Be careful out there driving
We are a car-driving culture and, in turn, cars drive the look and feel of what we see around us. They shape where and how we live and work, the places we go, and the appearance of our land, our cities, and our homes.
It's hard to think of anything more American than the automobile. We grow up riding in cars and our most prominent passage into adulthood is learning to drive one ourselves. We come of age in cars, and the view through a windshield is, for us, a thoroughly natural way to see the world.
Often our cars are more than just transportation; they're also entertainment and a way of living. We go everywhere in them. We eat in them. Sometimes we even sleep in them.
And a surprising number of us die in them.
In fact, about 120 Americans are killed in car accidents every day.
I wonder why this understated statistic doesn't distress us more. It could be expressed more dramatically. The Institute for Transportation Engineers points out, for example, that the automobile death rate is the equivalent of four major airplane crashes every week. That would be big news.
But we've become so accustomed to the steady drumbeat of vehicular carnage in the background that we hardly notice it. Zack McMillin makes this point in a recent Scripps Howard News Service article. We venture out onto our roads and highways every day with little thought of risk. Yet, as McMillin notes, for Americans between the ages of 1 and 34, automobile accidents are the leading cause of death. And for Americans of all ages car wrecks are the leading cause of long-term disability.
We accept these statistics casually, even though all of us know of people who have died in highway accidents or whose lives have been affected by them in dramatic ways. Of course, to move from one place to another has always required the acceptance of a certain level of risk. But even in a nation of 309 million, 41,000 sudden and indiscriminate deaths per year, without warning or logic, seem like a lot.
Highways and cars have both become safer in recent years. But the death rate persists, and we do little to decrease it. Many of us still drink plenty of alcohol when we drive, and we drive when we're practically falling asleep. We grant a driver's license to just about anyone, good drivers and bad. And legislators are often reluctant to impose anti-texting laws, or any other type of law, that would impinge on their constituents' driving pleasure.
And what about speed? You don't have to know a lot about physics to understand that the energy level in a car crash multiplies quickly as speed increases. More speed means more crashes and more deaths and injuries. Yet we're a nation of inveterate speeders. If you're unconvinced, attempt the quaint practice of scrupulously observing the speed limit for a day in your neighborhood.
Given the risks, we don't take speeding violations all that seriously. By comparison, consider a European trend, as reported in a recent Associated Press story: Switzerland, Germany, France and other countries have begun to base speeding fines on the violator's income, resulting in a $290,000 speeding ticket for a millionaire who raced his Ferrari through Switzerland without regard to the speed limit.
I wouldn't look for Americans to take speeding this seriously anytime soon. But remember: every day in our country, including today, about 120 people are killed in car accidents. All of these victims began their days in the most ordinary way, with coffee and newspapers and "Good Morning, America." They had plans and tasks ahead of them, but everything ended abruptly in a shattering clash of metal and glass. Do be careful out there.
-- Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.