Over 4 million people suffer injuries from automobile crashes every year. Last year, more than 40,000 people died from car crashes, including 1,700 children under 16. Despite auto manufacturers’ improvements in safety equipment, traffic deaths have risen more in the last few years than at any other time in recent history. Autos continue to get bigger, as more SUVs than cars are sold in the United States. Speed and horsepower continue to rise, as the auto industry continues to find efficient ways to balance fuel mileage with the desire for higher acceleration and top speeds.
Forty-thousand deaths per year. And yet we don’t bat an eyelash when we put our children in the car for soccer practice.
As I’ve become more and more aware of just how unsafe this automobile-dominated culture makes us (I haven’t even gotten into the negative long term physical and mental health effects of long commutes) I am constantly shocked by the “cost of doing business” attitude Americans have with regard to these staggering statistics. The indifference to the probability that everyone in American will either suffer or know several people who suffer serious injury or death at the hands of a high-speed automobile crashes is disconcerting at best. And yet cars continue to be marketed as engines for personal entertainment and enjoyment rather than the 3000-pound weapons that they can become at any moment of aggression or neglect.
Likely, the public acceptance of these haunting auto fatality statistics lies in the psychological construct known as “illusory superiority,” or the pervasive belief by people that we are better than we think we are. If we believe that we are inherently better drivers than everyone who suffers a car crash, we are less likely to believe that the above statistics apply to us, and thus are less likely to make the necessary adaptations to our driving habits when faced with alarming traffic fatality statistics.
The truth is, if we restricted cars to 30 miles per hour, traffic deaths would become unbelievably rare. But try telling that to a nation of speeding Americans and you’ll find a room of laughter and immediate dismissal. Trust me, I’ve tried.
With this in mind, I wanted to know what the public would say about exclusively driving 30 mph or less if I made the equation more “personal.” Breast cancer kills approximately 40,000 women in the U.S. each year, about the same number as automobile crashes. Nearly everyone has a loved one who has suffered or died from this horrible disease, myself included. We donate astronomical amounts of money and resources to find a cure so that the women we care for can live a long and happy life. It is a disease that affects everyone in this country, and one that many would give anything to eliminate.
Since the number of annual breast cancer deaths is similar to the number of car related fatalities, I conducted a single-question survey asking, “If conclusive evidence showed that we could end breast cancer deaths by simply driving under 30 mph wherever we went, would you do it?”
Before we look at the results, several elements have to be considered. The motivation of this study was to show that while 40,000 deaths is 40,000 deaths, regardless of the cause, a significant percentage of the population will still choose to support highway speeds over the possibility of saving lives. The idea is not in any way meant to trivialize the horrors of breast cancer, rather it is meant to highlight the often overlooked but seldom addressed tragedy that is our national auto fatality rate which claims the same number of lives annually. Too often, we accept automobile deaths as the “cost of freedom/cost of doing business” mentality that car culture seems to elicit. The truth is, as of now we have far more control over eliminating the number of traffic deaths than we do victims of breast cancer… we simply choose not to control it.
That being said, the results of this study may be skewed by answers that reflect a lack of connection between breast cancer death and traffic fatalities. Obviously there is no connection beyond the fact that they both kill the same number of Americans. But the “absurdity” in the eyes of many who don’t see this experimental application might lead to more “No” answers.
Five-hundred random participants answered “Yes” or “No” to the Google Survey question “If conclusive evidence showed that we could end breast cancer deaths by simply driving under 30 mph wherever we went, would you do it?” Results shown here are unweighted.
Clearly the number of participants who answered “Yes” represents the majority of people who would go to extremes to end the terrible effects of a costly disease. But one cannot ignore the more than 40% of respondents who wouldn’t alter their driving habits to save 40,000 lives.
Women said they would drive 30 mph at a higher rate than men, a reflection of the the fact that women are, obviously, most affected by the plight of breast cancer. Still, 34% of women answered “No.”
The purpose of this rather far fetched, hypothetical initial study is not necessarily to advocate for a 30 mph national speed limit. Instead, the goal was to show that much of our population is still so entrenched in our desire for high-speed car travel that many of us make choices with little regard for the atrocious potential and fatal consequences. Even when we “personalize” the possible result, a large percentage of respondents still choose current speeds over lives saved, calling into question our core priorities with regard to personal transportation.
This study was a simple, initial look into an America that places an extremely high value on personal vehicular travel at high speeds, even with the growing threat to public safety. More research must be done to highlight the mindset of people behind the wheel and the seemingly impenetrable belief in car culture above all else.