Last week, according to my iPhone Health tracker, I walked an average of 5.1 miles per day, with a respective minimum and maximum of 2.4 and 7.3 miles, and a median of 5.05 miles. More or less typical for me these days. My growing desire of late, however, is to stay home: reading, writing, studying math, daydreaming about the day I can afford to make music again, rewatching Twin Peaks with my special lady.

Also last week, I listened to Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000). It’s an instructive book that includes a potentially major piece of writing advice I hadn’t heard before and have committed myself to trying out. And it’s an inspiring book: I was inspired to learn of his early years as a writer, of his relationship with Tabitha King (his spouse, also a writer), and of his struggles with substance abuse.

And I was inspired to learn that he enjoys long, thought-clearing—or, more like it, mind-wandering and beneficially boring—walks. “Yes,” I thought, “I need that back in my life: strolling mindlessly rather thank bolting to the next place I need to be!” And then I learned that the writing of On Writing was interrupted when King, while on one of his afternoon walks, found a ticket to two weeks in the hospital, a series of surgeries, and months of painful physical therapy. Where? On the front of a swerving blue van. That van—and yes, that reckless, but not wreck-less, driver—nearly killed King.

And King isn’t the only author of the spine-tingler sort to vividly refer, in a book on writing, to the dangers we face on our roads. Ray Bradbury, in his excellent Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity (1994), asks us in the book’s preface:

“Which family exists where some relative has not been killed or maimed by the automobile? I know of none. In my own circle, an aunt, and uncle, and a cousin, as well as six friends, have been destroyed by the car.”

We should worry about cars.

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