Car, As In Carnage

My mother was coming home from work in 1955 on New Year’s Eve. She was late to supper when the call came from the hospital. It was dark and snowy and rounding a turn she hit a patch of ice, lost control and hit a utility pole head on. It was an especially stout one bearing a transformer and barely trembled at the impact but crushed the front of the car in a perfect V that pushed the engine back into the driver’s compartment.

She had her foot on the brake, her right leg out straight and her pelvis and femur were broken in multiple places. She was in a body cast for months and walked with a limp, a cane and habitual pain for the next 35 years. The continuing discomfort changed her personality, and not in a sunny direction.

To her and her family this was a before-and-after moment that changed our lives in big and little ways forever. But in the scheme of things, it was nothing. It was normal. It is how we live. Or, quite frequently, die.

Between the first recorded car crash fatalities (26 in 1899) and 2012, 3,551,332 Americans have perished on the nation’s roads. That is a ming-boggling number. Almost three times as many deaths as the 1,321,621 in all our wars from the Revolution to Afghanistan.

The number of highway deaths in 2012 alone, the latest with an available tally, was 34,000, almost as many as in the Korean War (36,500). So much sorrow and suffering. The good news is that that number is way down from the peak years around 1972 when 54,000 were killed, almost as many as the 58,000 lost over a dozen years in Vietnam.

The news is even better when deaths per 100,000 are calculated. That number has been trending steadily down since 1996. It hit to peaks in the late 1930s and the late 1960s at about 28 per 100,000. It is now down almost two-thirds to 10 deaths per 100,000.

A lot of that is due to safer car design and materials, lighter cars, airbags, seat belts, safer highway design. In today’s cars my mother might have walked away, especially since utility poles that break away on impact are now mandated in many jurisdictions. Of course she survived, if permanently impaired, so death isn’t the only issue.

Those suffering automotive-related injuries annually is a lot larger universe. There are 5 million crashes a year and were 2,362,000 non-fatal injuries in 2012, ranging from fake whiplash to horribly crippling. That superhighway of pain and suffering is unspeakable. Not to mention the wasted resources, the dollars and metal shoveled into the compactor.

Often idiot drivers are to blame for their own death, dismemberment and path of destruction. About a third of fatalities can be attributed to driving under the influence of one deranging substance or another (about 10,000 annually) and a like number are caused by speeding. Coming up fast in the passing lane are nearly 4,000 fatal accidents caused by distracted drivers which includes those talking on phones, texting, chatting with a carload of people or otherwise not putting two hands on the wheel and two eyes on the road.

It’s enough to make you lock the front door and never brave a road again. Since the techies are contributing to the carnage with devices that distract, it is only just that they are allegedly going to solve the problem with cars that drive themselves. But let’s just wait and see about that. Do we really trust tech to safely get us from here to there?

Several autopilot plane crashes serve as cautionary tales. What happens when a computer glitch makes the car speed up or slow down or the GPS info is wrong and steers you into oncoming traffic or a lake? Even worse, what happens when malevolent hackers or hyper-competitive enemies cause every car in rush hour traffic to go nuts? HAL on the highway.

Even if they work beautifully, what about all the drivers not yet driving Car 2.0.? The trouble with the open road isn’t just your own bad driving but that of all the other fools who are aiming 4,000 pound missiles at you. I am not entirely immune to the romance of the auto which runs from the rumble seat through Little Deuce Coupe, but it has proven a deadly addiction.

If the cars and their drivers weren’t murderous enough, there’s the fossil fuels and the foreign wars required to feed the addiction, the sprawl, the pollution. Maybe Bruce was right to call them suicide machines. Or is it genocide machines? Maybe Georgie Minafer was right to tell Eugene Morgan that automobiles would “never amount to anything but a nuisance. They had no business to be invented.” Surely Mr. Morgan was right when her foresaw that “almost all outward things” were going to be changed by them, and the minds of men too.

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