It was an honor to participate in last week’s concert and silent auction for my friend Hannah Somers-Jones, a talented young musician who suffered serious injuries in a November car accident. Her medical bills will be in the many thousands of dollars, and her physical recovery will be even more painful.
I don’t want to turn this into a polemic on car accidents. What happened to Hannah could happen to anyone. She wasn’t even driving. She was riding in the back seat of a car that was run off the road by an oncoming vehicle.
When I’m out on my bicycle, I’m as vulnerable as anyone in a car. I ride shotgun with my girlfriend all the time. Sometimes I even drive. Even walking isn’t safe. If you live in the American car culture, as virtually all of us do, you run the daily risk of violent injury or death.
And yet when we tally the cost of the car culture, we tend to downplay the cost of car accidents in lost and interrupted lives, as well as the strain on our health care system. According to the American Automobile Association, car crashes cost nearly $300 billion per year in this country alone. Some 2.5 million Americans – nearly 7,000 per day – are treated in emergency rooms due to car accidents.
Driving has become marginally safer in recent years. Traffic deaths peaked in 2005 at just over 43,000. Now the figure is around 33,000. That’s a significant reduction. Despite the relentless drumbeat of car advertising, Americans, for the first time in a couple of generations, are driving less. Cars are getting safer, thanks to innovative technology that allows the vehicle itself to sense and avoid danger. Both approaches are commendable. In tandem, they can continue to reduce the carnage of the car culture that we accept too readily.
Humans are poor judges of comparative risk. We worry about flying in airplanes when the most dangerous part of flying is driving to the airport. Driving feels safer because many of us do it every day. Kids get licensed to drive at 16, but only a small percentage of them will ever get a pilot’s license. Driving a car gives you the illusion of control, but in a plane you are at the mercy of the pilot.
I’ve been a driving fool this darkest week of the year. I drove to Belfast and back on Monday for a dentist appointment. I rode down to Brooklin on Wednesday with my son to visit my folks. When we got back to town, I borrowed my girlfriend’s car to do some last-minute Christmas shopping.
Technically, the only one of these three trips for which a car was necessary was the middle one. I could have used a bus to get to my dentist’s office, and I’ve done that in the past, but it requires spending the day in Belfast. (The reverse isn’t true, by the way: a resident of the mid-coast cannot travel to Bangor and home again by bus on the same day.) And I could have gone out on foot in search of that final gift, but it would have taken a lot longer.
Some readers might claim that this recent relative driving binge undermines the premise of this blog. But as I’ve said many times, I’m not a purist. I’ve renewed my driver’s license twice since I stopped owning cars. We all live in the American car culture, whether we like it or not. Anyone who seeks to influence change in the world must first acknowledge the reality on the ground.
I think about this during those rare occasions when I’m driving in a vehicle alone. I have to remind myself that most of my friends do this on most days of the year. It’s absolutely normal and unremarkable to them. That was my reality, too, for most of my adult life.
I do believe that we have too many cars on the road, and that we should pursue policies that encourage alternatives to driving. Does that make me a hypocrite every time I slide behind the wheel of a car? I don’t think so. All I’m trying to do is start a conversation.
Especially at this time of year, we should remember that we’re all in this complicated world together. Sometimes we seem to be in complete control of our lives, hands on the wheel and the road wide open. But it only takes a second to shatter that illusion.