The Absurd Primacy of the Automobile in American Life
Considering the constant fatalities, rampant pollution, and exorbitant costs of ownership, there is no better word to characterize the car’s dominance than insane.
The car is the star. That’s been true for well over a century—unrivaled staying power for an industrial-age, pistons-and-brute-force machine in an era so dominated by silicon and software. Cars conquered the daily culture of American life back when top hats and child labor were in vogue, and well ahead of such other innovations as radio, plastic, refrigerators, the electrical grid, and women’s suffrage.
A big part of why they’ve stuck around is that they are the epitome of convenience. That’s the allure and the promise that’s kept drivers hooked, dating all the way back to the versatile, do-everything Ford Model T. Convenience (some might call it freedom) is not a selling point to be easily dismissed—this trusty conveyance, always there, always ready, on no schedule but its owner’s. Buses can’t do that. Trains can’t do that. Even Uber makes riders wait.
But convenience, along with American history, culture, rituals, and man-machine affection, hide the true cost and nature of cars. And what is that nature? Simply this: In almost every way imaginable, the car, as it is deployed and used today, is insane.
What are the failings of cars? First and foremost, they are profligate wasters of money and fuel: More than 80 cents of every dollar spent on gasoline is squandered by the inherent inefficiencies of the modern internal combustion engine. No part of daily life wastes more energy and, by extension, more money than the modern automobile. While burning through all that fuel, cars and trucks spew toxins and particulate waste into the atmosphere that induce cancer, lung disease, and asthma. These emissions measurably decrease longevity—not by a matter of days, but years. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology calculates that 53,000 Americans die prematurely every year from vehicle pollution, losing 10 years of life on average compared to their lifespans in the absence of tailpipe emissions.
There are also the indirect environmental, health, and economic costs of extracting, transporting, and refining oil for vehicle fuels, and the immense national-security costs and risks of being dependent on oil imports for significant amounts of that fuel. As an investment, the car is a massive waste of opportunity—“the world’s most underutilized asset,” the investment firm Morgan Stanley calls it. That’s because the average car sits idle 92 percent of the time. Accounting for all costs, from fuel to insurance to depreciation, the average car owner in the U.S. pays $12,544 a year for a car that puts in a mere 14-hour workweek. Drive an SUV? Tack on another $1,908.14
Then there is the matter of climate. Transportation is a principal cause of the global climate crisis, exacerbated by a stubborn attachment to archaic, wasteful, and inefficient transportation modes and machines. But are cars the true culprit? Airplanes, for instance, are often singled out as the most carbon-intensive form of travel in terms of emissions per passenger-mile (or per ton of cargo), but that’s not the whole story: Total passenger miles by air are miniscule compared to cars. In any given year, 60 percent of American adults never set foot on an airplane, and the vast majority who do fly take only one round trip a year. Unfortunately, air travel is not the primary problem, contributing only 8 percent of U.S. transportation-related greenhouse gases. Cars and trucks, by contrast, pump out a combined 83 percent of transportation carbon.
Driving an SUV or even a mid-size car from New York to L.A. is worse for the planet than flying there. This is true in part because cars’ fuel efficiency has improved far more slowly than planes’, but also because of Americans’ increasing propensity to drive alone, which has made car travel less efficient and more carbon-intensive per passenger-mile in recent years.
So cars pose the biggest threat on the climate front, with all the costs that global warming imposes on infrastructure, homes, and lives through increasingly severe storms, droughts, rising sea levels, and pressure on food supplies. If the price of gasoline and the vehicles that burn it actually reflected the true costs and damage they inflict, the common car would go extinct. Gasoline would cost way more than $10 a gallon. That’s how big the secret subsidy is.
And that’s not even counting cars’ most dramatic cost: They waste lives. They are one of America’s leading causes of avoidable injury and death, especially among the young. Oddly, the most immediately devastating consequence of the modern car—the carnage it leaves in its wake—seems to generate the least public outcry and attention. Jim McNamara, a sergeant with the California Highway Patrol, where officers spend 80 percent of their time responding to car wrecks, believes such public inattention and apathy arise whenever a problem is “massive but diffuse.” Whether it’s climate change or car crashes, he says, if the problem doesn’t show itself all at once—as when an airliner goes down with dozens or hundreds of people on board—it’s hard to get anyone’s attention. Very few people see what he and his colleagues witness daily and up close: what hurtling tons of metal slamming into concrete and brick and trees and one another does to the human body strapped (or, all too often, not strapped) within.
In contrast, a roadside wreck is experienced by the vast majority of drivers as a nagging but unavoidable inconvenience—just another source of detours and traffic jams. Increasingly popular and powerful smartphone traffic apps eliminate even those brief close encounters with the roadway body count, routing savvy drivers away from crash-related congestion. The typical car wreck is becoming all but invisible to everyone but those who are killed or maimed and those whose job is to clean it up. Many are aware at some level that troubling numbers of people are injured and die in cars, but most remain unfazed by this knowledge.
This disparity in attention between plane crashes and car crashes cannot be justified by their relative death tolls. Quite the contrary: In the 14 years following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, there were eight crashes on American soil of passenger planes operated by regional, national, or international carriers. The death toll in those crashes totaled 442. That averages out to fewer than three fatalities a month.
The death toll on America’s streets and highways during that same period since 9/11 was more than 400,000 men, women, and children. The traffic death toll in 2015 exceeded 3,000 a month. When it comes to the number of people who die in car wrecks, America experiences the equivalent of four airliner crashes every week.
A normal day on the road, then, is a “quiet catastrophe,” as Ken Kolosh, the statistics chief for the National Safety Council, calls it. He ought to know: He makes his living crafting the annual statistical compendium of every unintentional injury and death in the country.
Car crashes are the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 1 and 39. They rank in the top five killers for Americans 65 and under (behind cancer, heart disease, accidental poisoning, and suicide). And the direct economic costs alone—the medical bills and emergency-response costs reflected in taxes and insurance payments—represent a tax of $784 on every man, woman, and child living in the U.S.
The numbers are so huge they are not easily grasped, and so are perhaps best understood by a simple comparison: If U.S. roads were a war zone, they would be the most dangerous battlefield the American military has ever encountered. Seriously: Annual U.S. highway fatalities outnumber the yearly war dead during each Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, the War of 1812, and the American Revolution. When all of the injuries from car wrecks are also taken into account, one year of American driving is more dangerous than all those wars put together. The car is the star.
This article has been adapted from Edward Humes's book, Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation.