Nader, the Number Fudger

Ralph Nader is not, and never has been, a serious critic of cars-first transportation.

For a few paragraphs, he came close. In Unsafe at Any Speed, Nader opened by calling “the automobile tragedy” “one of the most serious of [all] man-made assaults on the human body” and suggesting that its proper solution involved “the great problem” of “how to control the power of economic interests which ignore the harmful effects of their applied science and technology.”

What readers of Unsafe quickly learned, however, is that by “the automobile tragedy,” Nader meant not the dominance of the automobile as a mode of travel, but merely its lax regulation. The evil, in Nader’s telling, lies not in the machine itself, but merely in its sloppy, unsupervised implementation.

As to the “economic interests” behind the scenes, Nader has never explained them in any detail, preferring instead to suggest that the existence of a toughened-up National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the agency Nader helped cajole into existence, could, despite the telling inclusion of the word “Highway” in the organization’s very moniker, someday be enough to dispose of the problems they create.

Alas, things have just taken a major turn for the even-worse with Ralph (for whom I thrice voted, btw) on this crucial topic.

In an essay titled “Safer at Most Speeds,” Nader calls on us to “celebrate some goods news.” The good news at hand, in Ralph’s view? Only 33,808 people died in automotive collisions last year in the United States!

33,808 deaths?  Good news?  WTF?

But wait. Not only does Ralph ask us to “celebrate” that our technologically optional, ecologically insane, but capitalistically bountiful transportation order is still killing a 9/11’s worth of people every month in its crashes alone, but he adds insult to injury by inexcusably exaggerating the contribution made by safer cars.

In reporting the basic numbers in question, Nader says this:

Since 1966 when the motor vehicle and highway safety laws were passed by Congress—led by Democrats but with significant Republican support—the fatality rate dropped from 5.49 percent (50,894 lives lost) to 1.13 percent in 2009 (33,808 lives lost.) This large live-saving reduction occurred while absolute vehicle miles traveled increased more than threefold in those intervening decades.

Now, of course, any skilled reader ought to see this and immediately ask: “Percent of what, Ralph?”

It turns out that the baseline for the percentages Nader reports is the official NHTSA tactic of reporting automotive fatalities as a number of deaths per 100 million miles driven in the United States.

As Nader certainly knows, this is seriously deceptive.  What matters in judging the comparative danger of driving is not properly described by dividing total deaths over all the miles driven by everybody.  Such a statistic says nothing about the source of the total number of miles being driven.  Is the population growing while everybody drives the same amount as always?  Or are people also driving more and more miles per year?  Without incorporating those facts into the comparison, it remains impossible to assess what really matters, which is the changing risk of death for the average driver driving the average number of miles.

And, as Nader surely knows, the plain fact of the matter is that the average number of miles driven annually per U.S. driver has risen by about 50 percent since the early days of the NHTSA.

What that means is that the relative fatality decline Nader and the NHTSA (and the automotive-industrial complex) would have you celebrate is not nearly as big as he and they would have you believe.

Think about it: If your chances of getting killed by any activity drop fivefold, but you spend fifty percent more time doing the potentially lethal activity in question, you are not five times safer than you once were. More like three.

Shame on Ralph for helping obscure this elementary reality.

And that, alas, is hardly all.

Another problem with trumpeting the official “safety” stats is that these are not only intentionally bogus, but deal only with killings and only with crashes.

In reality, as the great Ralph Nader again knows full well, for every person killed in a car crash, there is at least one other who is severely injured, suffering life-shattering disabilities. 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.”

And what about things like air pollution and obesity?

As “absolute vehicle miles traveled increased more than threefold,” automobiles had to become three times less polluting than before merely to keep air quality the same for a burgeoning population. That has arguably happened. But so what? Aren’t we still willfully sacrificing many more thousands of lives a year to this other inherent aspect of “the automobile tragedy?”

And, finally, isn’t there a pretty serious connection between the exorbitant amount of time Americans spend sitting in cars and the growing epidemic of weight-gain in the society? Recent studies suggest that as many as 400,000 Americans die each year from the worsening imbalance between caloric intake and burn-off. Even if cars-first travel accounts for only ten percent of that problem, that would mean another 40,000 annual deaths are caused by the phenomenon Nader wants us to celebrate.

The fact of the matter, of course, is that not only do automobiles remain a supreme danger to life and limb in the United States, but, in the age of peak resources, they are simply an outdated pipe dream. This planet cannot for much longer sustain the daily use of hundreds of millions of 2-ton metal-and-plastic grocery fetchers, profitable monstrosities that spend 95 percent of their lives parked.

It is certainly true that individual cars have become somewhat safer to operate and breathe near. How much of that is due to the NHTSA and how much due to the simple globalization of the auto industry, which presses car makers to comply with more standards and offers buyers more choices, remains highly debatable. The answer is probably “some of each.”

But to call for any kind of celebration of matters automotive at this point in human history is simply unconscionable. Save the party for the day when we finally begin a serious public analysis of our dire and rapidly worsening transportation conundrum and the economic power structure driving us toward Carmageddon.