I have believed that one powerful argument in support of transportation reform is to simply show how deadly our car-centric system is. Millions of people have died, and will continue to die, in part from the volume of cars on our roads and how the roads themselves are engineered. But, as damning as that sounds, even die-hard car drivers don’t dispute it. Everyone is aware that our roads are deadly. They just don’t care.
Imagine if the US federal government instituted a giant project that impacted every single neighborhood in every single town in the entire nation. Then, decades later, a whistleblower exposed that this Big Government project had been directly responsible for millions of deaths. It’s not hard to imagine what would follow: protests, campaigns for defunding, and investigations into the project’s officials.
Yet, in the real-life version of this story, the scandalous data has always been out in the open. People are so unfazed that the government itself even advertises it:
(Photo credit: B137 on Wikipedia.)
Our officials normally put those kinds of warnings on things that they want people to avoid, like tobacco products, but here our government is advertising how deadly its own infrastructure is. No one cares.
Maybe you think that you’re an exception, that you do care. Then I challenge you to ask yourself: does your concern truly match the seriousness of this issue? Do millions of deaths caused by a government project scandalize you? Have you written letters to your officials? Have you marched in the streets? Or is it just another bullet point on your list of reasons for reform in general?
This deadliness has become so normalized that it doesn’t even come up often among people who support transportation reforms. More commonly, we base our anti-car arguments around climate change, physical health, and monetary cost. (Just to be clear, those are good topics too.) When we do talk about traffic violence, we never treat it like it’s a scandal.
I believe that one element to this phenomenon is a failure of imagination. As I wrote before, people have trouble even imagining a version of their community that’s not car-centric. We can envision a world without wars, without taxes, and without gun violence, but not without cars. Sure, maybe those multi-lane roads through our neighborhoods are loud, ugly, and literally killing people, but the alternative, a world without those roads, seems absurd. It’s easier to convince ourselves that the status-quo is fine.
Our roads are very deadly. No one disputes that fact, so our only disagreement comes from a matter of perspective. Is millions of traffic deaths “just how it goes” or is it an unconscionable scandal? Is each death the victim’s fault, is it just an accident, or is it all of our faults for allowing this deadly system? I don’t know any easy way to change the public’s perspective, but we can start by treating the situation with the severity that it deserves.