Driving's heavy toll

While gas prices and war deaths grab our attention, an epidemic of carnage quietly continues, year after year, on our roads. It's the price we pay for an on-the-go lifestyle.

April 30, 2006|By MICHAEL HILL | MICHAEL HILL,SUN REPORTER

Everyone is familiar with the signs that shout out the cost of driving these days, the ones that say $2.97, $3.08, $3.16, $3.27, that chronicle the rising price of a gallon of gasoline.

Those signs get the public fuming, the politicians posturing and the president investigating.

But there are many other signs of the cost of America's love affair with the automobile that seem to fade into the background like drab wallpaper.

Take those small memorials - the crosses, the plastic flowers, the teddy bears - that mark the site of a death by automobile. Many drive by one every day. A long trip on an interstate can take you by dozens of them.

FOR THE RECORD - In an article in last Sunday's Ideas section, University of Maryland professor Thomas Zeller was quoted as saying that the automobile has killed more people than wars. The story failed to note that Zeller was referring to warfare deaths on U.S. soil.
The Sun regrets the error.

Americans are understandably concerned about combat in Iraq that has taken the lives of more than 2,300 U.S. troops. But some 43,000 Americans die each year in traffic mishaps with relatively little notice. A cross by the roadside draws far less attention than a gas price sign that begins with the numeral three.

"War has been less deadly for Americans than automobile transportation," says Thomas Zeller, a historian of technology at the University of Maryland, College Park. "It is as if Pearl Harbor takes place on the highways every two weeks, yet no significance is attached to it."

Fatalities are only one of the many costs associated with these magnificent machines that are the backbone of our transportation system, a foundation of our economy and a cultural icon of unparalleled power.

There is the pollution of the air and damage to the stratosphere.

There is the huge amount of money going to despotic and dysfunctional regimes in hostile countries that sit above deposits of oil.

There is the cost of building and maintaining roads - a tremendous subsidy to this method of transportation.

And there is the destruction of a way of living, based on homes built close together, allowing people to walk to neighbors, to stores, perhaps even to work. It has been replaced by an environment where a human body unclad in automotive armor is unwelcome.

"Particularly after World War II, the entire American landscape became molded around the automobile," says David Gartman, a professor of sociology at the University of South Alabama.

"There was the great flood of suburbanization, people heading out [of] the cities," says Gartman, author of Auto Opium: A Social History of American Automobile Design. "The automobile made it possible to get out of the dirty, industrial city, with all of its problems, into the nearby countryside.

"Of course, this took a massive investment in highways," he says. "Anyone who couldn't afford a car - the poor - stayed in the inner cities. The entire landscape became sculpted around the assumption that the vast majority of people have a car to travel from here to there."

But none of these costs elicits the kind of widespread panic that the recent, sudden increase in gasoline prices has generated. What upsets Americans is not that cars do so much damage but that it might cost more to drive them, perhaps even that the cost of gas could restrict their use.

To be sure, the automobile is an amazingly effective form of transportation in terms of allowing a person to get from one point to another whenever he or she wants to.

That is one reason automobile transportation is so appealing to Americans - it represents a kind of individual freedom that is part of the country's foundation. You don't wait with the masses for a bus or a train or trolley; you just get in your car and go.

Zeller says that as Europe divided in the postwar era, this association of the automobile with freedom arose in West Germany, where the lack of speed limits on the autobahn was contrasted with the controlled societies behind the Iron Curtain.

"It was seen as an expression of Cold War ideology," he says. "Telling people how fast to go on a modern highway system was seen as anti-democratic, not commensurate with the values of a free society."

The autobahn was the inspiration for the U.S. system of interstate highways. As Zeller reports, Dwight D. Eisenhower was long aware of the poor state of America's roads - as a young officer, he wrote a memo to that effect after a 1919 cross-country trip.

Seeing the German system as the Allies invaded in 1945 led him, as president, to push to build what is now officially known as the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. Its construction was authorized by Congress 50 years ago.

Interestingly, most things associated with Nazi Germany became tainted. But this was not true of two personal projects of Adolf Hitler: the autobahns and the Volkswagen. Americans' love of the automobile overcame whatever distaste they had for the origins of these technologies.

Understanding that the automobile is a symbol of personal freedom helps make the furor over rising gas prices understandable; to Americans, this is not just an economic burden - it is a restriction on a fundamental right.

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