The Pathology of the Automobile
There is a peculiar pathology that overtakes a society dedicated to the car, one that values the car over the well being of people who are not in cars. Once you’ve succumbed to what I’ll call the pathology of the automobile, it makes perfect sense to hop in 4,000 lbs of steel to pick up a quart of milk, and any pedestrian or bicyclist who gets in your precious way be damned.
As Europeans have sought to make their cities safer for bicyclists and pedestrians, some auto manufacturers have attempted to market some of their cars as less deadly to pedestrians. The problem is there’s really no way to make a 4,000 lb car “safe” when it plows into a human body.
Take the $126,000 2013 Mercedes-Benz SL 550, which boasts a new, blunt front end, so that your gleaming Benz will cut a hapless walker off at the hips instead of the knees and a hood that “gives” a bit more when a person lands on it, presumably increasing the survival rate. Thus the Mercedes allows its well-heeled owner to drive to the fitness club and pay for the privilege of walking on a treadmill, secure in the supposition that any poor sap who’d gotten in the way would wind up in a wheelchair instead of a coffin. I guess that’s one way of looking at progress.
Lest you think I’m a bit too cynical, or that I overstate the blindness of our car-addicted society to the absurdity of this, consider automotive journalist David Undercoffler’s review of the Mercedes SL 550 in the L.A. Times. The problem, as far as Undercoffler sees it, is not the obscene death toll wrought by the automobile, it is that the car’s redesign for pedestrian safety has “thrown a wrench into the aesthetic evolution” of the Mercedes, giving it “a bug-eyed face.” Such “regrettably conspicuous” “collateral damage” to the previously sleek lines of the Mercedes could have been avoided, Undercoffler suggests, “if Europeans didn’t walk so darn much.” Yeah, leave it to those darned Europeans, who had to go and ruin a perfectly good-looking car out of a silly concern for the losers who had the misfortune of not being in one.
It would be fairly easy to laugh this off as the pathetic musings of a car-addled brain if the pathology weren’t so common, and if the death toll wasn’t so serious. Automobiles kill an average of 13 pedestrians every day in the United States. That’s almost 5,000 a year. That doesn’t include the many more seriously injured every day. We’ve become so enthralled with our cars and so convinced of our entitlement as drivers that we can’t—or won’t—see the incredibly high social cost they impose. Instead of driving less and refashioning our cities around less deadly alternatives (transit, bicycles, walking), a society suffering from the pathology of the automobile tinkers with its death machines and bemoans the maudlin concern for human life.
Now, I don’t mean to imply that we shouldn’t try to make cars safer, but the focus on reshaping the car’s bumper seems a bit like trying to make cigarettes less deadly by putting filters on them. Complaining about the loss of a car’s sleek front end is like complaining that cigarette filters destroyed the macho look of unfiltered cigarettes. It sort of misses the point. Since both products are inherently deadly, ultimately we’ll really make things safer only if we reduce our dependence on them.
If we were to look at cars the way we look at cigarettes–another deadly consumer product that produces an irrational addiction–then it might lead us to some “crazy” ideas. We might start, as we’ve done with cigarettes, by taxing them more heavily to discourage their use and defray the myriad health and environmental costs they impose on society. We could use the money to build safer, convenient transit systems that would wean us off our auto-dependence (not to mention our wars for oil). We could ban automobile advertising or have PSAs that show the real carnage produced by the automobile to counteract the multi-billion dollar car-and-oil propaganda campaign we’re subjected to every time we turn on the TV. Let’s create car-free spaces in our cities and on our streets, just as we have smoke-free spaces so that people can move about without fear of death or dismemberment from a 4,000 lb blunt-nosed projectile like the Mercedes SL 500. Let’s assume that the right to walk across the street without being hit by a car is as important as the right to breathe smoke-free air.
In a society suffering from the pathology of the automobile everyone and everything–even human life–must be sacrificed to the presumed rights of the driver. In a recent story on the ostensibly baneful increase of bicyclists on city streets, John Bowman, a spokesman for the National Motorists’ Association (described by the Detroit Free Press as “a drivers’ rights advocacy organization”), exhibited this pathology when he told the paper,
In certain cities, where they’re very bike-friendly, you often see bikers [sic] asserting themselves maybe more than they should. . . . Bicyclists need to look out for cars because they’re most vulnerable. In any type of conflict between a car and a bike, the car always wins.
So, let’s get this straight, if bicyclists “assert” their right to the road, they’re automatically at fault because in a “conflict” between a human and 4,000 lbs of steel, “the car always wins.” There is a certain logic to this, and it is the logic of the sociopath: I’m bigger than you, so get out of my way and keep your mouth shut or I’ll kick your ass. Thus forewarned, it’ll be your own fault when I beat the crap out of you.
A more balanced perspective that cared more about human lives than the continued dominance of the automobile would turn Bowman’s logic on its head. Cars, Mr. Bowman, need to look out for pedestrians and bicyclists, precisely because they’re most vulnerable. See that little brake pedal in your big car? Just apply a little pressure on it and you could save a human life.
Human life more important than the car? Sounds crazy, I know.