Thursday, October 25, 2007

When Is It Going to Stop?

"When is it going to stop?"

That's what the Washington Post wanted to know on June 16 of this year, and they wanted to know it on the front page. This came in the wake of a fatal car accident that struck Northern Virgina particularly hard. The night of their graduation, two Fairfax County graduates and two others were killed on the Beltway. The case is undoubtedly tragic. I remember back in high school, it seemed that at least one person in each class could be expected to lose his or her life behind the wheel. I don't remember anything so tragic as a graduation night accident, though.

And while this particularly bloody crash was definitely gruesome, I don't know why it was a shocker to anyone. Today, in the metro section alone, let's see what the Post has to say:

Driver Whose Trailer Unhitched Won't Be Charged in Bridge Crash
"...The crash occurred May 10 on the west bound span....Police identified the dead as Randall R. Orff, 47, and his son Jonathan R. Orff, 19, both firefighters from Millington on Maryland's Eastern Shore, and James H. Ingle, 44, of Preston, also on the Eastern Shore."
3 Dead
Woman Is Killed When Her Car Hits School Bus
"A woman was killed yesterday in Bowie....Lorenda Gordon, 49, was driving....The bus driver and a driver's aide suffered minor injuries."
1 Dead
Pedestrian, 80, Dies After Being Hit by Car
"A pedestrian was killed last night....The 80-year old man stepped into the intersection at Seventh and D Streets SW and was hit about 8 p.m. He was pronounced dead at George Washington University Hospital."
1 Dead
Man Held Without Bond in Crash That Killed Child
"A man charged in a hit-and-run incident Sunday in which a toddler was charged with second-degree murder in the crash...that killed 2-year-old Brandi McComb and injured three women."
1 Dead
Woman Dies in Beltway Crash
"A Prince George's County woman was killed...when her car skidded into the back of a tractor-trailer...Carla Ann Steen, 36...heading north in the rain...slid off the ramp..."
1 Dead
Man Changing Tire Fatally Struck
"A man changing a tire on the shoulder of westbound Interstate 66...struck and killed...stopped near Centreville...hit by a Ford Ranger..."
1 Dead
Motorcyclist Dies in Accident
"A Mananas man was killed...lost control...William A Moran, 32...crossed the opposite lane of traffic...pronounced dead at the scene..."
1 Dead

Where is the shock now? Most of these stories appeared in sections titled "Maryland Briefing" or "Anne Arundel County." None--not one--even made it onto the front of the metro section. These sorts of things are so commonplace that they warrant perhaps a 15 second spot on the evening news. How commonplace are they? In the United States, 5 people die in car accidents each hour.

On Average 43,000 Americans die in car crashes annually.

How clear can it be?

When is it going to stop? Does it look like it's even close to stopping?

It will stop when Americans care. Sure, we all know people who have died in car accidents. A girl who grew up three doors down, a guy on the drum line's brother, the father, the son, the graduate... The list could go on indefinitely. We know that people die. We know that could be us. How many times have told the person in the passenger seat "that guy is going to kill somebody, cutting across traffic like that!?"

But we don't do anything about it. What if all 43,000 died on one day? What would it be like if 43,000 random people just up and died on, say, the second Tuesday of September? Are we clear on the magnitude of this problem? Georgia Tech has 17,000 students, Georgia has only 34,000, the University of Maryland has 35,000.

So let's go back to a bright, clear Tuesday in September. If it was for 2005, 43,443 Americans would have died. In 2004, 42,836. 2003 would have seen 42,643. 43,005 would have lost their lives in 2002. And on September 11, 2001--that bright, clear day--42,196 people would have died, senselessly.

What would America's reaction have been then? What would have assuaged our anger if terrorists had killed 42,000 Americans? How many nations would have had to fall before we were satisfied that the world was safe for democracy? Conversely, how would we feel if 43,000 American soldiers had been sent home from Iraq in caskets? Would Americans still support a war that had killed so many? Only 36,000 Americans died in Korea, and that was undoubtedly enough.

Where is the outrage? If a natural disaster claimed 43,000 Americans it would be front page news for weeks. When terrorists claim only a percentage of that, there are wars. When wars claim a fraction, there are protests. How many must die before we commit ourselves to change? How red must the streets run before enough is enough?

What I find laughable about this country is our assessment of risk. I'm sure there are psychologists who would tell me that it's not just Americans who are afraid of the wrong things, but I can't help but see a country so afraid of terrorism that it allows the government warrantless wiretaps, a country so afraid of crime that it won't take the subway, a country so afraid for family values that it makes irrational electoral decisions; yet so blase about cars that it refuses to buckle up, refuses to give up the keys after knocking 'em back at the tavern, does 85 in the 55 zone.

We could make our cars safer--if we wanted to. We could reduce our dependence on the automobile--if we wanted to. We could keep so many alive--if we wanted to.

We could pull over to talk when the phone rings. We could just go around the block when we miss our exit. We could take just a little longer checking the mirror--if we cared enough.

When is it going to stop?

It will stop when we care enough to stop it. From here, it doesn't seem like there are going to be new traffic patterns any time soon.

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