Car control: Why don’t we talk about automobiles the way we talk about guns?

Let’s say you have an object in your home, right now, that you could use to kill another human being.

It was easy for you to buy, and completely legal. Depending on where you live, you may or may not have been required to attend some training on how to use it safely. The purpose of this object, after all, isn’t to go on a murderous rampage. It’s just a tool, and it can be used correctly or incorrectly. But no one would deny that it has the potential to be deadly.

Is the object you’re picturing locked in a gun safe, or locked in a garage?

No matter where you fall in the debate about gun control and gun owners’ rights in the US, the war between increasing weapons safety and increasing weapons access is one that nearly everyone in our country feels some sort of stake in. Ask your neighbor about car control, however, and you’ll get blank stares. There’s no national news-worthy movement to ban all cars from the road to prevent vehicular homicides. The auto industry doesn’t employ lobbyists to ensure more citizens access to unrestricted driver’s licenses, much less the ability to drive without one. Though over 35,000 people die in car crashes in the US each year--only slightly more than die by firearms--we still don’t ascribe words like “epidemic” or “crisis” to describe the phenomenon. Instead, we’ve adopted the phrase “car accident” as a blanket term to describe almost any time a vehicle collides with another vehicle, bicycle, or person--no matter the circumstances of the crash.

It’s nearly impossible to imagine a world where every gun death is referred to as an “accident.” And even in incidents where gun deaths do occur because of truly unavoidable mechanical errors, even the most strident gun control opponents are usually in favor of at least some forms of safety equipment, proper gun storage and training programs. There are far fewer heated debates over whether or not a hunter should wear an orange safety vest than over whether or not she should have access to an assault rifle designed for wartime.

For better or worse, the lynchpin in our national debate about guns seems to be the guns themselves: who should get to use them, when, and what kinds. While we might sometimes debate our support for increased mental health screening by gun dealers (which some would argue isn’t a key problem, or perhaps even a harmful insinuation to make about the mentally ill) or private gun-owners’ role in public safety (again, an issue with strong voices on both sides), the loudest arguments both for and against gun rights tend to be focused squarely on weapons, not on altering the many intersecting systems that might make gun use more or less likely. Some gun control advocates would bristle a bit at the suggestion that local gun regulation may not do much if we don't also address the conditions of concentrated poverty. Some opponents on the right might take issue with the idea that the same might go for concentrated rural poverty, and that subsistence hunting might not be necessary if we really tackled rural food deserts. 

I'm not here to express my opinion on the best way to solve the debate over firearms in this country. But it interests me that when we talk about the car--an object that’s been involved in the deaths of more people every year on record than the gun--our debate sounds very different, if we have a debate at all. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. When it comes to car control, we should recognize that the tools at our disposal are largely systems based--and that means they're far more vast than better screening drivers licenses or limiting access to semi trucks. And we'll need every skill available to us if we want to change our most insidious cultural assumptions: that car “accidents” are acts of God, and that they are an unavoidable price we pay for basic mobility.

I believe our car control debate should focus on these systems because I don't believe that people, by their nature, want our streets to be as dangerous as they are. I don’t believe that all drivers are would-be killers any more than I believe, say, a person who hunts for basic sustenance in rural Vermont is a would-be murderer. I’m glad that we have the controls on auto safety that we do, from seat belts to bumpers to evolving pre-crash detection technology.

But the safety controls we still need will never be embedded in a car chassis, or even enforced at your local DMV. They need to be embedded in our laws, which should recognize the responsibility of distracted drivers and hold them responsible, so that no one can plow into a public park and get off without so much as a warning. They need to be embedded in the very language of our laws, so that the word car “accident” doesn’t appear in a single official state statute unless a crash has been proven to be the result of mechanical failure, or sudden weather, or a true act of God (no, a crash resulting from "distracted" driving is not an accident.). And most of all, they need to be embedded in the design of our streets, which should express the radical notion that the safety of all people is a requirement for the places we love.

In the end, the controls we need for cars are simple and colossal: street design that slows them down, laws that recognize the true responsibilities of drivers, and a culture that doesn’t think avoidable car-related deaths are acceptable for any reason.

But we made the world this way, and we can remake it another way. We chose a development pattern that controls so much about how every other mode of transportation can (or can’t) use the street, and effectively puts a ceiling on our community wealth in the process.

Maybe we don’t need a car control debate. Maybe we need to talk about what a world made for cars is worth to us. And if we don’t think mass death, failing economies and the erosion of community is worth it, we need to choose something better.

(Top photo source: Steve Lyon)

Related stories