31,000 Americans Died on the Roads Last Year Because of Stupid


We could fix this too, if we really wanted to. But we don't. Because freedom.

I recently wondered Why are so many people dying on our roads? I was concentrating on how the number of people killed inside cars was going down (because cars are much better at saving the lives of occupants now), while the numbers of people killed outside cars was going up (because more people are driving, and they are in deadly SUVs and pickups).

But when I got to the bottom of the post, I found some astonishing statistics that merited another post of its own on Treehugger. An amazing 83 percent of fatalities are directly attributable to three choices that drivers make: to drive too fast, to drive drunk, or to drive without doing up their seatbelts. Basically, to be stupid and do stupid things.

seatbelt use

NHTSA/Public Domain

Not only that, the numbers are increasing; deaths caused by being unrestrained by a seatbelt was up 4.6 percent -- hundreds of kids, thousands of teenagers and adults, 10,428 in total, 28 percent of the total deaths. Of course, car makers could fix this kind of stupid. The number of deaths be reduced to almost zero if there was an ignition interlock that prevents the car from starting if the seatbelts are not done up; it was tried in the 1970s but they were primitive, and according to Mike Davis writing in the Detroit Bureau,

The result was that grandmas, grocery bags and guard dogs alike triggered the no-start unless the belts for the front seats they occupied were fastened first. Plus, people rejected the Big Brother attitude of forcing them to buckle up before they’d bought into the notion. ... A huge outcry quickly arose. Frustrated and indignant citizens bombarded Congress to complain about the devices, and our representatives quickly passed a law outlawing the interlocks.

So instead, we got air bags, which are much more expensive, do not prevent ejections, have killed a lot of people on their own. “Automotive safety was set back for years, and untold numbers of victims died unnecessarily.”

To be exact, 10,428 last year. This is a kind of stupid that could be fixed easily, except that “that would be communism,” as the commenters note.

deaths from speeding

NHTSA/Public Domain

Then there is speeding -- 10,111 people killed, 27 percent of the deaths last year. With today’s technology, it’s an easy fix; just connect a GPS system to the throttle so that cars cannot go over the speed limit set for a particular street. Perhaps allow short bursts of higher speeds for passing.

But that is worse than communism. The European Union considered putting speed limiters on cars for about ten seconds before the outrage meter went nuts. A British politician ranted, “This has Big Brother written all over it and is exactly the sort of thing that gets people's backs up about Brussels.” Imagine what they would say if someone tried this in the USA.

road diet


In fact, it would probably just make people crazy since people usually drive at the speed the road is designed for, and that is done by engineers who don’t think much about people outside of cars. What we really need are road diets, that naturally slow people down; they know what to do, but don’t want to. As Peter Norton notes in Murder machines, “At some point, we decided that somebody on a bike or on foot is not traffic, but an obstruction to traffic.”

10,428 dead. Perhaps its time to reconsider and make cars slow down.

alchol deaths

NHTSA/Public Domain

Then finally, there is alcohol -- 10,497 dead due to drinking and driving. Road diets would reduce this a lot just by slowing them down, but so would a breath alcohol ignition interlock device like those required for some convicted of drunk driving. In the Province of Ontario, it prevents the car from starting if alcohol level is over a very low 0.02. And don’t start drinking after you get the car started.

Once your vehicle is started, the interlock device will ask you to provide breath samples at random pre-set times while the engine is running. If you don't provide a sample, or if your BAC exceeds the limit, the device will issue a warning, record the event and activate specific alarm systems (e.g. lights flashing, horn honking) until you turn off the ignition.

Of course, when these were proposed in the USA, American Beverage Institute, which lobbies for restaurants and bars, protested, saying, "If you go to the ball game and happen to have a beer you wouldn't be able drive home.” And, no doubt, communism.

In a terrific article on the war on the car by Edward Keenan, he writes:

Recently I encountered a tiny post on Tumblr by someone using the name squareallworthy that addresses such arguments perfectly: “If your solution to problems relies on ‘If everyone would just...’ then you do not have a solution. Everyone is not going to just. At no time in history has everyone just, and they’re not going to start now.”

Over 30,000 dead Americans because people just want to speed, just want to drink, and just want to go without seatbelts. We have the technological tools to fix all of these problems, and it’s just about time that we used them.