“Issues of Enormous Importance”

fatal crash For reasons I will explain in my forthcoming book, Courting Carmageddon: Capitalism and Transportation in the United States, manufacturing and selling automobiles is roughly as heedless of and harmful to public health as manufacturing and selling nicotine-delivery devices.  Car crashes alone have killed more than 2 million U.S. residents in the past half-century.

Of course, thanks to their physical size and complexity and their enormous infrastructural and convenience implications, cars are far more important to corporate capitalists than cigarettes ever were.  Hence, they are also far more off-the-table in terms of public debate and defense.

I say all this as background to news that Mazda is now asking the Supreme Court to shield it from liability for disregarding state-level vehicular safety laws that exceed the federal regulatory standards administered by the always half-hearted (and oxymoronically named) National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In explaining its appearance as a friend of Mazda, the Alliance of Automobile Manfacturers explains:

“This case raises issues of enormous importance to auto manufacturers,” said Charles Territo, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. The fear, he said, is that federal regulations will be “superseded” by a patchwork of state laws on personal injury claims.

As Automotive News explains its own headline on this story, the enormously important issue is whether automotive manufacturers can continue to deploy “less-than-best” products.

Suggestion: Compare the institutional urgency of this issue against the claims about manufacturing standards and corporate concern made in car advertisements.

Slight gap there, no?

And is there any doubt what the eventual ruling will be in the age of Citizens United?

Note also:  It isn’t just car capitalists, of course:

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, food producers and makers of children’s products have weighed in on Mazda’s side.

The Unmentionable Ossuary

ossuary My great friend Douglas Pressman, who once escorted me into an ossuary located in the Czech Republic, conveyed this news item from the mighty USA Today:

Road accidents — not terrorism, plane crashes or crime — are the No. 1 killer of healthy Americans traveling abroad, a USA TODAY analysis of the past 7½ years of State Department data shows.

About 1,820 Americans, almost a third of all Americans who died of non-natural causes while abroad, have been reported killed in road accidents in foreign countries from Jan. 1, 2003, through June 2010. On average, one American traveler dies on a foreign road every 36 hours.

This, of course, is peanuts compared to the number of people killed here and around the world by cars when not on vacations or buying or spying junkets.

But it highlights the fact that our overclass simply suppresses rational public discussion of automotive death and dismemberment.

There were 2,996 people killed by the 911 terrorist attack. That is one-eleventh the number of people killed in U.S. car crashes in 2009, a year hailed by NHTSA officials and even Ralph Nader as a wondrously safe annum automobilis.

Despite their centrality to our transportation order and to ordinary people’s actual lives, the costs and dangers of cars-first transportation remain entirely “off the table” in our corporate capitalist, market-totalitarian society. Some deaths sell, and some don’t.

How Cute

tbone crash A recent press release from the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers:

For Immediate Release:
April 13, 2010
Alliance: Wade Newton: (202) 326-5571
Safe Kids: Kate Jones: (202) 662-4478

Washington, DC – The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers today announced that it has joined Safe Kids USA and more than 40 other interested organizations in efforts to increase awareness and urge parents and caregivers to never leave a child alone in a vehicle. In an attempt to make 2010 a year when no more children die from heat stroke by being “forgotten” in a car, safety experts and child advocates remind parents and caregivers to always check for sleeping children before leaving a vehicle.

“I grew up in the southwest and I can say for sure, cracking a window is not enough,” said
Dave McCurdy, president and CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

Safe Kids USA is dedicated to preventing unintentional injury to children. With the help of more than 600 coalitions nationwide, Safe Kids USA works to improve the safety of kids by educating families about child injury risks and prevention, providing safety tips and resources to parents and caregivers, providing safety devices to families in need and advocating for better child safety laws on the national and local levels.

How sweet, no?

How large is this problem?

From 1998 to 2009, 445 children died from heat stroke because they were unattended in vehicles that became too hot. More than 50 percent of them were “forgotten” by a caring adult who became distracted as they left the vehicle. Another 30 percent became victims of heat stroke when they were left unattended by an adult and then gained entry into, and became trapped inside, an unlocked vehicle.

So, about 40 children a year.

And roughly how many children perished in automobile collisions in that same time frame?  In 2008, a relatively low-death year thanks to high gas prices and the Great Recession, there were 6,130 car-crash killings of people aged newborn through 20.

So, for every one child who suffocated or cooked to death in a parked car, there were 153 who died while a car was being operated on the road.

What if we limit the comparison to babies and toddlers?  In 2008, 411 children aged newbie through 5 died in car crashes.

So, ten times more than suffocated or cooked.

Don’t get me wrong.  The fact that 40 children a year get cooked or asphyxiated in automobiles is no laughing matter.  I’m sure none suffered that fate while sitting on buses or trains.  And however many died while walking or biking, they were certainly overwhelmingly killed by somebody operating an automobile in their pathway.

