by Gregg Easterbrook, in the Los Angeles Times - August 5, 2007
Suppose 245,000 americans had died in terrorist attacks since Sept.
11, 2001. The United States would be beside itself, utterly gripped
by a sense of national emergency. Political leaders would speak of
nothing else, the United States military would stand at maximum
readiness, and the White House would vow not to rest until the danger
to Americans had been utterly eradicated.
Yet 245,000 Americans have died because of one specific threat since
9/11, and no one seems to care. While the tragedy of 3,000 lives lost
on 9/11 has justified two wars, in which thousands of U.S. soldiers
made the ultimate sacrifice, the tragedy of 245,000 lives lost in
traffic accidents on the nation's roads during the same period has
justified . . . pretty much no response at all. Terrorism is on the
front page day in and day out, but the media rarely even mention road
deaths. A few days ago, the National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration announced that 42,642 Americans died in traffic in
2006. Did you hear this reported anywhere?
This phenomenon is not just American, it is global. Traffic deaths
are the fastest-rising cause of death in the world. Yet you've heard
far more about H5N1 avian influenza, which has killed 192 people
worldwide since being detected five years ago, than about the 6
million people who have died in traffic accidents in the same period.
Last year alone, 1.2 million people were killed on the world's roads,
versus about 100,000 dead as a result of combat. The last decade is
believed to be the first time in history that roads posed a greater
danger to human beings than fighting (which is partly a reflection of
the decline of war).
Global prosperity is rising fast, which means that global car
ownership is rising fast, and both of those things are good -- but
they also mean that global traffic deaths are rising as well.
Worldwide, traffic deaths look exactly like a pandemic -- increasing
in most nations, with local rapid spikes.
Two forces seem at play in skewed perceptions of these risks. The
first is the fundamental difference between harm because of accidents
and harm because of deliberate action; the second, society's strange
assumption that traffic fatalities cannot be avoided.
The loss of life caused by terrorism on 9/11 -- or similar losses in
other acts of terror or war -- has a wholly different moral standing
than loss of life in accidents. Terrorists are criminals whose intent
is homicide. Those who act illegally or immorally must be opposed
even if that means engaging in complex, expensive, perilous
undertakings, as the United States has since the darkness of 9/11. A
life lost in a traffic accident is very sad, but it does not involve
an offense against morality or human dignity. Most traffic accidents
are just that -- accidents. In that sense, it may be reasonable that
3,000 deaths because of terrorism have a disproportionate effect on
Next, cars and trucks possess utility. They are vital to our economy
and to our personal freedom. Having millions of cars and trucks
roaring every which way is necessary for the American economy to be
so productive. Environmental Protection Agency figures show that, in
the last three decades, vehicle-miles traveled have risen 170% in the
United States. Some of this may be unnecessary, but most vehicle-
miles happen because they serve someone's interest. If the use of
cars were restricted, accidents would certainly decline, but so would
economic productivity and personal freedom.
Here's where the big faults in our thinking come into play. Do the
media downplay road dangers in part because the auto industry is the
No. 1 advertiser on TV and among the top advertisers for newspapers?
Detroit would much rather Brian Williams or Katie Couric titter about
Paris Hilton, or the L.A. Times feature articles on Waziristan, than
hear about 42,642 dead on the roads last year.
Typical Americans are to blame as well. Because we don't want to
contemplate dying in a car crash, we seem to assume that highway
fatalities cannot be reduced, that they fall into the "stuff happens"
category. This isn't so. Risks of driving or of crossing the street
-- each year more pedestrians die in the United States than the death
toll of 9/11 -- could be reduced significantly without any sacrifice
of freedom by car owners.
Relative to passenger-miles traveled, traffic fatalities have
declined in the United States owing to anti-lock brakes, air bags,
impact engineering (a hidden safety feature of most new vehicles) and
the big rise in shoulder-harness use (your seat belt is much more
important to safety than air bags). Tougher laws and social awareness
have reduced drunk driving. Yet fatalities per mile traveled have not
fallen as much as might be expected given improved technology and
less alcohol-impaired driving. There appear to be two key reasons:
cellphones and horsepower.
