By Ashton Rohmer
As an aspiring professor, perhaps there’s no better way to commence a blog post series than with a pop quiz…and given the quiz topic, there is also maybe no more somber way to commence one either. Here goes: how many lives are lost yearly due to car crashes?
I guess that most people don’t realize the extent of our vehicular violence epidemic – one that we’ve been battling for more than 100 years – which is why the first lines of my qualifying exam attempted to set the record straight:
“In 2021, there were nearly 43,000 deaths and 2.5 million injuries on US roads (Stewart, 2023). These losses and impacts lead to untold traumas and care burdens for survivors and loved ones of crash victims, devastating consequences that are not limited to the US. The extent of vehicular violence worldwide prompted the UN to half the approximately 1.3 million annual roadway deaths by 2020, paying particular attention to deaths in lower-income countries where the fatality rate is three times greater than their higher-income counterparts (World Health Organization, 2018).”
Unfortunately, I don’t think this goal has been met…
As suggested, however, these are not mere numbers on a page…they represent literally billions of people whose lives have been tragically upended – far too often, fatally – by vehicular violence (a term I prefer to the more common “traffic violence,” given the colloquial use of traffic to indicate an abundance of cars making it harder for you to get to the movies in time to catch the previews…the kind of violence I am referring to is perpetuated by individual behavior, structural dynamics, and various facets in between, regardless of congestion levels). To that end, I’ll use this blog to detail how I see cars contributing to a more violent, conflict-ridden society.
Indeed, this is what inspired the series title “Car Blanche” – to draw attention to our use of cars to navigate the world with “complete freedom to act as one wishes or thinks best” (I dare you to watch a car commercial and not walk away with the subliminal messaging of “FREEDOM” ringing in your ears) causes countless negative externalities that in turn restrict the freedom of others to live lives of health, dignity, and well-being.
However, the other side of car blanche (credit goes to my partner for this) is that it also means we have a clean slate, a fresh start, and an opportunity to reimagine our transportation systems and streets to serve as true urban commons. In that spirit, I also write this to inspire you to see and talk about the world differently and maybe even take steps to, as Kea Wilson always prompts in her (excellent) podcast The Brake, end car dependence. To that end, I’ll also try to add pockets of optimism and opportunities for action when possible.
Car Culture Groupings
In my qualifying exam, I grouped the connection between car culture and violence into four domains – behavior, health, policy, culture – primarily based on the disciplines from which they emerge. They are imperfect groupings: there’s a lot of overlap between them, someone else may have categorized a particular theme into a different domain, there are perspectives I didn’t include, etc. As Car Blanche unfolds, I may or may not reference these explicitly but offer them in case it helps you grapple with the many dimensions I present – and welcome ideas for conceptualizing this complex system of violence better.
I also included a crap-ton (academic term, obviously) of references in my exam. I’ll include what I have, knowing I’ve left a LOT of literature out…and that you probably will not go seeking them out…because they might not be enjoyable reading…and even if you felt compelled to try your hand at deciphering them, they are paywalled…because academia. Additionally, I’ll try to throw in more accessible resources when I can – and will also take liberties not to cite every single thing I say (nor get too in my head to say everything I can about a particular issue). If you’re craving for more info/sources, holler.
Although I’m opting to number the reasons I outline, please note this is not meant to indicate an order of significance – in fact, in many cases, they are each part of an intricately connected web, one in which a tug here produces an unexpected pull there. Relatedly, while some reasons are more related to individual behavior and others are more related to structural dynamics, trying to pin this issue down to these ostensibly opposite sides of a spectrum is a false framing…because behind every individual decision is a system that enables it, and behind every enabling system is an individual decision.
With all that said – and because I’m trying to keep posts on the shorter side (this debut one doesn’t count, okay?!) – without further ado…
Reason 1: People drive their cars knowing they could kill someone.
Like your favorite 101 class, I’m starting you off easy. We know it’s wrong when someone partakes in a mind-altering substance and gets behind the wheel of a speeding several-ton metal box. This is particularly true when many of us have access to taxis and ride-hailing services (when we can afford them and aren’t the targets of bias) or can tap a DD (for those of you who may have thought Dunkin’ Donuts, have one for me – but I meant designated driver). Thanks to the tireless efforts of advocates – like those behind Mothers Against Drunk Driving – this has been burned into our collective consciousness for generations. So much so that, in many cases, it’s the *only way* that vehicular violence is understood as such.
Despite decades of advocacy, you would think we would have solved this problem by now. Unfortunately, that’s not the case – the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that “in 2021, 13,384 people died in alcohol-impaired driving traffic deaths — a 14% increase from 2020.” The NHTSA page linked above provides helpful info, but to boil it down, we need to address all the failure points across the entire crash process to address the issue.
Technology – need it (it exists, alongside our privacy concerns…which we can somehow overlook every time we ask Goo-ple to give us directions to pretty much all our destinations). Street design and changes to our transportation system – yes, please (a safe-systems approach could assist in addressing some of these preventable crashes – not accidents – through a holistic approach to the problem). Culture change – that, too (don’t even get me started on toxic masculinity – saving that for future posts…yes, plural, it’s that pervasive).
So what can you do? Advocate for traffic calming measures in your neighborhood, push for better public transit options in your community (stay tuned for a deeper dive on advocacy), and please: when you see someone grab their keys after a night on the town…help them choose a different way home.
Until next time, I invite you to get curious – what comes to mind when you envision more peaceful streets?
Ashton Rohmer is a 2023 National Walking College fellow and a third-year Ph.D. candidate at George Mason University’s Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution. She uses a mixed-methods approach to research vehicular violence, the conflict system of car supremacy, and streets as sites of social movement and peacebuilding. When she’s not exploring examples of people-centered streets abroad, she advocates for safer, more joyful, and more peaceful streets in DC. Before pursuing her Ph.D., she spent nearly four years consulting for FEMA on the design and implementation of national policy and programming to increase community climate resilience. She is an urban planner by training and has successfully mastered the art of reading while walking. You can follow her blog at https://peaceandplanning.com/blog/