What if Terrorists Killed as Many as Die in U.S. Car Crashes?

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In an op/ed for the Los Angeles Times, Gregg Easterbrook suggests that if 245,000 Americans had died in terrorist attacks since September 11th, the country would be "utterly gripped by a sense of national emergency." Well, 245,000 Americans have died since 9/11, all of them on our nation’s roadways:

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).

Easterbrook attempts to figure out why nobody seems to care:

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.

Driving while yakking may seem harmless to you, but try telling that to the loved ones of the hundreds or even thousands who die each year in totally avoidable phone-related accidents. Holding a cellphone while driving will become illegal in California in 2008. But the odds of getting stopped are slight. Automated cameras now issue speeding tickets; why can’t they issue tickets to owners of cars photographed with a driver using a phone?


Photo: spanaut/Flickr

  • tmchale

    People are gripped by irrational fears. Catastrophes always have a greater impact than everyday events. Car crashes are daily occurances. The deaths are spread across the country and throughout the year.

    You’re more likely to die driving to the airport than you are on the flight, but guess which part of the trip is the one most Americans fear? When a plane goes down, it’s such a rare occurance that it makes international news. A deadly accident on the expressway to the airport is cleaned up in an hour and lucky to get a mention in the local paper. It’s just too common to be shocking.

    Another issue is control. People drive cars themselves, and tend to trust their own judgment more than they should. A terrorist crashing a plane into your workplace is inescapable.

  • ddartley

    March 13, 2004, Saturday
    “117 Deaths Each Day” By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF(NYT)
    DISPLAYING ABSTRACT – Nicholas D Kristof Op-Ed column notes that traffic accidents kill 117 Americans a day, or nearly 43,000 a year, while terrorism, with horrific exceptions like 2001, in typical year claims virtually no US lives.

    I was excited when they printed my reply:

    To the Editor:
    In ”117 Deaths Each Day” (column, March 13), Nicholas D. Kristof reminds us of the obvious — that cars and trucks kill a lot more people than terrorism. If more people in each United States community would demand safe routes for bicycles, perhaps both cars and terrorism would gradually become lesser dangers.

    A moving bicycle is far less likely than a car to seriously injure people, and it does not run on oil — the polluting energy source that is arguably a source of revenue for those few terrorists actually out there.

  • Spud Spudly

    Easterbrook has his head partially up his butt on this one. “The media rarely even mention road deaths”? That’s ridiculous. The papers and newscasts are filled every day with stories of people being killed and injured in vehicular accidents. Where do all the links for Weekly Carnage come from?

    Where he is correct is that the reporting is on a micro scale, and there’s no real macro sense of outrage or frustration at the sheer number of overall deaths that occur on roadways. But don’t say that road deaths don’t get covered because they do every day.

  • JF

    Next year I’m going to organize a “Walk for the Cure to Road Deaths.” Participants will raise money for candidates running against David Weprin and Richard Brodsky.

  • Eric Dumbaugh argues that fatalities per capita, not per mile traveled, is the more relevant measurement (p. 171):

    In short, US safety performance in terms of fatalities per capita has fallen dramatically behind its international counterparts, a finding that has led many in the transportation community to begin fundamentally rethinking the current approach to addressing transportation system safety (FHWA, 2001; 2003a; 2003b).

    Contemporary designers might argue that US drivers nevertheless drive more miles per year than their European counterparts. While this may be true, it overlooks the gruesome fact that more people per year are getting killed as a consequence of their travel activity. Asserting that US drivers travel more miles assumes that there is some benefit associated with their doing so. Yet few drivers drive for pleasure; instead, longer distance travel is necessitated by the physical design of cities and regions in the United States. This travel cannot be regarded as an optional luxury that a driver could elect to forego, but as an activity that is mandated through design. Stating that US drivers travel more miles is little more than a reflection of the fact that U.S. cities and regions have less accessibility and fewer modal options than their international counterparts, thereby forcing US citizens to travel more using a transportation mode that increases their likelihood of being killed or injured.

  • Maybe a significant gas tax could save a lot of lives by getting people to drive fewer miles.

  • Laurence modestly does not make mention of his own writing on the subject.

    His entry “Connectivity Part 7: Crash Safety” is a primer on roadway design, safety, standards, sprawl, and on and on.

    My favorite part:

    The key factor in crash risk is design speed. Design speed is the speed at which drivers feel comfortable traveling; it is an entirely different concept than posted speed limits, which drivers usually feel are safe to exceed. Thanks to context, slow speeds prevail on livable streets. Drivers drive more slowly because the context signals the type of activity, amount of activity, and potential hazards that can be expected. Drivers “read” the context of livable streets and are impelled to exercise more caution.

    Conversely, idiot-proof roadsides foster the illusion of safety and encourage speeding and lack of attention. High speed plus a lack of caution increases crash risk.

  • “Maybe a significant gas tax could save a lot of lives by getting people to drive fewer miles.”

    It is a certainty. But to see it we must accept that crashes are inevitable on the whole, which to some extent goes against the mentality often expressed here that there’s no such thing as a car “accident.” I don’t understand that rhetorical game; all crashes that aren’t intentional are also accidents. They’re brought about by some amount of risky behavior, starting from a baseline of putting a two ton vehicle in motion. A hundred miles of alcohol-free driving must equal at least ten miles of .1 BAC driving in terms of risk to self and others, but I don’t expect to see an ad campaign for bundling suburban errands to save prom queens any time soon. We’re all human and we make mistakes, and marginalizing bad drivers after a crash–because of course it really is someone’s fault–might make us feel better (and better than the perpetrator) but isn’t likely to improve things further. (Tho the victims or their survivors should get what they’re entitled to.)

    We’d do better to treat driving as a public health issue and reduce the harm it causes with some semblance of cool-headedness.

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