Today, President Obama unveiled his plan to revive the U.S. auto industry, claiming that it is “like no other, an emblem of the American spirit.”
In a collectively wealthy nation that’s home to 100 million people with tenuous or no access to medical care, the order of bailout priorities is revealing: first money, then cars.
That, of course, is no accident. Contrary to Obama’s assertion (and the long-running dogma behind it), it is our ruthlessly calculating corporate overclass, not the free-spirited American masses, that insists on cars. If big investors were ever to permanently lose their ability to peddle sufficient millions of new cars each year, corporate capitalism itself would be in even deeper trouble than it already is. That’s because, thanks to its inherent size, complexity, fragility, and amenability to marketing-managed stylistic fetishism, there’s simply very few other profit-generating products like the private automobile. It is the profit motive, not the national spirit, that is the prime mover of reality.
As the consequent push to resuscitate this cornerstone capitalist product unfolds, I thought it might be helpful to those of us who prefer life to money to review the some of the most basic undiscussed human costs of our cars-first transportation dictatorship:
► According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in the year 2007, automotive collisions killed 41,059 people in the United States. That’s 112 a day; 790 a week; 3,422 a month. And 2007 was no anomaly. Quite the opposite: 41,059 is almost exactly the average annual death toll for the prior half-century, during which well over 2 million individuals perished in U.S. car crashes.
►In typical years, the number of people “severely or critically” injured, but not killed, in U.S. car crashes surpasses the number killed. In commonly used medical scales, “severe or critical” injuries as those that transcend “serious” ones. Injuries classified as “serious” but not “severe” or “critical” involve things like open leg fractures, amputated arms, and major nerve lacerations. To be ranked “severe” or “critical,” a non-fatal collision must involve a severed spinal cords or a head injury with an extended period of unconsciousness and lasting brain damage. In the words of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, “For MAIS 4-5 (severe and critical) injuries, the predominant [monetary] costs [of the crash] are related to lifetime medical care.” Of course, as the authors of one study explain, “Persons injured in these crashes often suffer physical pain and emotional anguish that is beyond any economic recompense. The permanent disability of spinal cord damage, loss of mobility, loss of eyesight, and serious brain injury can profoundly limit a person’s life, and can result in dependence on others for routine physical care.”
►If the United States of America has a national smell, it is car exhaust, which is ubiquitous. And the smell is but the tip of the iceberg, of course. “Automobile emissions are the main cause of urban air pollution and contain thousands of chemicals, several of which are recognized as mutagenic or carcinogenic.” As a glance at the roadside after an urban snowstorm will confirm, as a by-product of both fuel combustion and the normal wear of tires and roadbeds, automobiles – especially those with diesel engines — also create large amounts of dangerous “particulate matter.” Breathing particulate matter, a.k.a. “PM” in the professional danger-counting trade, is most dangerous for children, the sick, and the elderly, and exposure to it is heaviest among the poor, who are disproportionately non-white, and who disproportionately live near major urban highways, where PM is heaviest.
►Because air-pollution damage to the human body accumulates over time and complicates complex multiple-cause diseases, the exact amount of suffering and death caused by automotive air pollution can presently only be guessed at. A recent special report in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimated that the overall annual airborne toxics death toll in the United States is somewhere between 22,000 and 52,000 a year. This would mean that, even if something like 20,000 deaths from air pollution is the best guess, and even if cars account for only a quarter of all U.S. air pollution exposure, then autos-über-alles is causing another 5,000 premature U.S. deaths each year. Since many medical researchers suspect that we may be radically under-estimating the damage done by air pollution, this figure may someday prove laughably low.
►Automotive air pollution also produces a range of non-lethal health costs. The San Jose Mercury-News, one of the few major U.S. newspapers to attend to the topic at all, reports these estimates air-pollution’s non-fatal impacts:
The death toll due to air pollution only begins to touch the vast magnitude of human suffering caused by breathing our dirty air — for every 75 deaths per year due to air pollution in the U.S., health scientists have estimated that there are 505 hospital admissions for asthma and other respiratory diseases, 3,500 respiratory emergency doctor visits, 180,000 asthma attacks, 930,000 restricted activity days, and 2,000,000 acute respiratory symptom days.
►The biggest health cost of autos-über-alles may be its discouragement of walking and bicycling. Studies confirm that the United States has by far the lowest percentage of miles traveled by foot or bike in the world. Meanwhile, the nation is experiencing a worsening obesity epidemic epidemic, with health consequences that now rival those of tobacco addiction. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, “poor diet and physical inactivity” now cause 400,000 deaths a year in the United States. Hence, even if car dependency explains only 10 percent of the food-exercise imbalance, that would mean there are another 40,000 American lives being sacrificed to the automobile every year.
►As our schools crumble and tens of millions of us go without health insurance, we Americans continue to spend well over a trillion dollars every single year buying, equipping, fixing, fueling, parking, insuring, and road-building for our cars. What kind of Charlie-and-the-Chocolate-Factory transportation system would we now have, had we spent on railroads, bike paths, and pedestrians-first cities even half what we’ve instead spent on automobiles and auto-friendly spaces over the last century? How nice would our towns, schools, hospitals, and insurance programs be if we could stop squandering so many resources on autos-über-alles?
►According to the U.S. Census Bureau, regularly employed “Americans [now] spend more than 100 hours commuting to work each year…[and] this exceeds the two weeks of vacation time (80 hours) frequently taken by [year-round, full-time] workers over the course of a year. Traffic jams account for a fast-growing share of this commuting time. Between 1982 and 2003, the time commuters spent stuck on congested roads almost tripled, rising from 16 to 47 hours per driver, per year. Meanwhile, the “number of urban areas with more than 20 hours of annual delay per peak [rush-hour] traveler…has grown from only 5 in 1982 to 51 in 2003.”
And all this carnage and waste is but half the story. The question of how to project cars-first transportation much farther into the future of a heavily armed planet of competing nation-states with finite energy and atmosphere is, if anything, a problem more pressing than our automobile-imposed public health crisis.