On a bit of a whim, I created a White House petition to urge the Obama administration to end our nation’s reliance on the automobile. Here is the text of the petition:
In 1964, the Surgeon General released a report on the dangers of smoking, which galvanized our nation’s largest public health campaign. Half a century later, it is time for the government to speak out against another ubiquitous menace: the automobile.
Each year, motor vehicle–related deaths total 1.2 million worldwide, nearly as many as die from lung cancer. But victims of motor vehicle crashes are disproportionately young and healthy compared to other leading causes of death; indeed, motor vehicle crashes are the number one cause of death among children in the United States. Beyond direct deaths, automobile dependence has caused Americans to lead more sedentary lives. Furthermore, the automobile is a burden not only to our health, but also to our finances and our environment.
Since the petition’s 800-character limit leaves no room for substance, I’d like to use this post to expand a bit on the purpose behind this petition.
As those of you who follow me on Facebook know, I’ve been on a bit of a health-and-safety kick lately. Although this blog has focused mostly on the economic, environmental, and societal benefits of reducing our reliance on automobiles, I feel that the simplest and most powerful stand one can take against automobiles is that they kill many, many people. And these are not just “internal” deaths due to lifestyle choices (and indeed, it’s a stretch to call driving a lifestyle choice in most parts of the country): More children aged 1–14 die each year in the United States from motor vehicle crashes than from any other cause, and plenty of pedestrians are killed as well. This is where the importance of automobile dependence as a health and safety issue surpasses that of smoking: while smoking-related disease primarily effects older people who have chosen (albeit under the influence of strong social pressures and addictive chemicals) to smoke for many years, automobiles kill the young, healthy, and innocent.
To its credit, the Surgeon General’s web site does list transportation safety among its prevention priorities, albeit not very prominently. But its suggestions are on the level of wearing a seatbelt and not texting while driving. Nowhere do they recommend driving less. It’s as if their smoking advice were to consider switching to a “low-tar” brand. For whatever reason, we’ve decided to take a stone-age approach to dealing with the danger of automobiles that would be considered laughably anachronistic if applied to any other health concern. While overall motor-vehicle deaths have been on a mostly downward trend for the past few decades, additional safety features have diminishing returns, and the only way to really make an impact is to have fewer motor vehicles, and to have them driving more slowly around people.
As any reader of this blog knows, motor-vehicle deaths are only the tip of the iceberg of negative externalities. While some of these externalities, such as greenhouse gas emissions, are patently obvious, others are results of poor government policies that were needed to create and maintain the dominance of the automobile that we see today. Automobiles have been giving a sacred place in our urban designs and zoning codes, which makes our cities more expensive and less hospitable for people. Our state and federal governments funnel tax money into new automobile infrastructure that can never pay for itself. Other modes of transportation are crowded out, both physically and financially, so that many people have either no alternative or no incentive not to drive.
The only way to extricate ourselves from the automobilized status quo is for our political leaders to make a strong and committed stand to dismantle our current system. We must make it common knowledge that driving, like smoking, is dangerous and that the only true way to avoid that danger is to stop driving. We must demand that our local governments radically rethink how urban space should be used: for people, not for vehicles. Once we do, we will find that most of those vehicles weren’t really necessary to begin with. And we must encourage state and federal bureaucracies to make a commitment to not spend another dime on unnecessary automobile infrastructure, when we already have way more automobile structure than a truly free market could ever need. If a stretch of highway is congested, raise tolls rather than build another lane. It is well-established that the former works and the latter doesn’t.
If you agree with what I’ve said, please sign my petition. I realize that many people out there vaguely agree that something is wrong with the prominence of automobiles in this country but feel that nothing can really be done. That’s only because the current popular discourse on automobiles and transportation is practically medieval. A 21st-century problem needs a 21st-century discussion, and once we start having that discussion, we can see just how far it will take us.