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It is important to clarify that the author of this paper has been a car driver and owner for several years, and admits that the automobile seemed to provide important benefits in his life. Convenience in driving to work outside of the city, an enhanced social and family life, and advantages in leisure and vacation travel are pleasurable and profitable benefits that he enjoyed for quite a number of years, thanks to having a car. Notwithstanding the critics, automobiles are still the best available option for land transport, from the economic point of view at least. In any case, it just seems as if the infrastructure of the economy, the cities, and modern civilization in general has grown too dependent on the automobile to even consider a better alternative. So it looks as if, whether we like it or not, the automobile and the whole system that supports it is here to stay, for a while at least. There is, however, an important price to pay for all of this. The full tragic dimension of this cost is seemingly ignored or rationalized by the majority of ordinary people, probably because they just don't see any way to change it. Some of the negative aspects caused by the automobile culture as we know it, that affect ordinary citizens, as well as the World at large are: 1. Environmental According to Mark Heersgard, the automobile accounts for “between 20 and 25 percent of current greenhouse emissions.” In connection with this greenhouse effect, it is interesting to note what the Greenpeace.org web site suggests regarding the current Katrina disaster in the US: “While the immediate effort must go into addressing the human and environmental consequences, over the longer term Katrina has many lessons to offer and should be seen as a wake-up call about the dangers of continued global fossil fuel dependency.” Now worsened by the SUV fad, the massive use of cars allows—something now being promoted as a sport-access to hitherto unaccessible parts of the countryside, which is ruining the beauty of and the wildlife in those areas. What was once quiet and beautiful is now ugly, dirty, and noisy. Noise pollution, caused mainly by traffic, has deteriorated many citizens quality of life, especially in
2 cities; furthermore, it also disturbs and disrupts wildlife. Every new road built through previously unscathed areas of the countryside contributes further to spoiling that countryside, and disturbing the wildlife there. The thousands of tons of raw metal materials extracted from the Earth everyday to support the car industry, and the eventual return of these materials in the form of cars to, not always environmentally friendly, dumps also harms the environment. And how much more damage can the Oceans endure from all the oil product spillages?
2. Damages to health Without including the bloodshed produced by accidents, there are serious health concerns directly attributable to the massive use of automobiles. Mark Heersgard quotes that “Harvard University researchers in 1995 found that 30,000 Americans die every year from respiratory illnesses related to car exhaust, while another 12,000 people die prematurely because of such exhaust.” As is explained in an article in the BBC News web site, poisonous substances from combustion engines are directly harmful to people who breath them, not only affecting the respiratory system, but the blood, coronary, and central nervous systems as well. The opinions of a blogger called Dominic concerning some of the harmful effects on health are highly interesting: “Cars are unhealthy. It is my belief that the single greatest cause of the increased human laziness, obesity and physiological deteriation [sic] recorded in the 20th century is cars...Many people don't walk any where now! Even if it's just 1 block, they'll hop in their car and drive down there. People are now sitting almost 99% of the day! It is not natural human behavior.” He also makes an interesting observation about the effects on social life: “Cars isolate people. Until cars were common, most people traveled short (and, often, long) distances by foot. When people pass on foot, there is time to acknowledge each other, time to develop recognition; there is an opportunity of normal, human social behavior. It is easy to walk together for awhile and for people to take their leave of one another. For the very communal animal, homo sapien [sic], walking is more than mere locomotion: walking is a social activity.” The noise pollution mentioned earlier is also contributing to the rise of pre-
3 mature hearing problems in the population, especially as more and more people concentrate in cities around the Globe.
