For too long in this country, the car debate has raged unabated. It’s time to have a reasonable discussion, focused on facts and not emotion, informed by science and not rhetoric, and aimed at producing a reasonable set of laws and public policies on which we can broadly agree. A discussion like that cannot be led by politicians who seek to divide us in order to achieve and maintain power; it cannot be had in the media where polarized opinion equals profit margin. A discussion like that can only be had in person, among real people, across coffee tables and in kitchens and small meetings. A discussion like that requires people to overcome politics.
The all-too-familiar result of a car crash
The Scope of the Problem
Car crashes happen all the time in this country. Although we lack reliable, independent, national and local government-funded scientific studies on the phenomenon of car crashes (more on that later), most experts agree that in densely-populated areas, car crashes tend to be more common. Most people know someone who has been affected, directly or indirectly, by a car crash. And, car crashes claim the lives of many people each year – in 2011, on average, car crashes claimed the lives of 89 people per day; and, according the CDC, automobile accidents are responsible for 33,687 deaths per year.
The Two Sides of the Debate
One would think that a problem that claims the lives of thirty-some-odd thousand Americans per year would be a problem that we would all want to solve… And, it is. Unfortunately, there seem to be only two polarized points of view among the most vocal Americans who have anything at all to say about cars: There are those who advocate for the elimination of cars in America with only a few exceptions, and there are those who argue vociferously against anything they even begin to perceive as any sort of limitation on free and unfettered car ownership and car usage.
The Anti-Car Crowd (Car Control activists): Those who argue for the elimination of cars tend to be more liberal-minded, tend to align with the Democratic party, and tend to live in urban areas, particularly along the coasts and in a few densely-populated areas of the Midwest and Western United States. These people clamor in increasing fervor whenever a major accident occurs involving multiple cars, injuring and killing many people, renewing their calls for an America without cars everywhere, operated by just anyone – an America in which all cars are safely operated by professional bus drivers, and by the government. These people point out that cars kill an astounding number of Americans, and that certain areas should be entirely without cars for the safety of the public.
The Pro-Car Crowd (Car Rights activists): Those who argue for the protection of car rights tend to be more conservative, aligning more closely with the Republican party or identifying as Libertarian, and they tend to live in rural areas away from population centers, particularly in the American South. These people never fail to point out that it is their Constitutional right to own property and not to have that property taken away from them, according to the Fourth Amendment; an oft-repeated battle cry of the pro-car movement is “what part of ‘shall not be violated’ don’t you understand?” These people point out that cars don’t kill people, but people kill people; and that people will continue to kill people even without cars.
The Arguments We Should Avoid
After any mass-casualty incident involving cars, the old, predictable car debate turns toward familiar subjects that add precisely nothing to our understanding or our safety. These arguments serve only to polarize an already scared and angry public.
Here are a few examples of subjects that are NOT worthy of any further discussion:
Battling Over The High Ground of History: Car rights activists have invested heavily, in the last few decades, in claiming a sort of historical high ground by aligning themselves artificially with the principles of the American Revolution. The National Roadways Association (NRA), in addition to spending millions of dollars per year on political lobbying at all levels of government, has funded literally hundreds of research papers (almost entirely by the same few ‘scholars’) on the topic of transportation in the American Revolution – a topic hardly studied at all prior to 1970. Dozens of papers have focused specifically on Paul Revere’s famous ride, alone. In response, car control activists often point out that it was not Paul Revere at all who warned the colonists of the British advance, and that there are obvious and significant differences between horses and carriages – the transportation of the Revolutionary War era – and modern automobiles. At the end of the day this whole discussion is pointless; in due deference and with all respect to the men who fought and died to found our great nation, it simply doesn’t matter what Revolutionary-era leaders would say about cars today. We could not reasonably expect the Founding Fathers to have anything meaningful to say about a society that is vastly different from the one they founded, trying to deal with a set of problems that did not exist in their time, relating to advanced technologies that, for all practical purposes, wouldn’t even be immediately recognizable to a person from the latter 18th century who traveled much more slowly, on horseback, or in a horse-drawn carriage, on new roads that only began to traverse a small area along the edge of a largely unsettled continent.
Banning Science: In the early 1990s, the Centers for Disease Control published the first comprehensive studies on the incidence of car deaths and injuries, establishing for the first time a few early observations supported by then-current data. The government’s analysis was prototypical, focusing on some basic questions – like whether or not having a car owner in a given home made people in the home more or less likely to die or be injured by a car, and whether deaths and injuries correlate with other factors like geographic location and specific conditions in the local environment. This was early science; yet, it provoked a furious response from the NRA and other hard-line car rights activists, who argued that the research was politically motivated, poorly executed, and logically flawed. Within the next funding cycle, the NRA had successfully lobbied to place a restriction on government funding for the CDC, and later the Department of Health and Human Services – effectively ending all government research into cars, car deaths, car injuries, and car safety. Those restrictions still exist today. As a result, while the government still compiled statistical data that might look like science related to these topics – it’s not – it’s simply numbers. The NRA has also successfully lobbied at state and local levels to make less and less data concerning cars, car deaths, and car injuries available to researchers, public and private, both within and outside of government. This concerted effort to halt scientific inquiry into any topic even peripherally associated with cars (at least, any inquiry not sponsored by the NRA) has been surprisingly effective. As a result – basic and applied research in these fields is now marginalized in academic and private circles as well as government (due to the danger it poses, both politically and financially, to any institution even contemplating car research).