Driving while yakking may seem harmless to you, but try telling that
to the loved ones of the hundreds or even thousands who die each year
in totally avoidable phone-related accidents. Holding a cellphone
while driving will become illegal in California in 2008. But the odds
of getting stopped are slight. Automated cameras now issue speeding
tickets; why can't they issue tickets to owners of cars photographed
with a driver using a phone?
Another idea is to pass laws under which, if a driver is on the phone
at the moment of a crash, he or she is presumed to be at fault. It is
well past time for legislatures to stop waffling on this issue and
take action. People make phone calls while driving because they know
they can get away with it. This is more important than human life?
The ever-rising horsepower of cars, SUVs and pickup trucks is another
reason road fatalities stay high. Twenty years ago, the average new
passenger vehicle had 119 horsepower and went from zero to 60 in 13
seconds; this year's averages are 220 horsepower and zero to 60 in
9.5 seconds. New cars, SUVs and pickup trucks of this model year are
the "fastest and most powerful vehicles since the EPA began compiling
data," the federal agency recently said. Even many new family sedans
are ridiculously overpowered. Car & Driver magazine recently tested
the new, 268-horsepower Toyota Camry: It did zero to 60 in 5.8
seconds, which was Corvette acceleration a generation ago.
Cars with high horsepower and rapid acceleration are easy to lose
control of, especially for young drivers. Tap the accelerator in a
tight curve for just an instant in that Camry -- to say nothing of
socially irresponsible monstrosities such as the 520-horsepower
Porsche Cayenne SUV -- and you can lose control. High-horsepower cars
enable cutting off and other forms of aggressive driving; cutting off
and sudden lane changes are leading causes of highway collisions. A
generation ago, a small percentage of American drivers had high-
horsepower vehicles. Now the majority do! Is it a coincidence that
road rage and high horsepower have occurred simultaneously? High
horsepower makes road rage possible, which in turn adds to the death
The proliferation of high horsepower cars is doubly wrong because it
links to ever-rising petroleum use and greenhouse gases. Automakers
have significantly increased powertrain efficiency in the last 20
years -- but the gains have gone into horsepower, not fuel
efficiency. Other things being equal, if new-vehicle horsepower were
reduced by one-third, miles per gallon would rise by one-third. One
decade of sales of new vehicles with one-third higher horsepower
accounts for the amount of oil the United States imports from the
Persian Gulf region. Reduce horsepower by a third and end U.S.
Persian Gulf oil dependence. Yes, it's that simple. If only we'd
actually do it!
Because horsepower is an arms race -- if one automaker offers more,
all must -- federal legislation to limit horsepower would offer a
good-news trifecta: Higher mpg, reduced greenhouse-gas emissions and
lower road fatalities as average motorists stop acting like they're
at a NASCAR track.
Why doesn't Congress act to end the horsepower wars? Please don't
counter that "no one can tell me what I can drive." The Constitution
says you've got a right to own a gun and to read a newspaper.
Firearms and materials related to 1st Amendment expression are the
only categories of possessions given protected status by the
Constitution; courts consistently rule that vehicles on public roads
can be regulated for public purposes such as safety.
Horsepower regulation and serious enforcement against cellphone use
while driving might save thousands of lives a year. Such reforms
might also prevent many billions of dollars in economic losses and
make a big dent in the other road-danger figure no one talks about --
2.6 million Americans injured in traffic crashes last year.
Other reforms, such as pedestrian-activated warning lights at
crosswalks, could also reduce traffic deaths in the United States.
Numerous reforms could reduce traffic deaths in developing countries.
As a nation, we find common ground in agreeing that even one death
from terrorism cannot be tolerated. Why are tens of thousands of
annual road deaths OK?
* Gregg Easterbrook is a fellow of the Brookings Institution and author
of "The Progress Paradox." Lauren Hovel of Barnard College provided
research assistance for this article.
is a fellow of the Brookings Institution and author of "The Progress Paradox."
Lauren Hovel of Barnard College provided research assistance for this article.