The Fault in our Cars
Cars have killed us, made us anxious and enraged, gotten us into debt and in trouble with the law, estranged us from our communities, dumbed us down and fattened us up. Cars have contributed to global warming and carbon emissions. Cars have changed the landscape and scarred our cities, making the pedestrian and the bicyclist the enemy. Cars have contributed to obesity. According to a 2013 study by the Journal of Preventative Medicine, “car commuters who exercised regularly in their free time still put on more pounds than active commuters” — meaning that even if you go to the gym, your drive to work is still holding you back in terms of weight loss or stabilization.
Our cars are killing us, literally. According to the National Safety Council (NSC), last year was the deadliest in the past 50 years. In 2015, 38,300 people were killed while driving on U.S. roads, reflecting an 8 percent increase from 2014 (qtd. in Ziv par. 1). Those statistics do not take into consideration another cause of car death, infant and young child heatstroke due to being locked in a parked car. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) devotes an entire webpage to tips on how to avoid this most cruel kind of car death.
The NSC reports that “more than 2,600 children under age 13 are involved in a car crash every day” and that car crashes are still the number one (#1) cause of death for infants and children, including teenaged drivers.
Every day, people die or are injured in cars. This year, in my family of four, we were involved four car crashes: In May, my daughter and I were struck by a car as pedestrians walking lawfully in cross-walk a residential neighborhood of Chicago; in July, my daughter was rear-ended while driving to work in Palo Alto, CA. In March my younger son was rear-ended in a hit-and-run on I-10 while driving back from LAX to PHX. In April, he was later involved as the driver in a DUI accident also in LA. Thankfully, none of these accidents resulted in a fatality or in serious injury. However, all three cars were totaled, and the shock and trauma of especially the pedestrian accident still remains.
It is with this context that I approach a delicate proposition, namely that we need to rethink cars, and reconsider our high tolerance of car death. My claim is based on the absurd achievement of self-driving cars, and the idea that we are supposed to applaud the future of self-driving cars. What is even more appalling to me personally is that my alma mater and sometime employer, the University of Michigan, is behind the most current research on self-driving cars. Ironically, in a recent email sent to all UM email subscribers, the University grouped together “Childhood Obesity, Vaping, and Driverless cars” but made no connection between the first and the third topics.
The absurdity is furthered by the article contained in this email called “Saving lives by letting cars talk to each other” – with a blindness to the obvious misanthropic nature of cars, that we drive them BY OURSELVES precisely because WE DO NOT WANT TO TALK TO EACH OTHER much less be around each other on public mass transportation. The solutions to driverless cars are already among us: they are called trains, light rail, or busses, and they work just fine, are low cost, time efficient, sustainable, and allow hours if not minutes of down time to text message, read the web, listen to music, and/or even nap.
In this article, UM Engineering professor Peng acknowledges that there are over 30,000 car deaths a year, yet he reasons that “Fully automated, self-driving vehicles are considered perhaps the best way to reduce or eliminate traffic deaths by taking human error out of the equation” (par. 7). What? Why not use the extant system of highly trained professional drivers and train engineers to take us where we want and need to go, safely, cheaply, and on time. But instead, they want us to invest in driverless car technology that uses some form of echo-location or wifi so that cars travelling 70 miles an hour on the freeway can chat with each other about changing lanes and slowing traffic. It’s very simple, if you don’t want to drive, then don’t use a car; take the bus, the train, or pay for a ride from Uber or Lyft.
Indeed, transportation disrupters Uber now have become part of the solution to too many cars on the road being driven by too many distracted or intoxicated, or just don’t want to drive, people. “A trio of Arizona State University researchers has quantified the ‘Uber effect’ by completing the first study to prove that when the ride-hailing service enters an urban market, it reduces traffic congestion, cuts travel time and saves gas for all drivers.” This is great news for highway infrastructure-heavy cities like Phoenix and Los Angeles, which also battle smog and climate change as a result of too many cars.
