Crash Deaths: Annual Mis-Reporting Comes Early

The Orwellianly-named National Highway Traffic Safety Administration usually releases its final count of the annual U.S. death toll from car crashes in early August, when the fewest possible people are paying attention to the news.

This year, they are making a big deal out of their preliminary estimate of the 2009 fatality count.  That’s because car-crash deaths last year fell to their lowest level since 1954.  “This is exciting news!”, gushed US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.

So, quiz question, folks:  How many U.S. residents died in such a wonderful, exciting year for automotive collisions last year?  33,963.  That’s 2,830 a month.  That’s 653 a week.  That’s 93 a day.  That’s more than 11 times as many people as died in the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks.

But, it’s “exciting news,” rather than an unforgettable and unforgivable atrocity times eleven.

Why is that?  If all people are created equal and are endowed with certain unalienable rights, including the right not to be wantonly killed, then why is the disparity in our consciousness about the forces of evil so huge?  What kind of a society treats 40,000 deaths a year from its main means of everyday mobility as “exciting news”?  What kind of media parrots that remarkable interpretation?  Why, for that matter, is Consumer Reports among those media?

Runaway Cars!: How to Make Sense of the Story

What may be the latest industry-wide/technologically-inherent safety cover-up in the auto industry is being pinned exclusively on Toyota by the powers-that-be.  Having just bailed out General Motors and Chrysler, U.S. overclass political and media entrepreneurs are almost certainly trying to add a bit of Japan-bashing to their efforts to revive a dying and massively dangerous capitalist pipe-dream.

The scandal in question, of course, is random runaway acceleration in new-make automobiles.

There are two possible explanations for why Toyota is taking the heat:

1. “This is Toyota’s Firestone”:   Toyota either made a mistake, or its manufacturing standards are worse than its peers’ standards;


2. This is bigger and deeper than Toyota:  Toyota is the leader in moving toward hybrid and all-electric cars, in which very large on-board batteries provide some or all of the vehicle’s engine power, and there’s an unacknowledged flaw in schemes to electrify cars.

Beginning at BMW in the late 1980s, more and more cars have incorporated Electronic Throttle Control (ETC), or “drive-by-wire.”  With ETC, the commands transmitted to the engine throttle from the gas pedal are no longer mechanical cables, but electronic signals from a computer that arrive via a data “wire.”  Hence, “drive-by-wire.”

Beginning about a decade ago, sensing the onset of peak oil, the car corporations started getting serious about making hybrid and all-electric cars.  Toyota was and still is far out in front of this movement.

So, is ETC an inherently dangerous technology?

And is the flaw in ETC being compounded by the move toward hybrids and all-electrics?  The potential problem here is that the huge batteries in hybrid and all-electric cars emit some serious electro-magnetic intereference fields.  Are these fields prone to disturbing the “drive-by-wire” commands flowing between the new cars’ gas-pedal and engine-throttle computers, thereby compounding the flaws inherent in ETC?

There are three ways to test this hypothesis:

1. Is there evidence of an ETC (as opposed to mere mechanical issues with pedals or floor mats) problem in known runaway-car incidents?

2. Are hybrids more prone to runaway acceleration than all-petro cars?

3. Is Toyota the only maker that has runaway-car problems?

On the first question, here is a good summary of what’s known.

Especially telling, in my humble opinion, is this summary’s report that there may be a cover-up of this issue being managed by the Orwellianly-named National Highway Safety Traffic Administration:

An electronic cause [of runaway acceleration] is championed by Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Nader-inspired Center for Auto Safety, who dispatched a Freedom of Information Act request to NHTSA in search of documents on its investigation. Examining that data, he said it appears that the agency’s work amounts to less than the thorough investigation cited by the official.

On the second question, another expert blogger reports:

Meantime, another federal official close to safety regulators says NHTSA is investigating whether electromagnetic interference (EMI) could be causing glitches with vehicle speed controls in all cars and trucks, including Toyota products.   A Wayne State University engineering professor who consults with the industry believes cell phone signals, radar pulses, and other ambient electrical static, could be causing the problem.   USA Today reports a British expert on EMI believes the pulses are a “likely cause” of some of Toyota’s acceleration problems.   It is the basis of two class action lawsuits against the automaker.

Toyota dismisses the allegations, saying late Tuesday: “After many years of exhaustive testing — by us and other outside agencies — we have found no evidence of a problem with our electronic throttle control system that could have caused unwanted acceleration. Our vehicles go through extensive electromagnetic radiation testing dynamically.”   Engineers have studied this since the 1970’s but have never conclusively linked the issue to a specific problem.

Nevertheless, a guy who knows a little about computers, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, says his Prius is having runaway acceleration problems.

As to the third question, Toyota is not the only maker with runaway issues.

Even more telling, again to my own eye, is this:

Feds ponder brake overrides on all cars to stop runaway acceleration

So, the jury is still out on all this.  But it is hardly clear that the official story — the inexplicable return of shoddy Japanese manufacturing — is the proper verdict.

