It’s time to start thinking of driving like smoking

pollution in new york
© Michael Nagle/Getty Images

Cars are killing us, and it is time to limit the damage to drivers and to people around them, just like we did with smoking.

For the last few years, my particular position on cars has grown more extreme, from making SUVs and pickups safer to banning pickups and SUVs to banning diesels and then all internal combustion engines to finally, in exasperation, suggesting that we just flat out ban cars. Now, writing in the Guardian in the light of recent news about the dangers of pollution, Abi Wilkinson puts it more delicately: We should come to see car journeys as a last resort.

If petrol and diesel vehicles were invented today, what possible justification would there be for allowing unchecked ownership? Knowing all we do about the damage wrought by burning fossil fuels – both to our immediate health and to the long-term viability of our habitat – it would seem an act of obscene, destructive decadence. The idea of driving a monstrous, tank-like 4x4 a distance you could easily walk or cycle, and then sitting outside a school (a school!) with the engine still running, guzzling petrol and burping out poison into the surrounding air, would be seen as actively malevolent.

She notes that for people with disabilities, or who live in rural areas where there is no public transportation, and other special cases where cars are an absolute necessity, then there should be exceptions, but for everyone else where there are alternatives, it is time to stop driving. She is mainly concerned with pollution, which of course could be solved by full electrification. But obviously, that is not the only problem with cars; there are also the deadly crashes, the vast amount of area in our cities that they consume, the congestion, and how the money feeding car infrastructure means everything else is starved.

By now, most of us are at least vaguely aware of the facts. Yet it’s impossible to suggest that driving unnecessarily is not a morally neutral act without immediately getting people’s backs up.

smoking is freedomSmoking, like driving, is about freedom! /Promo image

But it is getting easier. On MNN I wrote about how pollution from cars is killing seniors; Katherine has written how it is killing kids. We know how thousands have been killed or maimed in crashes, and how cars have changed the quality of street life in our cities. I suspect more and more people recognize that it is not morally neutral, but in fact it is like smoking -- addictive and dangerous. It took a long time to change smoking from being acceptable to reprehensible.

Wilkinson does not come out and say Ban Cars. She is more moderate and concludes: “Driving needs to be recognised as the dangerous, harmful activity it is. We should come to see car journeys as a last resort, something we choose only if other options are unavailable.” For that to work, there has to be investment in clean, safe and frequent other options.


When I wrote my post Ban Cars, commenters objected because people might catch the flu on crowded buses, or because “you might as well be talking about a ban on freedom for all the good that talk will do…. Driving should be considered a constitutionally protected right.” But thankfully it isn’t, and as the Lockwood cartoon notes, most people who are driving in the city don’t actually live there.

smoking adSmoking used to be sexy. Can you imagine this today?/Promo image

People still smoke, but it is controlled and expensive and those who do it are looked down upon by those who do not. People were told that smoking was sexy and fun and even good for you. We learned the truth and changed; it is time to do the same with cars. Driving is not a morally neutral act.

It’s time to start thinking of driving like smoking
Cars are killing us, and it is time to limit the damage to drivers and to people around them, just like we did with smoking.

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