3. Economic expense to society as a whole The main one is the funding of public roads, that is, their construction, maintenance and policing. Also, all the public parking places being built over and under the ground in many cities; an issue addressed by Philip Goff who writes “Ample cheap and free parking is a significant way in which motorists are subsidized. Real estate values in urban areas are costly, yet motorists are allowed to use up to 100 square feet of public space for the storage of their vehicles.” These expenses are paid for with the tax payers money; there is also an opportunity cost of in what other—probably better and wiser—projects this money could have been invested. Medical and rescue emergency units, plus all the other public resources allocated to cater for accidents, are also an enormous cost to tax payers. The oil dependence, supported by our society's dependence on cars, seems to be directly related to many of the international tensions and wars. Some people, like Howard Williams, even argue that on top of all the “terminal perils of our addiction to cars and oil,” we are financing international terrorism with it. But the most negative aspect of the automobile culture, that doesn't seem to be emphasized enough--and it should be-- is that, in the USA at least, car accidents are the leading cause of death. In Spain, where the author lives, there were two major events that received wide attention in the news this last summer. The first one, in connection with the yearly disaster of forest fires, that this summer culminated in the death of eleven firefighters whilst doing their job. The other event, that also filled the news for many days, is the accident of a military helicopter that crashed, killing seventeen soldiers of the Spanish mission deployed in Afghanistan. The political aftermath obtained even larger news coverage, fueled by the usual accusations between the opposition and the party in power, local versus national governments, and so on. But what was hardly heard about in the news this summer is the
4 following estimate, found in the web site of Wanadoo, Autocity.com: “27% of traffic accidents are produced in summer, with 1400 dead.” When comparing this last piece of information with the two previously mentioned, and weighing the relative importance and media coverage given to each, it just didn't make sense. If the death of seventeen soldiers in an accident impacted maybe ten to fifteen families, the 1400 dead in car accidents must have affected at least four hundred families in the whole country. Why was the media not paying attention to the greater tragedy? Either society has accepted the car related death toll as a natural form of death and suffering, or society has just chosen to ignore the automobile casualties as it's more entertaining and spectacular to hear about forest fire and military heroes in far off countries, with all the respect these heroes deserve. Or maybe it would be more appropriate to talk about what the media finds more important, never mind society. More statistics on this topic: According to the the Universidad de Navarra web site, in 2003 there were over 4000 dead, 2061 seriously injured, and 1967 slightly injured in car accidents in Spain. As for what's happening in the US, according to a note in the web site of Car-accidents.net, “there are about 3 million car-related injuries a year, 2 million permanent injuries and 40,000 deaths in the U.S. each year.” Is is possible to justify or rationalize this cost in human lives and suffering with any amount of economic benefit to society? That's what society is doing right now, isn't it? So it is now urgent that something be done about all this. The current infinite growth model follows this sequence: 1. There are more cars, thus traffic congestion gets worse, therefore people start complaining about it to the government. 2. In response, new roads are built, the existing ones are enlarged, new parking places are allocated, and more police and other resources employed. 3. Traffic congestion is temporarily reduced. 4. So people buy more cars, and the congestion gets bad again. 5. We're back to people complaining that the government must do something about it, which
5 takes us back to point number two. An infinite loop is established; the end result is a continuous increase in the number of cars and the amount of problems associated with them. Governments, and the societies that support them, seem to be locked onto the idea that the only solutions are the ones that take for granted keeping intact the current car culture. Seat belts, better roads, better policing, safer designs for cars, lower emission fuels, tougher traffic regulations, yes; but reducing the number of cars, promoting transport means different to the--usually solo--car driver in his own vehicle, or simply educating the population that not having a car is also a viable way to live, no, let's not talk about that. There are so many other options to consider that hardly ever, if at all, are mentioned such as: • • • • • • • • enforcing that cars be built smaller lowering the speed limits limiting the number of cars that enter certain areas taxing the solo drivers heavily promotion of alternative energies gradually banning entrance of private cars into larger areas of cities prohibition to build cars beyond a certain speed and power limit seriously prohibiting dishonest advertising and forcing—as was done with tobacco-- to include warnings in advertisement of what harms and dangers a car entails. • • informing the public opinion regularly and openly about the exact accident statistics informing the public opinion regularly of all the details as to how much money is being allocated to finance car related projects, where is it coming from, and also what companies and individuals are receiving that money and why.
