Cars killed 42,060 Americans in 2020 according to an estimate from the National Safety Council. That is more than were killed by guns in recent years. Driving is the most dangerous thing most Americans do every day and it is more dangerous in America than in any other comparably rich country because federal and state policies make it illegal for local communities to engineer roadways to slow down cars in cities where most deaths occur and make pedestrians safer. Different policies explain why deaths are much higher in some countries such as the Global South and the US than in other countries like in other rich countries.
Worldwide, the car death rate is even higher than in the US, and it’s especially bad in the Global South. Cars kill 1.3 million people worldwide every year, more than murders and suicides combined, and most victims are pedestrians, bikers, and motorcyclists — not car passengers, who tend to be wealthier…
The reason car deaths are so high in America is that American policies favor car speed over car safety and pedestrian safety even in urban areas with a lot of pedestrians and bikers.
Money is power and as Mancur Olson first explained in The Logic of Collective Action, not everyone’s money is equally powerful. Mancur was an economist with an uber-macho-sounding first name. It is pronounced ‘Man-Sir’ which sounds like the kind of caricature you would find in an irreverent youth novel by Louis Sachar. In Mancur’s theory, there are transactions costs that prevent large groups of people from engaging in political action. However, a wealthy interest group, even though it is a small minority, can politically dominate the political system because their financial resources are so concentrated. Even when the vast majority of voters have much more total money at stake in a political dispute, unless they can create a political organization where they can concentrate their money, they won’t be able to win a political dispute against more concentrated financial interest groups.
An example of this playing out is the transfer of property rights from pedestrians to automobile drivers back in the 1920s as Josheph Stromberg explains:
A hundred years ago, if you were a pedestrian, crossing the street was simple: You walked across it.
Today, if there’s traffic in the area and you want to follow the law, you need to find a crosswalk. And if there’s a traffic light, you need to wait for it to change to green.
Fail to do so, and you’re committing a crime: jaywalking. In some cities — Los Angeles, for instance — police ticket tens of thousands of pedestrians annually for jaywalking, with fines of up to $250.
To most people, this seems part of the basic nature of roads. But it’s actually the result of an aggressive, forgotten 1920s campaign led by auto groups and manufacturers that redefined who owned the city streets.
“In the early days of the automobile, it was drivers’ job to avoid you, not your job to avoid them,” says Peter Norton, a historian at the University of Virginia and author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. “But under the new model, streets became a place for cars — and as a pedestrian, it’s your fault if you get hit.” … prior to the 1920s, city streets looked dramatically different than they do today. They were considered to be a public space: a place for pedestrians, pushcart vendors, horse-drawn vehicles, streetcars, and children at play.
“Pedestrians were walking in the streets anywhere they wanted, whenever they wanted, usually without looking,” Norton says… As cars began to spread widely during the 1920s, the consequence of this was predictable: death. Over the first few decades of the century, the number of people killed by cars skyrocketed.
Those killed were mostly pedestrians, not drivers, and they were disproportionately the elderly and children, who had previously had free rein to play in the streets.
The public response to these deaths, by and large, was outrage. Automobiles were often seen as frivolous playthings, akin to the way we think of yachts today (they were often called “pleasure cars”). And on the streets, they were considered violent intruders… As deaths mounted, anti-car activists sought to slow them down. …in 1923, says Norton, …42,000 Cincinnati residents signed a petition for a ballot initiative that would require all cars to have a governor limiting them to 25 miles per hour. Local auto dealers were terrified, and sprang into action… [This] …galvanized auto groups nationwide, showing them that if they weren’t proactive, the potential for automobile sales could be minimized.
In response, automakers, dealers, and enthusiast groups worked to legally redefine the street — so that pedestrians, rather than cars, would be restricted… But in the mid-20s, auto groups took up the campaign with vigor, passing laws all over the country.