Any argument about science focusing on cars and car safety is itself an argument we should avoid. If we properly understand science and if scientific inquiry is conducted properly, then it has no bias (and if it does have bias, that bias is exposed through the peer review process). As such, and given the scope of the problem, we should be conducting more scientific inquiry, not punishing scientists and institutions who dare to examine research questions related to cars.
Banning Certain Types of Cars: Car control activists have in the past sponsored – sometimes successfully – legislation to effectively outlaw certain types of automobiles at national and local levels. Some people who loosely identify with car control activism point out that the most deadly automobiles are those that look the fastest, and as such, that those types of automobiles should be banned as a public safety measure. The Brady ban, instituted after a famous incident in which President Reagan and one of his Secret Service guards were injured by a crazy person driving a car in the latter 1980s (and named for the injured Secret Service Agent), banned cars that looked particularly fast and dangerous for ten years; the ban on so-called “sports cars” expired in 2004, and since then, sports cars have come back into the American car market with a vengeance due to pent-up consumer demand. A similar set of restrictions was proposed recently, after another crazy person drove a car into an elementary school, killing dozens of small children, in an incident that shocked the nation. Under these restrictions, cars with certain features – e.g., bright red or bright yellow in color, having two (vice four or five) doors, having a “spoiler” on the back, and so on – would be banned from being sold, owned and operated by private citizens. Car control activists spend a great deal of time touting that they, too, own cars, but that no one needs a “sports car” to get to and from the grocery store or drive their children to soccer practice, as responsible car owners do regularly. Car rights activists are quick to point out that the color, number of doors, and decorative features installed on a car don’t make it more or less deadly; in one famous example, the Nissan Altima SE would be legal under the ban, but the Infiniti G35 coupe would be illegal – even though both cars have the same drivetrain, the same curb weight, and the same performance characteristics. While some cars *do* go *much* faster than others, broadly speaking, a car is a car, with regard to its capacity to injure and kill people operating or just present in the vicinity of any given type of car.
Banning Cars Altogether: There are those hard-liners among car control activists who respond to any incident of car violence by calling for cars to be entirely banned. Their emotional response to incidents of deaths involving automobiles – particularly large-scale and well-publicized incidents (think massive Interstate pile-ups) is understandable. Such events are gruesome and horrific. However, as a strictly practical matter, most people agree that the wholesale removal of all cars from America is simply impossible. America is too spread-out. The car came into its own in America, and Americans have a particular love of their cars that simply cannot be extinguished, no matter how many people are injured or die in terrible accidents and preventable tragedies. Also, there are just too many cars in America to ever take them all away through any action of government or society; it’s just not something that could ever practically happen – even if the majority of us wanted it to happen – which, it turns out, we don’t.
The Discussions We Should Have
Hiding between and among the polarizing and misleading arguments of the demagoguery, we find points on which large segments of the population broadly agree. Those points are worthy of our time, our attention, and our investment as a society; they should be discussed at length, studied until they are fully understood, and expanded to form the framework of sound and reasonable public policy on the subject of cars.
Here are a few of the discussions that we should be having:
Setting Standards for Car Operator Qualifications: Operating a car is universally acknowledged to be a dangerous endeavor – to the car operator, to operators of other cars, and to third parties in the public who may be exposed to cars as they go about their daily lives. Car control and car rights activists, both, tend to agree that car operators should have a certain, baseline understanding of cars and how to safely and effectively operate cars. In fact, car rights enthusiasts are more than happy, usually, to both offer and engage in training for car owners and operators, both those who are new to cars and those who wish to increase their skills in operating cars or brush up on car operations and car safety. Since we agree, broadly, as a society, on these points – we should exploit that agreement to establish some reasonable baseline for the knowledge and skill required of a car operator, and we should seek to prove or disprove that setting this baseline of skills and knowledge would make us safer as a society that owns and uses cars. We could consider testing and licensing of car operators, and we could even consider re-testing in old age, or perhaps having slightly different laws and standards from state to state, in the event that we cannot agree on a national set of car operator standards.
