Maybe cars are just really bad, but they’re normal, so we don’t pay attention to how bad

In the United States, 30,000 – 40,000 people are killed by and in cars every year; hundreds of thousands more are maimed. Think of ten to twelve 9/11s, every year—yet the issue gets little airplay, despite its importance. Perhaps we ought to be working a lot harder to build a society that is less dependent on murderous cars. Almost everyone knows someone who has been killed or maimed in a car crash. But, for whatever reason, most of us don’t think about the sheer amount of death and destruction attached to cars—maybe because the numbers are too vast. So I’ve decided to foreground the issue by listing some of the car crash victims whose names and/or stories I’ve come across. I’m not looking for them, but I keep noticing how many writers casually mention death in and by cars. Right now, today, it’s Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed:

John sighed. He asked Margo to look at the caller ID and tell him who had called, but she shook her head and turned away. John reached for the phone with his right hand. Then they collided with a black SUV coming straight at them.

Strapped in their booster seats were five-year-old Gracie and six-year-old Gabe. Irish twins, born just a year apart and inseparable. The loves of John’s life. Gracie survived along with John and Margo. Gabe, seated directly behind John and at exactly the point of impact, died at the scene.

Two paragraphs, one death. We need to do a “five whys” analysis on this. Part of the answer involves inattentiveness due to the phone, yes. But why is everyone in cars? Why are so many distracted amateurs operating these machines? Why is our society built around them? What would an alternate transit setup look like (one that valued human life)? These questions are almost entirely absent. The larger issues aren’t foregrounded. Cities that could help cut the car-based death rate refuse to do so. We have a bad strategy and our collective decision is to keep pursuing it. Despite the way death appears everywhere, every day:

* “Three years earlier, my husband, Eric, and I had lost our 22-month-old son, Seamus, when they were struck in a crosswalk by a careless driver.” From “When Sturdy Love Is What You Need.”

* “A few months later the young woman came to see me. She and her boyfriend had had a terrible car crash. He had died, and his family had turned her out of the house they had lived in together” (137). From The Sexual Life of Catherine M., a memoir by Catherine Millet. Everyone knows someone who has died this way.

* “About a decade ago, Derek Sarno, the elder of the pair at 48, was working as a chef and restaurateur in New Hampshire when his longtime partner was killed in a car accident.” From “The Vegetarians at the Gate.”

* “I was back in my hometown cruising the makeup aisles of a 24-hour drugstore around midnight on the eve of my sister’s funeral. I was 23 and my 22-year-old sister had died in a car accident five days earlier.” From “When Lips Speak for Themselves.”

* Miss France Hopeful Morgane Rolland Dies After Being Struck by a Tractor-Trailer.

* Interview with actress Anjelica Huston: “You were 17 and your brother Tony was 18 when your mother was killed in a car [crash] in France.”

* Kevin Hart reportedly able to walk after serious car crash. This one isn’t a fatality, but wouldn’t he have liked to not have been in a car wreck?

* Mother Dies After Halloween Crash That Killed Husband and Toddler. “Joseph and Raihan Awaida were walking home with their 3-year-old son on Halloween night when the entire family was hit by an SUV.” Maybe we should work harder to segment uses and discourage driving: one SUV kills an entire family.

* “Then, in her thirties, [Joanna Parfit] died in a car crash.”

* “In September 1996, after turning thirty-four years old, Paul [Simons] donned a jersey and shorts, hopped on his… bicycle, and set off on a fast ride through Old Field Road in Setauket, near his boyhood home. Out of nowhere, an elderly woman backed her car out of the driveway, unaware [Paul] was riding past. She hit Paul, crushing and killing him instantly, a random and tragic accident. Several days later, the woman, traumatized by the experience, had a heart attack and died.” (159) That’s from The Man Who Solved the Market, a biography of Jim Simons. The writer, Gregory Zuckerman, is not astute enough to realize that this was not a totally random event: it’s an event engineered by systematic choices made over the course of decades, if not a century, to prioritize car and car travel over life. The elderly should not be driving, yet we’ve decided to ignore their inabilities because cars are so woven into the urban fabric of life.

Overall, we should all be striving for life after parking, however utopian that sounds today (getting everyone to quit smoking probably seemed utopian 50 years ago, but here we are). Unfortunately, absurdly expensive infrastructure costs inhibit the development of better transit systems. I’ve changed my view on this issue substantially between when I was younger and today. Housing and transit issues are tremendous determinants of the quality of human life, as well as the quality of our politics, and many of the screeds you read about “income inequality” (a term I dislike because we really want everyone to have a decent baseline quality of life, regardless of whether someone is super rich), education, and health are really about housing and transit—we just don’t think of them this way. Very few reporters or “intellectuals” (a word worthy of scare quotes) connect the dots. So I’m going to connect them here, even though others don’t, and keep adding to this list. Maybe it will personalize the idea that cars are bad in a way that the raw data does not.

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