“The new [ASU] study, analyzing the largest of several services that allow people to book rides through a smartphone app, puts the value of that savings at more than $1 billion nationwide since 2011, including 66 million hours and 30 million gallons of fuel. . . . For example, in metro Phoenix, [ASU] researcher Ziru Li said that translates into about 1.8 million hours that are not spent in traffic jams and more than 900,000 gallons of fuel saved. Together, the time and gas saved are valued at about $43 million since Uber entered the market in 2012.” The Uber effect also participates in the shared economy, like Airbnb or Hoffice, which is a cultural shift perhaps acceptable to millennials only, who are not hung up on owning something, but rather experiencing something. Car ownership has gone down every year since 2008, and bloggers and journalists have been talking about ‘peak car’ since about 2012.
But the simple fact remains that we drive ourselves and our kids everywhere, mostly because many of us live in the exurbs or suburbs and kids simply can’t safely walk to a neighborhood school or park or library. There are no sidewalks and walking is culturally discouraged. We did this to ourselves in creating this completely car-dependent lifestyle where we as workers have to drive 30 miles or more to work each day, and our kids have to be driven 10 miles or more to school because we have decided to live far away from both work and school.
Even though there might be public transportation available, we wouldn’t dream of inconveniencing ourselves to wait for a bus or train; indeed even many school busses go under-used because kids are actually driven to schools early and picked up late by working parents. But families aside, no one walks anywhere anymore. And if they do, as in the case in Detroit last year of James Robertson who supposedly walked to work over 20 miles every day (he did not, he took the Woodward D-DOT bus up to Pontiac and then connected to a Smart bus to Auburn Hills), the solution was to buy him a car, not to move him closer to work so that the walk might have been tenable.
As the daughter of a former GM medical director, the sister of a current GM regional service manager, the aunt of a niece who just married into the oldest and most elite of American car families, and as the mother of an older son who works as a curator at the most prestigious auto museum in the country, I am definitely disrupting my own cultural heritage. But as a native Detroiter, I demand that public mass transportation, bicycle riding, and walking be given as much attention and investment as stupid self-driving cars!
In Detroit by the 1970’s, the trauma of the riots had dissipated, but not disappeared, and white Detroiters began to move en masse to the suburbs. How was this possible? The car made it so. Every few years, some brave soul in the Mayor’s office or from the State of Michigan would suggest that Detroit needed what other cities were investing in, namely: mass transit. And just as soon as someone would point out that the airport (DTW) is about 20 miles from the city center, and that other cities like Chicago had trains from both their airports (MDW and ORD) into the Loop, and that this made life better and easier for both the citizens of and visitors to Chicago, Detroit would proudly point out that it was unlike other cities, and that it would be disrespectful to THE BIG THREE (Ford, GM, Chrysler) to build a light rail system in the Motor City. According to The Detroit Free Press, in 1984 the city commissioners voted “to scotch” the meager mass transit rail system that would travel up and down Woodward Avenue, a main thoroughfare out of the city center and Detroit River. Now, over 30 years later, the city is finally laying down track on that same Woodward corridor for light rail. But is it too little too late?
During the same time frame, the Bay Area (San Francisco and Oakland, CA) invested heavily in transit, and by 1972, the BART (Bay Area Transit Authority) was open for its first run, 28 miles between Fremont and MacArthur stations.
Here is a partial list of the effects of car culture in the U.S. since mid-century:
Cars have disconnected us from community.
Cars have contributed to global warming and carbon emissions
Cars have given us road rage and hypertension.
Cars have made us obese.
A car made possible the assassination of JFK.
Car seats are required for children and infants.
Car insurance is mandatory in all states.
Car parking lots have ‘paved paradise.’
DUI laws — and DUI lawyers
Drive thru’s — (see ‘obesity’)
Drive-by shootings (see Chicago)
Getaway cars (see Chicago)
Rental cars (convenient, but prevent travelers from exploring a new city on foot)
Car loans (necessary to buy a new car — otherwise unaffordable)
Cars killed Myrtle Wilson (by Daisy Buchanan) in fiction, and Princess Diana in real life.
Can you imagine what our native, immigrant, and slave forefathers and mothers would think of our sedentary lifestyles? They walked everywhere, rode horses if lucky, were thin and fit their whole lives. What would they think about you driving your car to a gym to work out? Or driving your car to the mall to shop, to consume manufactured goods made a world away by folks who probably walked to work, to the factories where many of our cheap consumer products are produced. Shopping is now considered to be an acceptable hobby, but it’s not. Cars made malls possible. But at least in a mall, one does find walkers, seniors who transit the perimeter of the mall’s interior courts and halls, walking briskly, buying nothing more than a cheap cup of coffee at the food court McDonald’s.