These people — the corporate executives and alliances and politicians, the ones who push cars-first transportation on us — are knowing, for-profit, businesslike murderers.  And their primary beneficiaries — major corporate shareholders — are avid sponsors of this killing, whether they think about it or not.

And, if they aren’t an intentional front in the effort to divert attention from real problems, shame on Safe Kids USA for its pimping of the cars-pushers’ Orwellian efforts.

[Note: According to its latest Annual Report, Safe Kids is heavily subsidized by the NHTSA. This supports my thesis that the core mission of this Ralph Nader-engendered agency is to soft pedal, rather than regulate and reduce, the death and destruction generated by the automotive-industrial sector of the capitalist economy.]

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?

Do Cars Cause 100,000 U.S. Deaths a Year?

carskullIt would be hard to invent another everyday transportation order as wasteful of human well-being as the cars-first arrangement that has long prevailed in the United States.  In this, the initial post here on Death by Car, I review the most basic facts in this area from recent sources:

► In the year 2008, automotive collisions killed 37,261 people in the United States.  That’s 102 a day; 717 a week; 3,105 a month. And 2008 was no anomaly: Since World War II, more than 2 million individuals have perished in U.S. car crashes.

► In a nation that likes the sound of “no child left behind,” car crashes have long ranked as the #1 cause of death for every single age-year from 3 through 21.

► In typical years, the number of people “severely or critically” injured, but not killed, in U.S. car crashes surpasses the number killed.  In the Maximum Abbreviated Injury Scale (MAIS), a standard international system for ranking and tracking traumatic injuries, “severe or critical” injuries are those that surpass “serious” ones.v Injuries classified as merely “serious” (and hence not bad enough to be ranked “severe” or “critical”) only involve things like open leg fractures, amputated arms, and major nerve lacerations. To be classified “severe” or “critical,” a non-fatal collision must involve something like a severed spinal cord or a head injury with an extended period of unconsciousness and lasting brain damage.  In the words of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, “For MAIS 4-5 [i.e. “severe” and “critical” injuries], the predominant [monetary] costs [of the crash] are related to lifetime medical care.”  Of course, as the authors of one study explain, “Persons injured in these crashes often suffer physical pain and emotional anguish that is beyond any economic recompense. The permanent disability of spinal cord damage, loss of mobility, loss of eyesight, and serious brain injury can profoundly limit a person’s life, and can result in dependence on others for routine physical care.”

► If the United States has a national odor, it is automotive exhaust. The smell, of course, is but the tip of the iceberg. “Automobile emissions are the main cause of urban air pollution and contain thousands of chemicals, several of which are recognized as mutagenic or carcinogenic.”  In addition, as a glance at the roadside after an urban snowstorm will confirm, both by fuel combustion and the normal wear of tires and roadbeds, automobiles –- especially those with diesel engines — also create large amounts of “particulate matter.” Breathing particulate matter is most dangerous for children, the sick, and the elderly, and exposure to it is heaviest among the poor, who are disproportionately non-white, and who disproportionately live near major urban highways.

► Because air-pollution damage to the human body accumulates over time and complicates several complex multiple-cause diseases, at present, we can only guesstimate the exact amount of suffering and death caused by automotive air pollution. A recent special report in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimated that the overall annual “airborne toxics” death toll in the United States is now running somewhere between 22,000 and 52,000 a year.  Even if the bottom of this range is right, and even if cars account for only a quarter of all U.S. air pollution exposure, that would mean autos-űber-alles causes over 5,000 more premature U.S. deaths each year, on top of its collision toll. Meanwhile, some medical researchers suspect that we may be radically under-estimating air pollution’s impact on human health.

► Either way, it’s certain that automotive air pollution also produces a mountain of non-lethal health costs. San Jose’s The Mercury-News, one of the few major U.S. newspapers to attend to the topic at all, reports:

The death toll due to air pollution only begins to touch the vast magnitude of human suffering caused by breathing our dirty air — for every 75 deaths per year due to air pollution in the U.S., health scientists have estimated that there are 505 hospital admissions for asthma and other respiratory diseases, 3,500 respiratory emergency doctor visits, 180,000 asthma attacks, 930,000 restricted activity days, and 2,000,000 acute respiratory symptom days.

► Autos-über-alles’ biggest health impact may lie in its discouragement of walking and bicycling. Studies confirm that the United States has by far the lowest percentage of miles traveled by foot or bike in the world.  Meanwhile, a rapidly worsening obesity epidemic plagues the nation, with health consequences for Americans that may soon surpass those caused by cigarettes. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, “poor diet and physical inactivity” are now causing 400,000 deaths a year in the United States.  Even if car dependency explains only 10 percent of the society’s deepening food-exercise imbalance, that would mean another 40,000 American lives being sacrificed to the automobile every year.

Detailed sources for all the above factual claims will be published in my forthcoming book, Automobiles-Über-Alles: Capitalism and Transportation in the United States (Monthly Review Press).