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Road kill

Why are we so worried about terrorism when so many more people are dying on our highways?

August 05, 2007|Gregg Easterbrook | Gregg Easterbrook is a fellow of the Brookings Institution and author of "The Progress Paradox."

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 national policymaking.

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.

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