In conclusion, I am asking for a car moratorium: let’s stop manufacturing more new cars and instead drive used cars. Then when they break down for good, let’s open the car door, unbuckle our seat belts, lace up our trainers, and walk to work instead. Or walk to the bus stop to board public transportation that will take us near our work, maybe as close as a few blocks. Let’s not be excited about high-priced, over-techy, driver-less cars. Let’s ask our lawmakers and businesses for more bike lanes, more buses, more light rail. The future is back to our pedestrian past, where we weren’t fat and angry, but instead thin and hopeful. Walking is the antidote for many of our driving-induced ills, including obesity, rage, stress, car loans and car insurance, accidents, injury, and death. The car at one time set us free, but it has now enslaved us to a life of low-level anxiety at best, and actual trauma at worst. Self-driving cars are not the answer; walking, biking, ride-share, and public transit are.
P.S. On June 3, 2017, a beautiful young woman named Sydney was killed in a senseless, stupid car crash; she was the victim of another driver’s ROAD RAGE. There are not words sufficient to describe the grief felt by her parents. There is no upside, no lesson to be learned, no silver lining. There is just a future of loss and pain for them. Yes, if she had not been in a car, yes, she would likely not be dead, and would not part of this year’s (2017) new set of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics on highway/automotive fatalities.
Post-Postscript: February 19, 2018, five days after the mass shooting at high school in Florida: A recent article in Yahoo News reported that: “According to the CDC, there were about 38,000 U.S. gun deaths in 2016, slightly more than the number of people who died in car crashes.” Cars kill less people than guns? Yet, “the National Safety Council estimated that 40,100 people were killed in 2017 [car] accidents . . . .” But in “2016, about 38,000 Americans died from gun-related wounds” (Perry par. 2). So which is it? Cars or guns as most lethal? The data are a year off, and conflicting. But the bottom line is that both cars and guns are killing machines; the former usually by accident, the later usually on purpose.
Artuso, Amy. “Proper restraints can prevent injuries, deaths due to crashes.” Safety First, Blog of the National Safety Council. National Safety Council. Sept. 19, 2016. http://www.nsc.org/safety-first/Lists/Posts/Post.aspx?ID=109
“ASU team first to prove Uber eases traffic congestion.” W.P. Carey School of Business, Arizona State University, 29 Sept. 2016, https://asunow.asu.edu/20160928-discoveries-asu-team-first-prove-uber-eases-traffic-congestion
Lampe, David. “U-M’s cityscape will test driverless vehicles.” Michigan News. University of Michigan 13 Jan. 2015. http://ns.umich.edu/new/multimedia/videos/22608-u-m-s-cityscape-will-test-driverless-vehicles
“Mass Transit no go.” The Detroit Free Press, 26 July 1984, p. 63.
Peng, Huei. “Saving Lives by Letting Cars talk to each other.” Science and Technology. The Conversation. 11 Sept. 2016.https://theconversation.com/saving-lives-by-letting-cars-talk-to-each-other-59221
Perry, Susan. “CDC: Gun-related deaths in U.S. climb for second straight year.” Second Opinion, The Minnesota Post, Nov. 6, 2017, https://www.minnpost.com/second-opinion/2017/11/cdc-gun-related-deaths-us-climb-second-straight-year
“Prevent Child Heatstroke in Cars.” Parents Central, Safercar.gov, NHSTA, n.d. NSHhttp://www.safercar.gov/parents/InandAroundtheCar/heatstroke.htm
Schmitt, Angie. “Study: Car commuters put on more weight than active commuters.” Streets_Blog_USA. 20 Mar. 2013. http://usa.streetsblog.org/2013/03/20/study-car-commuters-put-on-more-weight-than-active-commuters/
Ziv, Stav. “2015 Brought Biggest Percent Increase in U.S. Traffic Deaths in 50 Years.” Newsweek, Feb. 17, 2016 http://www.newsweek.com/2015-brought-biggest-us-traffic-death-increase-50-years-427759