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Yves Engler Headshot

Plane Crashes Make the News, But It's Cars We Should Worry About

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When a plane carrying 239 people disappears and everyone is presumed dead, the world's TV networks devote hours of coverage to the tragedy. Newspapers run long and detailed stories. Experts are interviewed to discuss probable causes and remedies. Government safety boards investigate and produce reports. There seems a genuine attempt to learn from what happened in order to prevent the same death and destruction from ever occurring again.

Contrast that to the reaction of death by automobile.

In the latest year for which we have statistics (2010) 1,240,000 people died in vehicle crashes across the globe. That's 3,397 people per day or 142 per hour. Vehicles kill more people every two hours of every single day than died in the Malaysian Airlines crash. And that's only counting so-called accidents.

Hundreds of thousands more are felled by cancers and other ailments linked to automobile emissions. According to an MIT study, in the U.S. alone 53,000 people die every year from illness attributed to automobile pollutants.

The greenhouse gases emitted by vehicles have also put millions at risk from diseases, disasters and droughts tied to climate disturbances. The Climate Vulnerability Monitor estimates that climate change is responsible for some 400,000 deaths per year, a number expected to hit one million by 2030.

But the deadliest feature of an automobile-dependent transportation system is the resulting sedentary lifestyle. The World Health Organization calculates physical inactivity is the fourth-leading risk factor for global mortality, causing an estimated 3.2-million deaths annually.

Researchers at St. Michael's Hospital recently concluded that diabetes and obesity rates are up to 33 per cent higher in suburban areas of Toronto with poor "walkability." Another study published in Diabetes Care found that new immigrants who moved to a neighbourhood with poorly connected streets, low residential density and few stores close by were 50 per cent more likely to develop diabetes than long-term residents of walkable areas.

The rise of the private car has greatly undermined active forms of transport. At the start of the 1900s the typical U.S. resident walked three miles a day; today the average is less than a quarter mile. As a result, most adults fail to meet the minimum recommended levels of physical activity (30 minutes of light activity, five days a week).

The major reason for the reduction in walking is that the private car's insatiable appetite for space has splintered the landscape. Distances between living spaces, work and commerce have simply become too far to make walking or biking practical.

But there is another reason people have stopped walking: Cars have made us lazy. The more we use them the more we cannot fathom traveling without them. One survey suggests the extent of psychological dependence is extreme. An average American is only willing to walk about a quarter mile and in some instances (such as errands) only 400 feet. Otherwise, the people private vehicles have created, lets call them Homo Automotivis, take the car.

The true extent of auto-dependence is revealed by drivers willing to wait five minutes for the closest parking spot to where they are going rather than park a block away and walk. The car has produced a state of mind where walking a few extra feet is a defeat.

It has also produced a paranoid state of mind, particularly among those caring for the young. A recent British study of four generations of eight-year-old children in Sheffield found a drastic decline in the average child's freedom to roam. In 1926 an eight-year-old in the Thomas family was allowed to go six miles from his home unaccompanied, while today's child, notes The Daily Mail, "is driven the few minutes to school, is taken by car to a safe place to ride his bike and can roam no more than 300 yards from home."

Canadian children are much less likely to walk to school than their parents' generation. According to Active Healthy Kids Canada, 58 per cent of today's parents walked to school when they were young while only 28 per cent of their children do. Partly as a result, only 5 per cent of Canadian children get the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity a day.

Driving children to school is an outgrowth of the greater distances that have come with automotive focused urban planning. But it is not only children living far from school who aren't walking. One U.S. study found that 87 per cent of students living within a mile of school walked in 1969 while today only a third make the same trek.
It is less that children cannot walk to school and more that Homo Automotivis parents, fearing for their children's safety, prefer to drive them. The most commonly cited fear? Not bullying or kidnapping. The major reason cited by parents for restricting unaccompanied travel: traffic danger.

But when parents use cars to protect their children from other cars, it results in notoriously dangerous schoolyard pickup areas and the very justification for driving their kids to school: a deadly vicious circle.

How have we gotten ourselves into this auto-produced mess? More important, how do we escape?

A start might be taking death by car as seriously as we take plane crashes.