Killer cars

A friend and former Tofino resident died recently. It was especially tragic in that she was young (in her 30s) and a mother of two, including a months-old baby.

And it was jarring, because it was a freakish auto accident involving, according to the police report, an unlikely sequence of events that seemed almost pointedly direct in their selection of her as their intended target. She was one of those people who is loved by everyone she meets, and her death was a blow to many, me included.

There’s a lot of virtual love and sympathy flowing on Facebook, and no doubt in person back in Ontario, where she lived. But what nobody is mentioning is what i see as the root cause of her death : car culture.

Yes, the collision that occurred was an accident, in that it was unplanned. But it was a statistically inevitable accident all the same, what you might cynically call the “collateral damage” of having millions of hurtling steel vessels on roads all over the country, controlled by loosely trained, fallible, half-attentive operators. People are going to die. But they are going to die invisibly.

In 2010 in Canada, 2,227 people died and 170,629 were injured by traffic (source). If that much trauma occurred in, i don’t know, recreational boating (actual fatality figure 345 for 2006-08: source), there might be a hue and cry about fixing this terrible problem.

But the car is strangely immune to this scrutiny. As a society, we cherish and, indeed, believe we cannot live without the freedom mobility our vehicles offer us. We have made the subliminal choice to live with a certain level of traffic death. And this choice is rarely questioned, not even when statistics come home to roost and somebody we know dies in a car accident. It’s a tragedy, we acknowledge; but not for a second do we consider giving up our cars.

The car and its freedom mobility is built into the fabric of our lives like the oxygen we breathe. There are cars everywhere, like air, and we take both for granted until they make themselves noticed by not being there.

But likening our cars to air is misleading, for air truly is necessary to life, whereas humanity has lived without cars for most of history. Today many people (including me) conduct fulfilling lives without a car.

I roll my eyes when i hear somebody say, “I couldn’t live without my car.” You couldn’t live the life you live now, i want to tell them, but it’s not like you’d die. You’d adjust, as people have for eons. And those personal adjustments would probably make the world a better place.

Cars have this hidden dimension of evil. But nobody calls out this cultural blind spot.

Car culture, you’re a killer. I’m calling you out.

Postscript — When i first wrote the above, i said “the freedom the car offers us,” but later changed that to “mobility.” A car brings a visible level of freedom — you can hop in and drive where and when you want — but it comes with mostly invisible chains attached, not least of which is the necessity of working to pay for it. The lifestyle chains are even more invisible. Do car owners judge the trade-off as worth it? Or have they even given it any thought?

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