Acting Against Irresponsible Car Ownership: Practically everyone (save some hard-liners in the car rights camp) agrees that not everyone should be allowed to own and operate a car. Owning a car brings with it a serious set of responsibilities, and not everyone can handle those responsibilities. In particular, people who have a history of operating cars unsafely and illegally (perhaps people who have caused accidents due to negligence in the past, who have operated cars while impaired, etc.), and people who have a diminished capacity to safely own and operate cars (people with physical / mental impairments that would keep them from being able to operate a car safely) probably should not be allowed to own and operate cars. Car rights activists are quick to point out that people can obtain cars in many ways, some illegal; that it would take some kind of massive government bureaucracy to keep tabs on all cars when they change hands and all drivers; and that trying to control who can and who cannot legally own and operate a car may be as futile as trying to remove all cars from the road. This may or may not be the case. The question we need to ask ourselves is, is it worth it? Is the benefit to society of enforcing responsibility and using both administrative and judicial resources to try to keep unsafe people from operating cars freely, worth the potential benefits of safer roads?
One argument that hard-line car rights activists make, that we should reject, is that there is only one reason for keeping lists of cars and car owners, and that is to take away all cars from all car owners. This is patently false, and an example of the slippery slope fallacy. The purpose of keeping lists of cars and car owners is to know who owns what car – so that, if the circumstance arises where that knowledge is important (say, the car is stolen, or the car is used in the commission of a crime, or the owner of a car loses his or her ability to operate a car safely), then, and only then, can we as a society use that information to take some particular action related to that particular car, or that particular owner.
Establishing Consistent Limits on Car Operation: The United States of America has a Federal government (central) and State governments (provincial), and the tenth amendment to our Constitution says that any powers that aren’t specifically granted to the central government are reserved for the provincial governments or to the people individually. This has been part of our culture from the beginning of our culture; we tend to distrust a far-away central authority and we empower government closer to the people over government that is further away, and may not have the interests of the people as its primary motivation. We are careful not to set as a national standard something that should be a local standard, to which local leaders can be held to account by local people. However – when it comes to car operation – there are some standards upon which we can all agree, and the few standards that now exist are often contradictory and differ radically from state to state.
We should seek to identify those standards that *should* be elevated to the national stage for adoption, and we should have those debates on the national stage in order to set and enforce car rights and car operation standards, and specifically limits, more effectively from state to state. It is not right that New York requires car operators to be a certain age and to possess a license to operate a car, while a four year old can legally operate a tractor or a tractor-trailer in Wyoming. It’s not right that in some states you drive on the right, in some states you drive on the left, and in some states you drive wherever you want. It’s not right that some cities have specific places where only pedestrians are allowed and cars are not – and other states don’t have any places where cars aren’t allowed to go. It’s not right that some states specifically allow cars to be operated where people are drinking, and others do not. A national conversation needs to occur; we need to consider what are reasonable consistent limits on our rights to operate cars, and what are not; and, where we see that a limit on the operation of cars is reasonable and responsible universally, we need to make that limit a national standard, so that Americans, no matter where they are, can count on that standard being applied the same way – whether we are operating cars or not, from state to state, from town to town. This will give car owners the predictability they need to own and operate their cars anywhere in this nation subject to a consistent baseline set of standards and limits, and it will also give non-car owners the ability to predict what car owners should and should not be able to do and where cars should and should not be able to be operated. It also means that states will respect other states’ car operation standards and that we can begin to operate cars both more safely, and more broadly.
Again, in this case, there are hard liners in the car rights camp who maintain silly positions on this topic. One silly argument is that no limit is reasonable (e.g., anyone should be allowed to operate any car anywhere in any way they choose, and that if there’s not a specific law against that, then there shouldn’t be, and that most existing laws limiting car usage in any way should be repealed as ineffective, unnecessary, or fundamentally at odds with our rights). Another silly argument is that no limit is reasonable because criminals will not obey any laws establishing any limits. Both arguments should be summarily dismissed as the poppycock they are – because both amount to arguments for a society without law and without respect for the rule of law. If no limit is reasonable – why limit anything? If criminals will not obey the law – why have any laws at all? We write criminal law not because we expect it to be universally obeyed, but because we expect the opposite; criminal statutes embody societal norms, and we have them because we want to tool our society to be able to both expect compliance and respond effectively to noncompliance.
Everything said here is true – but not about cars.
This topic is complex. If your opinion on this topic fits onto a bumper sticker – you’re wrong, and you should reconsider your position. At present our thinking on these complex issues is limited to two, equally fallacious positions. Both positions – both extremes – should be rejected. MOST OF US fall somewhere in between these two equally lunatic positions on the subject of cars; yet, all we see on television, all we read in the news, all we hear from our political leaders, is one idiotic position or the other.
I invite you, having read what (I hope) is a neutral and central position on a difficult and divisive set of issues, to take a stand against both extremist viewpoints, and engage in personal conversations, with people, in small groups, on these and similar topics. I challenge you to come to a consensus with someone who you’ve been told hates everything you stand for. Your reward is that you get your country back, you get the full benefit of civil discourse, and perhaps we all learn that two polarized opposites is not the beginning of wisdom but the end of all progress – in this, and in so many other matters facing our great nation.