Automobile Accidents

I’ve been extremely fortunate in my life to have never been in a car accident (knock on wood). This morning, I saw probably the nastiest I’ve ever witnessed first-hand. The car about three cars in front of me pulled out in the intersection as the light turned green and a big white van ran the red light in the other direction, smashing into the passenger side of the car. The van didn’t see the car at all - it didn’t appear to have braked at all, so it was probably going at least the 35 mph speed limit on the street.

The car wrapped around the van’s driver side and a woman who appeared to be a nurse jumped out of her car and ran over to the car. She appeared to be motioning to someone inside and went back to her car fairly quickly (for a cell phone, I’d guessed.) I’ve been trying to let these two last bits convince me that the driver was going to survive: since it swung around the van on the side it did, hopefully the van hit the backseat passenger side (which was hopefully empty) and the woman was acting as if she was actually communicating with someone in the front seat. These are probably just false comforts that helped me finish the drive home though because it’s hard to imagine how that person’s life is not, at minimum, going to be altered in some significant way because of this accident.

On any given morning in a city like this, you’ll encounter hundreds, if not thousands, of cars out on the road on any given trip. It’s actually always amazed me that more accidents don’t happen. I mean, I can’t go to the grocery store once without having at least one person crash their cart into mine, so how can we expect the result to be better in automobiles going up to 80 mph? Sure, you can try to train people to be careful. I distinctly remember a time as a kid where my Mom hesitated at a green light because it looked like the person coming the other way wasn’t stopping - and she was right: they didn’t. I remember her warning that you can’t just trust the light because people aren’t always paying as much attention as they should. I’ve remembered this experience a few other times in my life where I, myself, had noticed just in time that the person coming the other direction was not stopping at their red light.

But even with well-trained individuals, cars are still a horribly perilous form of transportation. My Mom would get a kick out the fact I remembered this story because she really hates driving. She tends to worry about a lot of things actually (which can be annoying, especially when you’re, say, her teenage son) but I think her fear of driving is actually quite rational. Depending on which website I believe from my quick Google search, somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 people die each year because of automobile accidents (not to mention the effect cars have on air pollution, which may actually cause more deaths than accidents, or the deaths caused by wars fought over protecting our fuel source for automobiles). This is the basis for the classic ethics class puzzle: you’re approached with a proposal for a bold new invention that will allow people the freedom to travel wherever they want, whenever they want. The only cost is 50,000 deaths per year. Do you approve?

Of course, there are improvements that can be made. For example, the odds of dying in an automobile accident 50 years ago was four times greater than it is today. Most of this improvement is due to safety improvements made to cars themselves, and most of these improvements the auto industry had to be forced into implementing because of their policy that training safe drivers, not making safer cars, was the way to decrease auto deaths (here’s a good book on this). This is an attractive policy for obvious reasons to the automobile industry (because it means it’s never their fault) but it’s also intuitive to all of us because individual-level solutions seem so concrete and obvious to us. Don’t want to get in an accident? Be careful! Beautiful simplicity. The media likes this one, too. Whenever the local news covers car accidents (or fires, or burglaries, or gang shootings, or any other catastrophe for that matter), these individual level cautions are prescribed. Don’t drive when you’re tired. Avoid road rage. Watch your mirrors. Of course these things are important, and all good drivers ought to do these things, and if they’re not, they should be held responsible when they cause accidents. But these things alone will not prevent some other guy in a big white van from smashing into you while flying through a red light.

At some point we need to come to grips with the fact that cars are a choice we make as a society, and that choice comes with serious costs built in to the very nature of an automobile-centric transportation system run by millions of oh-so-fallible human beings (I’m sure the guy in the van was normally a good driver - it was just early in the morning, maybe he was late for work, maybe he just lost his job or got in a fight with his wife, maybe….). Can you really say that 40,000 deaths a year are “accidents” if we know, in Janurary of each year, that the number of deaths this year will be about the same as the number of deaths the previous year?