The Amtrak derailment that killed eight people has been the top news story since Tuesday evening – rightly so. A major mass-transit incident is rare, and the circumstances – an apparent failure of Congress to equip Amtrak with the means to implement positive train control – are fueling a long-overdue public debate regarding transportation safety.
But an estimated 90 additional people died using the US transportation system on Tuesday, Monday, Wednesday, and every day since the 1920’s. (*The auto fatality rate – 90 per day in the US – is an all time low.)
Last May five Long Island high school students were killed when their 2001 Nissan veered head-on into an SUV. Their names were Carly Lonnborg, Noah Francis, Tristan Reichle, Jesse Romero, and Cody Talanian.
Stories like this are tragically familiar. Most of us probably recall arriving to school to learn another classmate had passed in a car crash. Many of us have suffered the pain of losing loved ones. Many more of us have seen loved ones’ lives altered by severe injuries.
So why aren’t we outraged about chronic automobile death and destruction?
Streetsblog, in The Weekly Carnage – the column dedicated to automobile mayhem – poses the following:
Car crashes are typically isolated events with limited resonance beyond the few people involved and their loved ones. Yet they are a pervasive societal problem that goes undetected by the collective consciousness precisely because they are so frequent. This column will hopefully chip away at public apathy about automobile-related death and destruction.
The numbers alone should create a media stir and a public outcry (certainly among “fiscal conservatives”).
In 2012 car crashes claimed the lives of over 33,000 people in the US, and changed the lives of (injured) over 2.3 million people.
AAA (a motorist advocacy group) reports the societal cost of car crashes is nearly $300 billion per year (including the costs of “medical and emergency services, lost earnings and household production, property damage, and lost quality of life”). That figure exceeds the cost of traffic congestion (lost productivity) by a factor of three.
The enormous cumulative deleterious effects of automobile dependency should be a top headline every day.
NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) publishes a most wanted list of life-saving recommendations, but apparently does not (or cannot) identify private automobiles and trucks as being inherently more dangerous than any other transport mode.
This is especially problematic because cars and trucks represent primary threats to other modes – pedestrians, bicycles, trains – and in a circular way, to the people driving other cars and trucks.
Quoting Streetsblog again for a solution: “pursuing policies that cause people to reduce the amount they drive, while promoting mass transit, walking and cycling”.
Automobile engineers and legislators [thanks largely to consumer advocate Ralph Nader] have spent decades focusing their energy on making cars less deadly (adding air bags, side impact protection systems, requiring people to wear seat belts), but there hasn’t been an equal effort at getting people to drive less. The gains from improved technology, anti-DWI campaigns and seatbelt laws have been wiped out as the total number of annual vehicle miles traveled has gone up.
Given the stakes – public safety and economic sustainability – the NTSB would act responsibly to promote a reduced dependence on automobiles, an expansion of mass-transit, and of course, to prioritize non-motorized transportation.