33,883. 32,885. 32,367. 34,080. Those are a list of the number of deaths for the years 2009 through 2012, respectively, all caused by the same weapon. But this is weapon is not a gun: It is a motor vehicle.
Now, my question is: Why isn't this a major political issue? Debates are fierce regarding how to stem the tide of gun violence. But as bad as a problem as it is,* the motor vehicle fatality rate has consistently eclipsed the murder rate in the United States. Over 30,000 Americans die every year, yet this rarely enters political discussions? Why is this?
* Does not include suicide rates. Combined with those, murders + suicides with guns tend to be about the same as motor vehicle deaths.
I think we need to add this to our list of issues to address. I think we need to be more aware that just as human lives are being destroyed at the barrel of a gun, they are also being destroyed behind the wheel. Follow me below the fold for a brief discussion about what the particular causes are, and an introduction potential remedies that individuals and communities could consider. More than anything, though, I hope that this conversation will start now and end no time soon.
1. Disconnect between driving habits and regulations.
In most if not all states, the following are standard rules of the road:
-Turn on your headlights when it is raining.
-Do not tailgate.
-Signal all lane changes and turns well in advance.
-Red means stop (and stay stopped).
-For all intents and purposes, you have zero right-of-way when at a yield sign or turning right on red.
And so forth. I think that most of these should be common-sense rules, yet to varying degrees, many people choose not to obey them. People tend to justify these actions according to all sorts of excuses--"Everyone else does it," "I was in a hurry," "It's an arbitrary speed limit, anyway"--etc. Speaking of which...
2. Speed limits.
This one is a complex issue. Here in the States, speed limits vary, but they generally fall in the following ranges:
* 20-30 mph for residential neighborhoods
* 30-45 elsewhere in town
* 55-65 for rural highways (not freeways)
* 70-75 for rural freeways (mostly, but not entirely, Interstates)
(Please note that these are midranges; some locales have them significantly higher or lower.)
Contrast that with mainland Europe, which typically has:
* 50 kph (31 mph) in town, not just in neighborhoods (which can be as low as 30 kmh/19 mph)
* 80-90 kph (50-56 mph) on rural, highways (not freeways)
* 130 kph (81 mph) on rural freeways.
It's worth noting that European towns and cities tend be denser, and most of the streets were laid out centuries before urban planning. And suburban sprawl is not nearly as big a deal. But those constraints aside, it seems as if our speed limits are generally higher everywhere except on rural freeways.
Why do I point all this out? Because allegations commonly exist that speed limits are "arbitrarily chosen." Are they? I don't know. But it sure seems odd that "arbitrarily chosen" speed limits would be higher than those of many other industrialized nations. The rural freeway speeds, however, seem to be exceptions. It's interesting that nearly every state in the Union has lower Interstate speed limits than their counterparts do in Europe. But they are increasing--several states, such as Illinois and Ohio, have raised their maximum limits from 65 to 70. Maine and Louisiana have gone up to 75. And one rural tollway in Texas has a speed limit of 85 miles per hour!
3. Drunk driving.
Unlike the ambiguity associated with higher or lower speed limits, the correlation here is very clear: Drunk driving is inherently dangerous. It still ranks as one of the single greatest causes of fatalities on the road today. Why is it a problem? Perhaps we have simply tolerated it on the face of "it's just a couple drinks, they can't hurt me" despite evidence that even a small amount of alcohol in the system can impair judgment.
So what are we to do?
The first step to solving any problem is admitting that the problem exists. And we have done that here. Then we need to begin treating this as a matter as a one that we must approach as both individuals and as a society. We must all ask ourselves the same questions: What specifically am I doing to enable the problem? What specifically should I start doing to be a better, defensive driver?
We also need to avoid confusing common-sense regulations with allegations of tyranny that would make even some Tea Partiers laugh. In particular, we need to be very careful with the use of the phrase "speed trap." If officers are not ticketing people driving below the speed limit for driving too fast, then it's not a speed trap: it's just a hassle to drive slower than you'd like. A realistic speed trap implies that officers pull people over just because they felt like it, often disproportionately targeting disenfranchised people in the process. You got a ticket for going 40 in a 35? Sorry, bub, that's not a speed trap. That's strict enforcement of a clear rule that applies to everyone using that road.
The next is to agree to some common-sense rules. I feel that a great place to start might be to have open conversations about the merits of speed limits. What should determine a speed limit? Are the existing criteria reasonably sound, or do they need significant overhaul? Do we really need stop signs at so many intersections, or would yield signs suffice? All these and many other questions need to be raised.