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Tactics to Go Car Free

On September 11, 2001, terrorists killed 2,973 people, most of them Americans. Before that, the last American to die on home soil from an attack by Islamic fundamentalists was in 1993, when six people died when a car bomb was detonated in the garage of the World Trade Center.

The horror of these deaths led to the “War on Terror”. Since 2001, close to half a trillion dollars has been spent by various Western countries to wage war on a handful of third world countries. In Iraq alone, the US has spent over $300 billion, even as many people question whether this war is the best way to solve the problem, or even if the war is in fact making the problem worse. Citizens in every part of North America — from the remotest cabin in Vermont to the beaches in California to small fishing villages in Newfoundland – are fed a constant barrage of fear from the media. Governments are rising and falling based on their responses to terrorism.

Meanwhile, with little fanfare, the National Transportation Safety board reports that over 40,000 Americans [PDF] die in traffic accidents each year. That means that since September 11, 2001, over 200,000 innocent Americans have died in car accidents. Many more have been injured. Property damage and medical bills have cost the US economy $130 billion dollars every year, costs that everyone pays for in their insurance premiums.

Despite a death toll that is equivalent to nearly ten “911s” happening every year on American soil, traffic deaths are rarely reported in the news unless they are unusually spectacular. While many people fear flying, and will medicate themselves into a stupor and happily endure ridiculous security restrictions before boarding a plane, these same people think nothing of hopping into an automobile many times every day, in the most casual manner, often driving without seat belts or paying slight attention to the road in front of them. A person that believes it’s possible Al Qaeda may plot to blow up their barn in rural Idaho will probably scoff if you point out that the odds of dying in a car accident are hundreds, if not thousands, of times greater than being killed by a terrorist.

The American government, of course, has not launched a global “War on Cars”. Since cars have killed 67 times more Americans on home soil since 2001 than terrorists, a proportionate response would see the US spending $33 trillion to fight cars. Obviously, this has not happened, and never will. In fact, the opposite situation is true: the American government spends billions of dollars every year subsidizing the auto industry and the car-based infrastructure that surrounds it. One study estimates that the US spends the equivalent of $5,000 per year for every car on the road, covering everything from road building to emergency medical care to pollution cleanup. This is paid for by every American citizen in their taxes and in built-in higher costs for consumer products.

In my opinion, almost every single person who dies in a car accident is “innocent” of any crime worthy of death. Most are minding their own business: perhaps they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Perhaps they were tired, or had a few more drinks than they realized, or were distracted by a talkative passenger or a cell phone call. Maybe they were just unlucky enough to be in the vicinity of another person who did one of these everyday things.

In addition to accidents, air pollution is estimated to cause about 20,000 premature deaths every year in the US. Of course estimating these deaths, and determining how much of the air pollution we breathe comes from cars rather than other sources, is difficult. However, the Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that cars are responsible for between 60 and 77% of all carbon monoxide emissions in the US. This counts only the emissions that come of the tailpipe of an operating vehicle; it does not count the environmental cost of mining and processing the raw materials that made up the car, manufacturing it, and shipping it to the dealership.

Like accidents, smog-related deaths don’t always effect only those who are benefiting from the technology. Pedestrians or cyclists are often killed by cars and trucks. The very young and very elderly, who do not drive, are most likely to have their lives snuffed out by pollution. Smog from countries with poor emissions standards drifts across national borders to pollute countries that have stricter regulations. Greenhouse gases cause climate changes which lead to droughts and floods that kill African tribesmen who have never seen a car, let alone driven one.

The first two entries in the blog series focused on personal factors, such as the money or stress a person can save by choosing not to own a car. The issue of health and environment is different because it effects not only the driver of a vehicle, but everyone else on the planet as well. The collective decision of a very small percentage of the world’s inhabitants to build their lives around car ownership can have a profound negative effect not only on those people, but on all people, regardless of their location or lifestyle.

Taking one car off the road may seem negligible, but it’s a start. As more people look for alternatives we’ll all become better off. As more non-drivers demand things like better transit systems, better sidewalks, usable bicycle lanes, and improved zoning laws, governments will become more responsive. A cycle of positive changes will begin.

By going car free you can become part of that solution, not part of the problem.

In the next part of this blog series, I’ll write about alternatives to cars, not just in terms of obvious transportation methods, but also broader lifestyle choices that can free people from the auto-ownership trap.

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