After the Pandemic, Let’s Fix Our Deadly Traffic Problem

The U.S. is worse than a lot of developed countries at a lot of public-health issues, but cutting this low-hanging fruit by a quarter would be like eliminating all gun homicides.

Bernard Gotfryd/Library of Congress

A few days ago, the state of Oklahoma granted immunity “to motorists who unintentionally cause injury or death while ‘fleeing from a riot,’” one of five in which such a bill was introduced. Critics, who call such legislation “hit and kill” laws, argue that they threaten to go beyond criminalizing dissent, permitting vigilante justice against dissent. In The New Republic, Alex Pareene writes:

There’s something very telling about how the car (or police cruiser, or truck, or SUV) has been enshrined into law as an instrument of state-sanctioned violence. American conservatives are creating, really, a sort of Second Amendment for cars…. The legal framework conservative politicians and jurists spent years crafting and refining to facilitate politicized and racialized gun violence in this country is now expanding to another of America’s omnipresent and deadly institutions.

Perhaps. But we’ve also kind of been there for awhile. Injury and death from cars has always shadowed America’s other failings with public health and violence, which are quite high for an extremely wealthy, developed country with the skills, tools, and infrastructure to do a lot better. We’re somewhat ambivalent to it. Or, as a crime reporter once told me, “if you want to get away with murder, just hit them with a car.”

The public health dilemma of cars also shadowed America’s awful year of 2020, marked as it was by the death of George Floyd and the protests that catalyzed the new bills, and America’s slow and sometimes grudging response to Covid-19.

Early on, when it seemed — or at least a lot of people seemed to think — the country might keep the death toll in the tens of thousands, or at least in the very low hundreds of thousands, America’s death toll on the roads was used as a grim ballpark for the kind of death we could tolerate. If we put up with ~35,000 annual deaths on the roads every year, the theory went, then why couldn’t we put up with that many (or twice that many, or three times that many) deaths from Covid-19? As Covid headed towards its final status as the third leading cause of death in 2020 in the U.S., probably around 10 times what the toll on the roads will turn out to be, people mostly shut up about the comparison.

Which is a shame, actually. We could have stopped to ask: why is 35,000 acceptable?

It is true that permitting cars is the tacit acceptance of a lot of death, even in the countries that handle them rather well. It would be easy to get into a sort of Zeno’s paradox where if 20,000 is permissible, then why not 25,000, then why not 30,000, and so on. But whatever acceptable is, the U.S. clearly isn’t there, because the U.S. is (as in many aspects of public health) pretty bad at it compared to other developed countries.

Consider the OECD countries, which generally encompass the most-developed ones. The has been reliably in the top half of OECD countries since 1994 in deaths per million. In 2017, the U.S. was sandwiched in between Colombia and Cambodia, with a rate more than twice that of Canada and Australia. But Americans drive a lot! Yes, the country looks somewhat better if you measure its fatalities by vehicle miles traveled, but it still ranks poorly; its fatality rate just isn’t multiple times that of most other wealthy, highly developed countries VMT by as it is per million. The U.S. has also done a comparatively poor job improving its fatality rate per million since 1990, sliding from the middle of the pack to the back over that time.

America famously has a car culture, but so do other highly developed nations; that’s part of why they’re highly developed. Germany, Sweden, the U.K., France: these countries produce many good cars, which they drive on many famous roads and circuits, with cultures of deep connoisseurship. They’re just better at not killing each other on the road.

The car blog Jalopnik has been riding this subject for years: America doesn’t just have a car culture, it has a car commuter culture. The former can be pretty enjoyable, whether it’s Sunday drives or precision engineering; the latter almost invariably sucks. A lot of Americans have to have cars, because the country’s infrastructure is designed for cars, which are given priority and prioritized to go fast. That’s pretty dangerous, so we make our cars bigger, which puts small cars at a disadvantage, so more people buy bigger and bigger cars, an arms race that sounds a lot like, well, you know. As with guns, there’s a considerable difference between owning guns for sport and feeling like you have to own guns because so many other people own guns and you might have to shoot them. The latter is, at minimum, an unhappy way to live.

Bernard Gotfryd/Library of Congress

Police are largely given the burden of enforcing the laws around all this infrastructure, which means traffic stops, which can escalate, which can lead to deaths, as in the killing of Daunte Wright, who was shot by an officer during — and near — the trial of Derek Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd. This has led to calls to make the enforcement of traffic laws automated, using traffic cameras.

But because our roads are often designed such that they encourage speeds well above the posted speed limits, that means lots of people speed. Once you start automating tickets instead of limiting them to the discretion of a limited number of police officers, that means lots of people get tickets that they can’t afford, which leads to bankruptcies and the loss of cars that people need in order to get to work — and disproportionately impacts the people and communities that automated enforcement is supposed to protect from the risks of traffic stops. The response is often, well, they shouldn’t speed, but if the roads are set up for that, people will. In some places in Europe tickets are proportional to income, which would be a partial solution, but our infrastructure still suckers people into driving faster than the speeds we’ve deemed safe.

We can even tie these themes — the pandemic, the protests, and cars — together tighter still. Air quality, which tends to be worse in Black and Latino communities in the U.S, in part because of where highways were built, is a potential link to the greater impact of Covid on those communities. And it improved, by some measures, when the pandemic caused commuting to a near-halt.

On the other hand, traffic deaths rose 8% in the U.S. in 2020 to 42,060, and deaths per miles driven rose by a quarter. Why? Fewer cars meant higher speeds, which meant more deaths despite the precipitous drop in cars on the road. Our terrible gridlock was saving lives.

There are a couple ways of looking at this. The pessimistic way is that the pandemic reminded us of how much death some Americans are willing to tolerate. Gun violence gets all the attention for this, but cars are arguably a better example — there’s no Second Amendment for cars, just a de facto need for them, so it’s easier from a cultural and ideological perspective to make changes towards safety and we just… aren’t doing it. At least not a very good job compared to other developed countries, which have made better progress.

The optimistic way of looking at it is that the pandemic put public-health data front of mind and showed that a lot of Americans are willing to watch and change their behaviors around the data, and accept (and pay for with considerable amounts of taxpayer dollars) interventions to save tens of thousands of lives. Much less inconvenient ones could do the same on the roads, and cutting traffic deaths by a quarter to a third — which many developed countries have more than done in a decade or two — would be equivalent to eliminating all gun homicides in America. It’s arguably the lowest-hanging fruit in the public-health sphere, if we’re willing to think about it as a public health crisis. It’s not logistically easy, but by the standards of public health crises, it’s conceptually easy — and rebuilding after the pandemic is the right time to start.

Freelance writer/editor in Chicago. Words in Marker, The Atlantic, COVID Tracking Project, elsewhere. Author of ‘Chicago: From Vision to Metropolis.’

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