Meanwhile, there is a whole other sense in which the phrase “runaway cars” is exactly the right story we need to track.  Can humanity survive this make-or-break century without ending our insane reliance on automobiles for everyday movement?  Stay tuned…

More on Class and Transportation

Here’s a clip from a book chapter I’m doing on this neglected topic:

pyramid-kapFor the private jet set, the travel world is luxurious and comparatively full of fun. CNBC reports that, as of 2008, “Private jet travel [was] the fastest growing luxury market segment. Over 15% of all flights in the U.S. are by private jet. There are more than 1,000 daily private jet flights in key markets such as South Florida, New York and Los Angeles.” In between Asian and European shopping junkets, trips to exotic beaches, and retreats to country homes, the super-rich commonly maintain mega-garages full of extravagant, specialized cars and trucks, each of which serves the need or mood of any particular moment. “The typical Ferrari customer, for example, orders $20,000 to $30,000 of options,” reports CNN, noting that “most Ferrari owners have more than one — a half-dozen or so is common.”

At the bottom of American society, experiences are different. In 2001, when 11.7 percent of U.S. households received incomes below the official poverty line, those same households accounted for only 6.1 percent of all automotive miles traveled in the United States. The last time the U.S. Department of Transportation conducted its National Household Transportation Survey, it found that:

Households without a vehicle are not spread uniformly across the population. For example, households with an annual income of less than $25,000 are almost nine times as likely to be a zero-vehicle household than households with incomes greater than $25,000. Not only is income related to the availability of household vehicles, but it is also related to the age of the vehicle. For example, households with a household income of $100,000 or more had a vehicle with an average model year of [5 years old], while households with a household income of less than $25,000 had a personal vehicle [when they had one] with an average model year of [ten years old].

At a purely logical level of analysis, seeing a car critic such as the present author draw attention to inequality in the distribution of automobiles might strike some readers as a case of forgetting the lesson of the old joke in which the diner complains that “The food in this restaurant is awful, and the portions – so small!” Yet, however awful cars-first transportation may be, it remains true that, once it exists, access to one’s own automobile can be a major determinant of the quality of life.

Indeed, in her extensive interviews with welfare recipients in the United States, family sociologist Karen Seccombe has found that automobiles are a very deep dilemma in their lives. Seccombe summarizes what she learned:

It…became clear in the interviews that transportation was a major structural barrier to women getting or keeping jobs. Past recipients…report that the lack of affordable transportation presents a barrier even more serious than the lack of childcare to securing employment. Women on welfare cannot afford to buy reliable automobiles….Most women who had cars…[almost always] owned older models that were in a constant state of disrepair….Obviously, [despite a widely-known political trope to the contrary] women on welfare are not driving Cadillacs….While offhand it is easy to say, “You can walk to work,” reality may dictate something else….Walking can add an hour or two to childcare bills, and may necessitate being away from one’s children for 9, 10, or 11 hours a day instead of the usual 8….In many communities, walking to work can be more than just inconvenient. It can be dangerous.

Of course, reality is immensely worse at the global level. The most basic statistics about worldwide disparities in access to transportation are stark. In the United States, there are now about 765 motor vehicles per 1,000 residents, and these vehicles operate on more than 4.2 million miles of paved, dedicated roadways. Meanwhile the number motor vehicles per thousand residents is 19 in Guatemala, 8 in Pakistan, and less than 1 in both Afghanistan and Malawi.

Transportation Inequality in America

From the beginning, corporations and allied planners and politicians have promoted the automobile with large doses of syrupy propaganda about its overwhelming wonders and benignity. This wave of dogma routinely includes paeans to the automobile’s allegedly democratic and egalitarian nature. According to Rutgers University transportation engineer James A. Dunn, for example, not only does “the auto provide a kind of individualist equality that is particularly well suited to American values,” but owning and driving cars “unites [Americans] across class, racial, ethnic, and religious lines as few other aspects of our society can.”

Alas, Dunn seems not to have examined the most basic data on the distribution of automobiles in the United States, to say nothing of the world. If he had bothered to do so, he might have discovered that, contrary to long-running industry intimations and intellectual pre-suppositions, cars are, in fact, one of the most unequally distributed product categories in the United States.

Here is a table I just assembled from the most recent Consumer Expenditure Survey:

Dawson Table 1

As you can see, the rich are savers/investors, but they also dominate spending.  New vehicle spending in particular.

That sucking sound you hear?  A century’s worth of cars = freedom + democracy incantation going into the flushbowl, where it belongs.

Cars-First Must Go

anotherjam Here in this country, radical reconstruction of the U.S. transportation order is the best political proposal we can pursue and promote.

The cars-first transportation arrangement of the United States (which China is now rapidly copying) will make or break the human species in this make-it-or-break-it century. If we permit the powers-that-be to continue to preserve it, even with a large infusion of so-called “green cars,” we are doomed, thanks to cars-first’s stupendous and stupendously wasteful energy requirements, its deep ties to military conflict in our heavily armed world, and probably also its greenhouse emissions effects.

If we could mount a serious and adequate program for transcending cars-first transportation through planned urban and inter-urban reconstruction, it would not only provide a way to create millions of new public- and private-sector jobs, thus unifying a potentially very large coalition, but doing so would provide a practical, readily-understandable way for us to bring sustainability, energy constraints, and ecological economics to the center of the stage. This could generate a sense of political meaning and passion amongst a demoralized, frustrated population that is thirsty for these things. Getting this topic onto the agenda would also bring on a whale of a good fight with the U.S. oligarchy, which is certainly the single most dangerous social formation in today’s world, on many different fronts.

If we fail to press this topic, meanwhile, you can start making your Mad Max plans…