Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Car Culture: Past, Present, and Future

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Sunday, November 18/07

Zack Gross

About 110 years ago, in early 1898, Henry Lindfield, driving from Brighton to London, England lost control of his new motor car and became the world’s first traffic fatality.  In more than a century since that day, thirty million people have died in car crashes around the world, rivaling the number of deaths caused by conflict. 

Our planet has also been impacted by the existence of automobiles, changing its face with roads, parking lots, tunnels and gas stations, affecting how people live by transforming neighbourhoods, transportation costs and time, and putting our environment at risk.

The United States’ National Safety Council reports that over 100,000 people die accidentally every year in that country, over one-third of these in motor vehicle mishaps.  Amongst the younger generation (ages three to 33), vehicular crashes are the leading cause of “accidental” death.  Seat belts and air bags are given credit by the NSC for bringing down the car crash death rate.  Other leading causes of accidental death include falls, especially among our growing number of elderly citizens, poisoning (mostly pharmaceutical and illegal drug related), and workplace death.

The Medical Journal of Australia reports similar experiences with car accidents Down Under.  As in North America, the main causes of death by driving are speed, carelessness and risk-taking, but improved car design and safety features have positively affected death and injury rates.  The MJA, however, sees a spike coming in road death and injury as global industrialization spreads and increases car numbers, affects overall automobile regulation negatively, and puts vehicles into poorer road conditions.  It predicts that by 2020, road accidents will rank third in “global disability-adjusted life-years lost
,” after cardiovascular disease and depression, and ahead of cancer.

However, the MJA goes on to explore another major area of concern – the affect of the car on public health.  In a “car dependent society," it says, and in a urban world, the proportion of trips now made by walking, cycling or using public transport is plummeting.  The affect of this sedentary lifestyle includes increases in individual bodyweight, cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes.  Only tobacco use ranks higher as a cause of ill-health. 

The authors go on to recommend strategies to governments and employers to challenge the health and environmental affects of the car culture.  After all, an out of shape, sick population and a degraded environment will have severe social and economic consequences.  Suggestions include better public transport systems and incentives for owning fuel efficient vehicles, reducing urban sprawl and commuting, fitness options and change rooms for employees, and more common spaces for public use.

California has brought in regulations in order to deal with its high population, large urban centres and overwhelming car culture.  The Sunshine State has more citizens than Canada and automobile ownership is nearing one per person.  Part of the problem is that, even in urban environments, in California and elsewhere, people choose to own SUVs, pickup trucks and other larger vehicles which guzzle gas and have higher probability of causing injury and death in accidents due to their size and design. 

Even smaller and gas conserving vehicles are a significant cause of human and environmental damage, as they are driven too much, impacting on health and gasoline use, and are driven too fast. 

The Union of Concerned Scientists has called on car manufacturers to stop opposing regulations, such as those in California, and put their efforts into improving safety and design features, including seat best use reminders, stability control mechanisms against rollovers and fishtailing, improved high strength supports and the production of softer, lighter uni-body design vehicles.  Mentioned in this improved category are SUVs such as the Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Honda CR-V and the Honda Pilot.

Michael Renner works at the Washington-based WorldWatch Institute, an environmental think-tank.  Twenty years ago, he wrote about car culture in the first issue of WorldWatch magazine.  In the current edition of that publication, he revisits his old article to analyze, through a rearview mirror, what he had said earlier.  He sees the same major issues facing humanity today as other critics of our transportation systems – the unabated use of gas-guzzlers, the sedentary nature of our lives and lack of public alternatives, our dependence on oil and the resulting geo-political conflict, the gobbling up of other resources to manufacture automobiles (aluminum, iron, steel), our streets choked with cars and our air choked with pollution, the explosion of vehicle use in once-developing countries such as China, and the increase in speed limits to 110 km/hr or higher.  Renner wonders if developments such as the hybrid car will be enough to stem the tide, and biofuels will improve our situation or just create new problems.

When the first person to die in a car crash was buried 110 years ago, likely some sober voices expressed concern about the affect of motor vehicles on our lives and our ways of life.  “Progress” tends to roll over these kinds of people, just as a car might run a caution sign.  Policy-makers, corporate bosses, union leaders, environmentalists, health specialists and citizens of all kinds need to raise the level of dialogue on the issues that car culture creates on a daily basis and, beyond talking, need to make a different sort of progress toward a balance in our lifestyle. 

Zack Gross is program coordinator at the Manitoba Council for International Cooperation (MCIC), a coalition of 36 international development organizations active in our province.

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