Sacred Cows? Sacred Cars!

D. A. Clarke

January 27 2001
[For some background on this article, see the the grab bag of web articles and statistics I collected while investigating official bias in official "traffic accident" reporting.]
Recently I had the opportunity to review an Office of Traffic Safety grant proposal from our local police department (a Long story). The way in which statistics were compiled and presented in this grant, and its wording and set of priorities, to me seemed to reflect a profound bias in favour of motorists and against pedestrians and cyclists. In order to challenge this bias effectively, I had to do a fair amount of research.

The end result of the research and of the review process was to bring home to me once again how overwhelming the automobile imperative is, how it strongly determines our language and our thinking.

I've heard it estimated that of the 10 square miles our City covers, 1 square mile is roads, and another is parking lots. 2 square miles, 1/5 of our town. I wonder, at current real estate prices, how many millions of dollars that land represents.

Oddly enough, 1/5 is also the average amount of annual income that ordinary American working people devote to owning and driving a car: one day out of five in every work week. It's such a large investment, and so seldom mentioned or discussed -- even when we talk about rising costs of living, financial difficulty, and consumer debt.

Living in a car-centric country is like living in a seriously dysfunctional family -- there's always this Thing We Don't Talk About. For a concrete example, let's examine an apparently innocent document submitted in support of the "traffic safety" grant proposal I mentioned above. This letter of support was filed in the name of a local City bicycle subcommittee. Yet its language shows this same "sacred car" bias. Even when well-intentioned people are trying to discuss and promote safety for bikes and pedestrians, that bias in favour of cars just keeps creeping in.

Consider this brief excerpt from the letter:

"Observing bicyclists' and pedestrians' behavior in traffic leaves no room for doubt that there is an urgent need for increased education and enforcement. It is also clear that many motorists do not understand the special circumstances that bicyclists and pedestrians contend with, and educating the motoring public is necessary as well."
Which issue is placed first, thereby implicitly having priority? The "behaviour" of bikes and peds (it's their own fault). The need is "urgent" for them to be educated and to submit to law enforcement.

Motorists, on the other hand, as a secondary concern, simply "do not understand" the "special" circumstances of bikes and peds. There is no fault here. Bikes and peds are "special," so ordinary people (drivers) can't be expected to understand their circumstances. And motorists don't misbehave, they merely misunderstand. It's necessary "as well" to educate them, but not "urgent".

No "observation" of motorists' behaviour in traffic is mentioned (though every bike and ped in my hometown could tell you a story). If there is any dangerous behaviour, (which we don't mention) it must be just innocent ignorance of "special" needs.

Now, I'm not singling out for particular individual criticism the author(s) of the support letter. It just provides a handy local sample of the kind of "traffic safety" language spoken and written all over the country: Carspeak. This language makes bikes and peds sound like a "different" subgroup of citizens: like the disabled or the very elderly, for whom special accommodations need to be made -- whether under ADA mandate or in common decency. And this, inexorably, makes automobile travel *normative*.

Travelling in a car is normal. Walking or biking is "special".

Travelling in a car is safe. Walking or biking is "dangerous".

But it just ain't so.

Bikes and peds are not "special." People have been practising bipedal upright locomotion quite successfully for about 20,000 years, and the bicycle considerably predates the car. There are actually far more bicycles in the world than cars. "...though bicycles outnumber cars globally by a ratio of 2 to 1, only two percent of the world's traffic fatalities involve cyclists." (Worldwatch Institute)

America's obsession with, and near-universal use of, the automobile, is a very brief and very "special" (and destructive) moment in human history. Why don't we talk more about the genuinely "special" accommodations we're making all the time, every day, and never noticing? Like paving over one fifth of our town?

What's "special" is how a recent technology, the automobile, has become so dominant that we have to re-engineer our entire society around it, devote 1/5th of our salaries and our real estate to it, and then flounder about trying to cope with the dangers and dysfunctions it creates... while simultaneously denying its impact and promoting it!

A bike advocate in NYC describes the Kafka-like experience of being invited to design a Bike Month poster series in 1998:

I created some work that praised bikes for being non- polluting, efficient, convenient, quiet, and non-traffic jamming...then was told by the DoT's Urban Mobility Unit I could not even imply, much less say cars pollute, are noisy, and cause traffic jams. I wasn't even able to imply it by showing a print cartoon of cars stacked literally on top of one another, horns blaring, exhaust belching. Nor was I able to even imply it by saying bikes are quiet, clean, and non-traffic-jamming, as that implied cars were not.

I was told by the DoT's Urban Mobility Unit they would not accept an ad in which I would find an actual truck driver, a cab driver, and a chauffeur who would say, "I drive here for a living but I bike here for convenience and pleasure" because that implied it wasn't a pleasure or convenient to drive.

-- Richard Rosenthal

Our cognitive dissonance here is so profound that criticizing the automobile is unacceptable even in a public interest project to promote cycling! No matter what problems we see, the official State ideology is that the automobile cannot be blamed, and the driver cannot be blamed.

During the heavy weather this last week two children were struck by a driver in Watsonville. One was killed outright, the other is in intensive care. The official description is that the "accident" was "weather-related."

I don't know how typical this particular incident was of wintertime vehicular manslaughter; but what usually happens is that a motorist fails to slow down and take adequate precautions when driving in dangerous, slick, reduced-visibility conditions. California drivers are notorious for not adapting their driving style to winter conditions. But no, "the weather" killed this child. That's what it says on the radio, and that's what it will say in the paper.

I think one thing we all need to work on -- self included -- is the deconstruction of this layer of euphemism and denial, this Carspeak which conceals and denies the destructive impact and social cost of automobile dependence. We blame the peds and bikes, we blame the weather, we practically blame sunspots and astrological signs. We do everything we can to deny a simple and obvious implication: if a society chooses a transit strategy that requires millions of fallible, undertrained people to pilot large, heavy vehicles at high speeds, then it's going to be pretty dangerous to travel there. (Well, we're having some difficulties with the handgun thing too...)

If cars were planes, there would be a jumbo jet crashing every two or three days. That's the death rate on our motorized roads. Admittedly it's quite small compared to mortality from tobacco addiction. Per-mile, fatality rates among drivers and passengers look pretty good.... but Americans now collectively drive 2.5 trillion (yes, trillion) miles per annum, and 40 thousand people a year die inside cars. People who are killed by cars while on foot, on motorbike, or on bicycle are of course not counted as "auto fatalities" in our official statistics....

It all seems a rather high price to be taken so calmly, for granted, unquestioned, a very high price tag just for getting from A to B.

And too many of the victims are not the addicts, if you see what I mean; for far too many of the casualties of this system, there isn't even the libertarian consolation that it was self-imposed risk.

Habitual prejudice is very hard to change. It takes constant effort. It's reflected in apparently trivial choices of word and phrase. Official language often says "accident" instead of "incident", "made contact with" instead of "was struck by". Every little euphemism is another brick in the wall.

Anthropologists call this problem cultural bias, and struggle mightily to overcome it. I think we also need to struggle mightily. We need to overcome our entrenched bias in favour of the automobile. Any doctor can tell you that it's hard to cure patients who persist in denying their condition.
De Clarke