Most notably, auto industry groups took control of a series of meetings convened by Herbert Hoover (then secretary of commerce) to create a model traffic law that could be used by cities across the country. Due to their influence, the product of those meetings — the 1928 Model Municipal Traffic Ordinance — was largely based off traffic law in Los Angeles, which had enacted strict pedestrian controls in 1925…
Even while passing these laws, however, auto industry groups faced a problem: In Kansas City and elsewhere, no one had followed the rules, and they were rarely enforced by police or judges. To solve it, the industry took up several strategies.
One was an attempt to shape news coverage of car accidents. The National Automobile Chamber of Commerce, an industry group, established a free wire service for newspapers: Reporters could send in the basic details of a traffic accident and would get in return a complete article to print the next day. These articles, printed widely, shifted the blame for accidents to pedestrians… AAA began sponsoring school safety campaigns and poster contests, crafted around the importance of staying out of the street. Some of the campaigns also ridiculed kids who didn’t follow the rules — in 1925, for instance, hundreds of Detroit school children watched the “trial” of a 12-year-old who’d crossed a street unsafely, and, as Norton writes, a jury of his peers sentenced him to clean chalkboards for a week… This was also part of the final strategy: shame.
In getting pedestrians to follow traffic laws, “the ridicule of their fellow citizens is far more effective than any other means which might be adopted,” said E.B. Lefferts, the head of the Automobile Club of Southern California in the 1920s… Auto campaigners lobbied police to publicly shame transgressors by whistling or shouting at them — and even carrying women back to the sidewalk — instead of quietly reprimanding or fining them. They staged safety campaigns in which actors dressed in 19th-century garb, or as clowns, were hired to cross the street illegally, signifying that the practice was outdated and foolish. In a 1924 New York safety campaign, a clown was marched in front of a slow-moving Model T and rammed repeatedly.
This strategy also explains the name that was given to crossing illegally on foot: jaywalking. During this era, the word “jay” meant something like “rube” or “hick” — a person from the sticks, who didn’t know how to behave in a city. So pro-auto groups promoted use of the word “jay walker” as someone who didn’t know how to walk in a city, threatening public safety…
“The campaign was extremely successful,” Norton says. “It totally changed the message about what streets are for.”
Although there were about thirteen times more pedestrians than automobile owners in the 1920s, the automobile owners won the property right to exclude pedestrians from the streets because automobile owners had concentrated interest groups that could use their financial clout to push out propaganda to the newspapers, lobby politicians, and fight court battles in favor of changing American culture to transfer the right of way from ordinary pedestrians to large vehicles. The pedestrians were unorganized and lacked the kind of concentrated financial interest that existed among the automobile manufacturer corporations, dealerships, and owners’ clubs like AAA.
Those concentrated financial interests overturned traditions that had dominated the cultures of the world for millennia. It was a sophisticated campaign to not only change the legal rights to use the roadways, but also change the hearts and minds of every citizen to the point where it is hard to imagine the kind of street scene that was full of people walking along with busses, wagons, and carriages sharing the space.
The automobile lobby also succeeded in funneling government resources away from public transit into building more roads and highway systems and taking away valuable land along our urban roads that had been used by pedestrians and vendors as parkway/sidewalk space which was converted them into a massive socialist parking scheme that now lines the sides of most public streets in America.
If you think this kind of manipulation of the public couldn’t happen today, you might be surprised that it is happening again at a smaller scale. The rise in popularity of large vehicles like SUVs is leading to another surge in pedestrian fatalities.
Instead of working to make pedestrians safer, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has done the automobile lobby’s dirty work and gone on social media to blame the pedestrians for the problem.
The increased freedom to drive has become a social obligation in America. Unlike in most countries, being able to drive a private car has become a “virtual necessity” as the US Supreme Court declared. This is not only costly in terms of the expense of owning, maintaining, and insuring a lot of cars, but, as legal scholar Gregory H. Shill points out, “it kills 40,000 Americans a year and seriously injures more than 4 million more”. That just includes the numbers who are in automobile accidents and millions more are injured or killed by the pollution automobiles produce.
Mr. Shill enumerates other legal changes that the “interests of Big Oil, the auto barons, and the car-loving 1 percenters of the Roaring Twenties” have wrought:
- “inequities in traffic regulation“
- “single-family-only zoning … for outlawing duplexes and apartments in huge swaths of the country” a legal problem which is fortunately now “on the defensive” a bit.
- “other land-use restrictions… that separate residential and commercial areas or require needlessly large yards [and] scatter Americans across distances and highway-like roads that are impractical or dangerous to traverse on foot” and discourage public transit.
- ” laws that require landowners who build housing and office space to build housing for cars as well. In large part because of parking quotas, parking lots now cover more than a third of the land area of some U.S. cities; Houston is estimated to have 30 parking spaces for every resident. As the UCLA urban-planning professor Donald Shoup has written, this mismatch flows from legal mandates rather than market demand. Every employee who brings a car to the office essentially doubles the amount of space he takes up at work, and in urban areas his employer may be required by law to build him a $50,000 garage parking space. “
- ” the mortgage-interest tax deduction …primarily subsidizes large houses in car-centric areas.”
- “the tax code gives car buyers a tax rebate of up to $7,500 when their new vehicles are electric or hybrid”. No subsidies for people who walk or bike.
- “cities are sometimes obligated by law to raise speed limits against their will, and local governments are barred from lowering them even for safety reasons.”
- “States don’t require drivers to carry enough insurance to fully compensate people they hit. …A number of states also employ no-fault systems associated with increased fatality risks.”
- “Tort law is supposed to allow victims to recover for harms caused by others. Yet the standard of liability that applies to car crashes—ordinary negligence—establishes low expectations of how safe a driver must be.”
- “criminal law has carved out a lesser category uniquely for vehicular manslaughter. …Even when a motorist kills someone and is found to have been violating the law while doing so (for example, by running a red light), criminal charges are rarely brought and judges go light… Given New York’s lax enforcement record, the Freakonomics podcast described running over pedestrians there as “the perfect crime.””
Will future corporations shift more rights over the streets back to pedestrians?
Today, there is a new kind of industry that is creating a concentrated financial interest that is aligned with pedestrians and cyclists: the rental bike/scooter corporation. Although it is in its infancy, it is already helping to create a tiny counterbalance to the enormous political power of the automobile interests. The bike-share/scooter startup Bird plans to fund protected bike lanes and it is setting up the same kind of political advocacy groups that the automobile industry created a century ago.
The Los Angeles-based firm announced that it will form a new Global Safety Advisory Board led by David Strickland, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), …that will “create, advise, and implement global programs, campaigns, and products to improve the safety of those riding Birds and other e-scooters.” … In addition, Bird will begin steering revenue into a dedicated fund to expand transit infrastructure in the cities where it operates. The initiative would set aside $1 per day from each scooter in operation to help cities build new protected bike lanes, as well as maintain existing ones by repainting and repairing them.
Vox’s Umair Irfan points out that electric scooters have tremendous potential to encourage more public transit because they make the ‘last mile’ easier between a rider’s home and a transit station.
“There’s the West LA rail station that’s a 22-minute walk from me,” Taylor said. “I took a scooter the other day and it took me five minutes.” …”Today, 40 percent of car trips are less than two miles long,” said Bird CEO Travis VanderZanden in a statement in March. “Our goal is to replace as many of those trips as possible so we can to get cars off the road and curb traffic and greenhouse gas emissions.” …Scooter rides are typically less than 2 miles, which is often too short a distance for hailing a ride if you don’t already own a car. This is part of why ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft are so keen on electric scooters: They fill a need their current services can’t… So scooter rides are going to displace car trips to an extent, which may reduce the number of cars on the road.
Fewer cars mean a little less political power for the automobile interests. And the rise of private corporations that can lobby in favor of multi-modal transit will help change the politics of road usage.
…perhaps one of the greatest benefits of scooters will be that they will force a larger discussion of whom or what we prioritize when we design cities.
For more about who rules the road, I recommend the 24 minute audio program, The Modern Moloch at 99% Invisible and Peter Norton’s “Street Rivals: Jaywalking and the Invention of the Motor Age Street” which is fairly anti-car, but well written. On the more humorous side is this concluding video from Adam Ruins Everything: