Cars—Out of Our Cold Dead Hands

James Gross
August 22, 2019


Imagine an alien came down to Earth and promised a new transformative technology. While it would allow some amazing mobility freedom that we hadn’t seen before, it would come at the cost of 1.3 million lives per year. Those lives would be taken indiscriminately. Would we allow it? We already have. That alien campaign that has convinced us to make this tradeoff? Cars.

Ah, but cars are getting safer everyday, right? Well yes, if you look at vehicle miles traveled (VMT) the death curve is going down.

VMT Deaths

But even though deaths per VMT are declining, because we drive more, the total number of people who die in car crashes has been consistent over time, both globally and in the U.S. This has happened, of course, while life has gotten measurably safer in nearly every other area.

Screen Shot 2019-08-06 at 11.40.25 AM.png

And it gets worse, for our most unprotected class of mobility users, pedestrians, it is becoming downright dangerous to step out of the house without heavy armor around you. Pardon the chart crime on the Y axis, but here’s what anti-progress looks like:

US Pedestrian Fatalities

Why is this happening?

As cities continue to grow this problem is only going to continue to keep getting worse. So why is it happening? Some say it’s phones. It’s wild how the low point on pedestrian deaths was in 2009, two years after the introduction of the iPhone and the beginning of near-vertical growth we started to see  smartphone penetration. Some say it’s the size of the car. While it’s a little counterintuitive, big cars (SUVs) don’t mean safe cars, for you or the people around you. And guess what is selling nowadays? Big, heavy cars:

Pedestrian Fatalities by vehicle type
People love heavy cars

What’s the solution?

For cars getting heavier, I’m afraid that will almost definitely require some regulation, as everything (including electric) is moving us in the wrong direction. As for distracted driving, this one feels like something the market can actually solve. Let’s take one of my favorite companies, Apple. Tim Cook has come out and said that Apple’s greatest contribution to humans will be improving health. You could point to the EKG monitor in the watch as great progress.

But let’s be serious, no matter how good that watch gets at telling me my ticker is off, Tim has a much bigger epidemic on his hands, and that is people are increasingly driving while they are on their phone, and it is killing a lot more people than we know (even the NHTSA believes the data is underreported). If Tim wants to accomplish his goal, Apple must takes it’s smartest engineers and figure out how to do better than an “I’m not Driving” setting.

How about more campaigning around how young people die?  

Cars take our children. When you look at the stats around cause of death, “Unintended Injury”—of which the car is a leading factor—leads every other issue by a fairly wide margin for anyone under 45. Despite that, it’s shockingly absent from any national conversations around health and safety.


What about autonomous cars?

There is also the fallacy of what SV argues. “We can’t have fully autonomous cars because we care too much about life,” is a typical argument out of this segment. We won’t “crack some eggs to make an omelette” as the saying goes. (They then often go on to worry that China, where the rights of individuals are often put behind the call of progress, will beat us to this punch if we don’t push things forward.)

Well, for those that want to make this excuse, the US will absolutely trade life for cars. My response to SV is you aren’t lobbying the right people or you simply don’t have the tech. We allow motorcycles on highways, with legalized lane-splitting and no upper bound governor on speed output of their motors. The crumple zone of a motorcycle is literally your face. You really think we won’t trade some lives for technology consumers want? Of course we will, this is America!  

Cars own the roads and they have a monopoly on our minds as it relates to mobility.

More Americans have died in car crashes since 2000 than in both World Wars.

Out of my cold dead hands isn’t just the rally cry of some old, deranged man clutching a rifle. It refers to all of us, gripping our steering wheels.

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