Perhaps the automobile cannot immediately be eradicated from our lives, nor probably
6 is it wise to, but a new conscience can be created that may help to, among other things, encourage not using the automobile as much. It is a known circumstance that many drivers, among which the author used to be included, sometimes use the vehicle without really needing to, or where viable alternatives are possible. Thanks to circumstances, the author has been privileged with not having a car anymore for the last four years and has since noticed that, in great part, his use and dependence on the car was really just a question of a change of conscience, not economics. In this line of thought, this is where addressing a category of citizens called “Passive Drivers” (as in “Passive Smokers”) is now a useful necessity. These citizens are the rolemodels to follow, a confirmation that drastically reducing the use of private cars can be attained, that it's actually possible to have a life without owing a car, with the added benefit of knowing that one is not contributing to the car culture savagery, even if one is still suffering its consequences. Surely, it can be argued, that even Passive Drivers benefit from the whole structure that our automobile culture provides, that if the automobile were eradicated completely, the economy would be disastrous even for these Passive Drivers. Quitting cars altogether may not be an option for now, but rationalizing their use, as well as challenging the current social denial as to what the real costs are, is. If, say, people on average reduced their their car usage by 50%, there would be a huge improvement in all the factors mentioned earlier. This percentage could be any other, 10%, 90%, or whatever, as long as there is a reduction and not, as is occurring now, a spiraling increase in the number of cars year after year. In many cases the driving is not necessary; there is a real addiction to driving rather than a necessity to really do so very often. The architect Philip Goff writes that “the true costs of driving an automobile are obfuscated, for their disclosure would certainly reduce auto use and make alternative means more attractive. This would not be compatible with the interests of the oil, car, road construction, or development industries, all of which contribute heavily to politicians on the local and national levels.” Of course, the issue of who the automobile culture is enriching
7 cannot be bypassed. There are large and powerful forces interested in the continuation of the actual state of things regarding automobiles, no matter what reasonable arguments may be raised against it. Forty thousand dead per year doesn't mean anything to these forces, especially since the fallacious assumption that accidents have nothing to do with the cars themselves has become generally accepted. If the issue is guns and the deaths they cause, most people would agree that the main problem is the existence of guns, not only the use made by those who have them. Not so with cars. Whenever there's an accident, it's always blamed on drivers (driving too fast, intoxicated, tired, careless, didn't obey signs), or the bad condition of the roads, or the weather. Too many corporations, as well as individuals and, to a great extent, the governments themselves, are earning great amounts of money with all this. Society seems to have accepted the death toll and most of the other problems associated with cars, so why question the status quo? Like some of the old cigarette commercials, now happily prohibited in many countries, the great majority of car commercials just emphasize fictional paradises and dreams of freedom and sexual seduction, never once mentioning the ugly side of the product. Why should they? The car manufacturers just want to sell cars, as many as possible, as big as possible, the more the better. It is their business to do so, just as it is the tobacco manufacturers business to produce and sell cigarettes. Road construction companies are happy with this. The governments, through which astronomical amounts of tax money moves, to finance the never ending gigantic projects of infrastructure for more and more cars, which later produce generous amounts of taxes, collected through the sale of everything that goes into building and using cars, are even happier. A seemingly infinite list containing car mechanics, repair shops, spare parts manufacturers, and so on, can be made when thinking of all those who directly depend on or benefit from automobiles. Perhaps, like an incurable cancer, the destructive culture of automobiles is irremediably ingrained in society. But, like the last healthy cells in a body refusing to let the disease spread further, a few individuals, the Passive Drivers, the last resistance to all this madness, live waiting to be recognized, promoted and rewarded, if only because they are living symbols that it is possible
8 to live without owing and driving a car, something that can only benefit the present and future of mankind.
Author: LJC 2006
9 Works Cited (Links might not be up to date) BBC News.”Exhaust Emissions.”BBC.6 May 1999.BBC News.11 Sept. 2005 <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/medical_notes/336738.stm>. Car Accidents Net.”Car accident statistics.”Car-Accidents.Net.11 Sept. 2005 <http://www.car-accidents.net/car-accidents-statistics.html>. Dominic's Blog. “Were automobiles the most damaging invention of the 20th century?”Dominic's blog.Jan 7 2004.11 Sept. 2005<http://dom.neopoleon.com/>. Goff, Philip.”Subsidizing Car Culture: Part Two: The True Costs of Driving & The Great Suburban Build-Out.”SATYA.July 1995.Stealth Technologies.14 Sept. 2005 <http://www.satyamag.com/july95/goff.html>. Greenpeace.org.”Katrina-A Greenpeace Perspective.”Greenpeace.5 Sept. 2005. Greenpeace.11 Sept. 2005 <http://www.greenpeace.org/international/news/Katrina>. Heersgard, Mark.”Environmental Progress.”Environmental Book Club Online.1999.RMIT University.11 Sept. 2005 <http://www.bh.rmit.edu.au/abbt/bookclub/reviews/eohatt.html>. Universidad de Navarra. “Los accidentes de trafico son un problema de salud publica.”1 April 2004.Universidad de Navarra. 11 Sept. 2005 <http://www.unav.es/noticias/020404-05.html> Wanadoo-Autocity.com. “El 27% de los accidentes se produce en verano, con 1.400 muertos.”Wanadoo Autocity.com.27 June 2006.Wanadoo-France Telecom.11Sept 2005 <http://www.autocity.com/actualidad/index_noticias.html?cod=55037> Williams, Howard.”Driving Bin Laden to the Bank.”San Francisco Call.7 Jan. 2002.Betsey Culp.12 Sept. 2005<http://www.sfcall.com/issues%202002/1.7.02/driving.htm>.
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