Look, Out, Here I Come!



IN the past twenty-five years more than seven hundred thousand people have been killed by automobiles in the United States. This is almost twice as many as have been killed in all the wars in which this country has ever been engaged. Some fifteen to twenty million others have been injured, more than a million of them permanently disabled. As a cause of death the automobile ranks just behind diabetes and tuberculosis. The dead lie along the highways in windrows. The shrieks and moans of the mangled almost drown out the curses of those who have struck them. He that would now be a friend to man and live by the side of the road must build a hospital, not a house. And he had better have an understudy, for the number of those killed every year while befriending the injured is large.

Things are getting worse, too, and if the manufacturers make good — as they surely will—on their promises of more power and more speed, they are going to get very much worse.

Probably the most astounding element in this situation is the public indifference to it. Everyone knows what is happening. There are few people who have not at some time or another seen an accident and turned away in horror. There is hardly a family in the country that has not sustained a casualty. A ten-year-old child could formulate rules that would put an end to it. Yet it goes on with an ever accelerated ferocity.

Obviously there is more to it than meets the eye. Such a state of affairs would not continue unless it gratified something pretty deep in the national psyche. We must like it. However much we may lament and protest, we are plainly having a wonderful time.

Psychiatrists and safety directors now assume that any man who is the victim of an unusual series of disasters has in some way courted his misfortune. If a man falls down a manhole once, it is an accident; if he falls down a manhole twice, it is a coincidence; but if he falls down a manhole twenty times, it is a pleasure. Of course the pleasure may not be in the falling but in what he unconsciously hopes to get out of it. He may want sympathy. He may want an excuse to quit his job. He may hope to sue the city. He may want to triumph over an opinionated neighbor who said that no one ever fell down a manhole twice. Or he may just enjoy the publicity. But however obscure the motive or painful the fall, he likes it.

And there can be little doubt, that we like our automobile accidents. There wouldn’t be so many of them if we didn’t.

That we like to see and hear about them to the most revolting detail is certain. The prevailing temper of the crowds that collect so eagerly at the scene of an accident is invariably one of pleasurable excitement. The newsreels and the popular picture magazines batten on sadism. Such things are always presented, of course, as contributions to safety. But there is no evidence that they affect anything except the circulations of the readers and the magazines.

That most accidents are directly due to those involved in them has gradually come to be the opinion of men who have devoted years to the problem. It is curious and a little sad to read the bulletins and analyses issued by the insurance companies, the highway departments, and the traffic institutes. Up until about 1937 they had a distinct note of hope: a few more educational campaigns, better road engineering, stiffer law enforcement, shatterproof glass, new headlights, and so on, and the situation would be under control. But safety campaigns educated, the engineers broadened the roads into runways and banked them into speedways and elaborated the iniersections into Chinese puzzles, the manufacturers put shatterproof glass and sealed-beam headlights into every car - and the deaths went up and up and hope went down and down.

Now the experts have decided that it is primarily a psychological problem. They seem discouraged, even a little exasperated: “Drivers usually have no one but themselves to blame for accidents”; “Highway safety is a problem which . . . must be solved by each individual for himself”; and “Automobile accidents are the result of individual carelessness.”

But is “carelessness” quite the word? Is a man “careless” when he scoots out of line to pass twenty other cars on a hill, when he cuts in savagely, races through a changing light, or smashes the gates at a railway crossing to smear himself broadside against a passing train? (In about 27 percent of all car-train accidents it is the car that hits the train!) Why are there relatively far fewer accidents involving taxis, buses, and other commercial vehicles than what are quaintly called “pleasure” vehicles? Is it that commercial drivers care more or, perhaps, less? Could it be that men who drive for wages do not identify themselves so completely with someone else’s car ?

The fact must be faced that the automobile is particularly conducive to the sort of behavior that causes accidents. The exhaustion that comes from driving and inhaling the car’s fumes is insidious, resembling mild drunkenness rather than ordinary tiredness. The continual shock of driving in traffic frays nerves and strains tempers. The immense power obedient to the slightest pressure of the foot encourages a feeling of aggressive potency, part icularly in the weak, the frustrated, the defeated, those who are suffering from feelings of inferiority — those whom the insecurity and accelerated competition of the modern world are multiplying by geometric progression. Lolling on soft cushions, soothed by music, sweeping through space with a hypnotic hum, the very air warmed to please, how easy to deem oneself a god! And how terrible the wrath visited upon the impious wretch who would dare to disturb one’s dreams or question one’s divinity!

There are over twenty-five million cars in use in the United States and about half of them seem to be operated by temporary paranoiacs. It is amazing what delusions of grandeur and persecution seize otherwise sane-seeming men once they get behind a steering wheel. Any attempt to pass them is an affront, to be resisted to the death. Any hesitation in letting them pass is studied insolence, justifying the use of violence. The slightest delay of others at a green light is a malicious prank; the least impatience of others at their delay is a violation of the Constitution. And so they go, chafing and raging until, worn out with fifty tantrums, they arrive home limp and exhausted to gather strength for the next morning’s ordeal.

But these are the milquetoasts and in their milder moments. More manly fellows assert themselves, show the other driver “where to get off,” put him “in his place,” which, often enough, is the hospital or the grave. Sometimes they put themselves and their families there with him. The more socially conscious and energetic may undertake to educate those whom they regard as poorer drivers by shouting at them, crowding them, dazzling them by the glare of their headlights, and, sometimes, heading directly at them with a burst of speed and swerving aside at the last moment. Or at least, one assumes, intending to swerve aside at the last moment. The police cannot always be sure just what a corpse’s intentions were.

Most “causes” of accidents are only contributory factors. They are merely the conditions under which if you behave in a certain way you are likely to have an accident. (The experts compute that “on the average a person violates a safe practice three hundred times before he is injured in consequence.”) But the behavior is the thing and much of the behavior seems to be motivated by what De Quincey called “the glory of motion.” People collide at intersections not out of carelessness so much as out of resentment at the other fellow’s daring to cross their path. Drivers get out of their lanes and race to death at the summit of hills because they are furiously determined to put an end to the “persecution” of the cars dawdling in front of them. Autoists speed as much to save face as time and frequently and literally lose both.

The safety campaigns and the work of the engineers are highly commendable but the most they can do is to create circumstances under which safety is possible if the public wants it. But there is little indication that any very large segment of the public wants it. — wants it, that is, enough to pay the necessary price. Probably 90 per cent of these killings and maimings could be stopped at once if cars were properly inspected, traffic laws enforced, and drivers’ licenses issued only to those who have demonstrated their ability to drive, their familiarity with the laws, their physical and financial soundness, and their emotional stability.

The rub is in the last requirement. It might eliminate half of those now driving and reduce the automobile industry to mere purveyors of transportation. In so doing it might also give us back some peace and leisure, permit us to plan cities for living, lighten the immense subsidy that through roads, traffic regulation, and tariffs we now must pay, divert wealth into houses and books so that people will be content to stay home, even on Sunday afternoons, and generally slow up the hysterical tempo at which millions are now jittering themselves into futility.

There isn’t much chance.