From the Baltimore Sun
Driving's heavy toll
While gas prices and war deaths grab our attention, an epidemic of carnage quietly continues, year after year, on our roads. It's the price we pay for an on-the-go lifestyle.
By Michael Hill
April 30, 2006
Everyone is familiar with the signs that shout out the cost of driving these days, the ones that say $2.97, $3.08, $3.16, $3.27, that chronicle the rising price of a gallon of gasoline.
Those signs get the public fuming, the politicians posturing and the president investigating.
But there are many other signs of the cost of America's love affair with the automobile that seem to fade into the background like drab wallpaper.
Take those small memorials - the crosses, the plastic flowers, the teddy bears - that mark the site of a death by automobile. Many drive by one every day. A long trip on an interstate can take you by dozens of them.
Americans are understandably concerned about combat in Iraq that has taken the lives of more than 2,300 U.S. troops. But some 43,000 Americans die each year in traffic mishaps with relatively little notice. A cross by the roadside draws far less attention than a gas price sign that begins with the numeral three.
"War has been less deadly for Americans than automobile transportation," says Thomas Zeller, a historian of technology at the University of Maryland, College Park. "It is as if Pearl Harbor takes place on the highways every two weeks, yet no significance is attached to it."
Fatalities are only one of the many costs associated with these magnificent machines that are the backbone of our transportation system, a foundation of our economy and a cultural icon of unparalleled power.
There is the pollution of the air and damage to the stratosphere.
There is the huge amount of money going to despotic and dysfunctional regimes in hostile countries that sit above deposits of oil.
There is the cost of building and maintaining roads - a tremendous subsidy to this method of transportation.
And there is the destruction of a way of living, based on homes built close together, allowing people to walk to neighbors, to stores, perhaps even to work. It has been replaced by an environment where a human body unclad in automotive armor is unwelcome.
"Particularly after World War II, the entire American landscape became molded around the automobile," says David Gartman, a professor of sociology at the University of South Alabama.
"There was the great flood of suburbanization, people heading out [of] the cities," says Gartman, author of Auto Opium: A Social History of American Automobile Design. "The automobile made it possible to get out of the dirty, industrial city, with all of its problems, into the nearby countryside.
"Of course, this took a massive investment in highways," he says. "Anyone who couldn't afford a car - the poor - stayed in the inner cities. The entire landscape became sculpted around the assumption that the vast majority of people have a car to travel from here to there."
But none of these costs elicits the kind of widespread panic that the recent, sudden increase in gasoline prices has generated. What upsets Americans is not that cars do so much damage but that it might cost more to drive them, perhaps even that the cost of gas could restrict their use.
To be sure, the automobile is an amazingly effective form of transportation in terms of allowing a person to get from one point to another whenever he or she wants to.
That is one reason automobile transportation is so appealing to Americans - it represents a kind of individual freedom that is part of the country's foundation. You don't wait with the masses for a bus or a train or trolley; you just get in your car and go.
Zeller says that as Europe divided in the postwar era, this association of the automobile with freedom arose in West Germany, where the lack of speed limits on the autobahn was contrasted with the controlled societies behind the Iron Curtain.
"It was seen as an expression of Cold War ideology," he says. "Telling people how fast to go on a modern highway system was seen as anti-democratic, not commensurate with the values of a free society."
The autobahn was the inspiration for the U.S. system of interstate highways. As Zeller reports, Dwight D. Eisenhower was long aware of the poor state of America's roads - as a young officer, he wrote a memo to that effect after a 1919 cross-country trip.
Seeing the German system as the Allies invaded in 1945 led him, as president, to push to build what is now officially known as the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. Its construction was authorized by Congress 50 years ago.
Interestingly, most things associated with Nazi Germany became tainted. But this was not true of two personal projects of Adolf Hitler: the autobahns and the Volkswagen. Americans' love of the automobile overcame whatever distaste they had for the origins of these technologies.
Understanding that the automobile is a symbol of personal freedom helps make the furor over rising gas prices understandable; to Americans, this is not just an economic burden - it is a restriction on a fundamental right.
Gartman's analysis is that the automobile created the industrial model that in many ways led to Americans looking to their cars as far more than a means of transportation.
"Americans had always defined their character through what they did - their work," he says. "With the great rise in industrialized labor in the early 20th century, much of it associated with the auto industry, it became increasingly difficult for people to define themselves and their character through what they did on the job, as it was routine, monotonous work that did not express any skill or character.
"It seems to me that as this became an increasing cultural problem for Americans, what gradually happens is a shift in focus from the world of work defining ourselves to the world of consumption," Gartman says. "You are not what you do; you are what you buy. And the automobile is a key part of this new cultural consumption."
Our character becomes tied up in our cars. They become our status symbols, our living rooms, our refuges. As the bucolic promise of the suburbs they once took us to gives way to crowded roads clogged with fellow commuters, we buy SUVs that promise to take us farther away, to empty vistas - at least in our dreams; we rarely shift them into four-wheel drive.
But again, consider the price tag. Like many baby boomers, Gartman remembers walking out the back door of his house in a suburb of Houston and finding 10 or 12 friends ready for a game of ball.
"Now it would be hard to raise a baseball game in a place like that," he says. Since our cars have reshaped our neighborhoods, we have to drive our kids to organized activities.
And, besides the death of human-scaled streetscapes and the way of life they represented, there are all those traffic deaths.
Imagine if 43,000 Americans a year were dying in combat or at the hands of a disease. The country would be on high alert against a deadly enemy. But few approach cars with alarm. If any other industrial product took so many lives, it would certainly be banned. Nuclear reactors haven't even come close to killing that many people. But try building one of them.
"I have read that there were 25 million people killed worldwide in auto accidents," Zeller says. "The automobile has killed more people than wars."
Zeller does say that the number is going down in the United States, though people are driving more.
"But it is still an incredibly high number," he says. "And it tells us that this society and many others have made a silent pact with the automobile. It is the risk we are willing to take."
In Kenya, you might see a flattened and desiccated body on a highway, a hapless pedestrian pounded into anonymity by the relentless wheels of motorized travel.
In Cairo, Egypt, you can wipe up the deadly dust spewed out of the exhaust pipes of cars still burning leaded gasoline, its toxic chemicals causing untold damage to the developing brains of Egypt's youth.
Certainly, this does not go unnoticed. Remember Unsafe at Any Speed, the 1965 book that made Ralph Nader a star? That was around the time of the first environmental movement.
Cars in the U.S. and other industrialized countries are much cleaner and safer than they were a generation ago. But, as Gartman points out, much of this safety is put in the same you-are-in-control package that made automobiles such a symbol of individuality and freedom.
"The way the industry handles safety these days feeds this illusory sense of control people have when they are in their cars," he says. "It focuses on crash ratings, air bags, anti-lock brakes.
"It says that you as an individual can protect yourself, secure your own safety, when in fact safety depends on so many things beyond your control: law enforcement, road conditions, speed limits, other drivers," Gartman says.
And, of course, there have long been those decrying the damage the automobile does to our communities, none more eloquent than the urbanist Jane Jacobs, who died last week at 90. Among her accomplishments was helping to stop a plan by the great road builder Robert Moses to obliterate Washington Square in Lower Manhattan for a highway.
In Baltimore, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski first made her name stopping a highway that would have taken out most of Fells Point.
And then there is the so-called "new urbanism" movement that calls for building communities that put all sorts of homes and businesses and schools and such close together, within walking distance.
Gartman visited one of the prototypes of this style, Seaside, Fla., seen in the movie The Truman Show. But he found it had turned into a resort community with houses selling far beyond middle-class means.
"It was the middle of the summer, and there was hardly a person on the street," he says. Most of the houses were owned by people who lived elsewhere and used them as vacation homes.
"We asked a woman behind the counter in a real estate agency if she lived there, and she laughed and said she couldn't afford it," Gartman said. "She commutes 40 miles to work. So much for the walkable community.
"Our dependence on the car is terribly difficult to break," he says. "It is not the fault of the designers of places like Seaside, it is just the nature of our society."
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