Car Deaths are as Unacceptable as Gun Deaths

It's a global problem that too few people care about.

Mallory Short/Alfred Gescheidt/Francois LE DIASCORN/Getty Images

2015 was supposed to be the year, gun-control advocates said, that gun deaths in the U.S. exceeded car deaths. This number, somewhere in the 30,000s, was the benchmark of unacceptability. Not deaths by drowning, or falling down the stairs, or cancer, or heart disease, or bee stings, or whatever. Car deaths. People said: If more people die due to guns than in cars, then for Obama’s sake, why don’t we do something?

But it didn’t happen. Gun deaths topped out at 33,000 plus, which is 33,000 plus too many. Car deaths, on the other hand, went up from the previous year, to more than 35,000. So I have to ask: Why is 33,000 unacceptable for guns, while 35,000 is OK for cars?

You hear it all the time after a horrible gun massacre, like the petulant sneer of a bullying 6th grader: “Cars are just as dangerous as guns, why don’t you ban cars?” Instead of calling for more thorough background checks, or for stopping gun sales to people with a history of mental illness or PTSD, or for not allowing assault rifles to be unleashed onto the general public, or even for a blanket ban on privately-owned firearms, instead, it’s snark. Cars are just as dangerous as guns, nanny-nanny-boo-boo. I know you are, but what am I?

But even though it gets posed in the most ungenerous of spirits, and for precisely the wrong reasons, that’s actually not a bad question. Cars are just as dangerous as guns. So why not ban them? While it’s still not a majority position in the U.S., millions of people are in favor of banning guns. No one, except for maybe me and a half dozen cranks who I’ve found on Twitter, would consider the possibility of banning cars. Or restricting them. Or doing something, anything, to stop the daily slaughter on our roads.

Approximately the same number of people dies in cars on average per month in the U.S. than died on September 11, 2001. The odds of an American person dying in a car in their lifetime is one in 112. Gun-death odds are similar at this point, and sane people agree that’s too high. Why, then, do we tolerate this gory automotive toll?

I think about this all the time. It is slowly driving me crazy, like Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight. Yet, like her, I know I’m not crazy. Or at least I think I’m not. And I’m constantly running the comparisons. Let me allow you an exclusive peek into my gaslit mind.

  • Guns are made to kill, but cars aren’t. Other than sporting applications—not why most people have them—guns have only one function: to kill and wound. Cars can occasionally be weaponized; just look at what happened this summer in Nice. But their main purpose is to transport. That just makes car deaths even sadder. They aren’t supposed to kill. Every death in a car is a tragedy.
  • Car deaths are a global problem, gun deaths aren’t. Even though the gun tolls are enormous here, they're relatively tiny worldwide. Other than in El Salvador and Mexico, non-wartime gun deaths aren’t a normal occurrence in non-U.S. human society. Cars, on the other hand, kill people everywhere, all the time. More than 261,000 people died because of automobiles in China in 2013, more than 40,000 in Brazil, and more than 238,000 in India. More than 10,000 died in Myanamar, and that's a small country. More than 27,000 in Russia, 24,000-plus in Thailand, 46 in Luxembourg, and on and on. Worldwide, car crashes are the leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 29—lives snuffed out before they really even get a chance to start. Are you in favor of that? Really?
  • It’s not just crashes. The environmental impact of guns is basically nothing. Cars, on the other hand, poison us every day. An MIT study concluded, in 2013, that 53,000 Americans die prematurely every year because of vehicle emissions. Why is that acceptable? Because Corvettes are cool? Because you like to watch videos of guys doing burnouts in Hellcats? Because there are refrigerated center consoles in Bentleys? Why does no one care? I don’t understand.
  • Most governments don’t care, either. The great majority of countries have banned or severely restricted firearm sales to private citizens. In the U.S., it’s proven difficult to defeat the NRA and its water-carriers in government, but there’s a movement afoot, with Congressional sit-ins and outspoken mothers of victims of gun violence trying to stem the blood flow. Not so when it comes to cars. Sweden has its “Vision Zero” initiative, an approach to road safety that says “no loss of life is acceptable.” Germany and France have adopted sane approaches that have reduced traffic fatalities. My hometown of Austin, Texas, has responded to a record-setting number of deaths in 2015 by trying its own feeble initiative, not easy in a state that loves 80-mph speed limits and hates public transportation. But most of the world remains numb to this grim abbatoir.
  • At least the car industry cares, somewhat. If you think the gun manufacturers a shit about their death toll, then I have some coastal land in Louisiana to sell you. The automotive industry is a different story. Car companies have been pilloried in recent years, with good reason, for cynical risk equations about how many exploding-ignition deaths they can afford; for lax airbag standards; for poisoning the air with dodgy diesel. But you can’t say that the car companies never think about safety. Volvo is fully on-board with Sweden’s Vision Zero initiative. Most cars have safety tech that was barely a dream a decade ago. While some car companies are more progressive than others, they’re all in on the three major trends in the industry—automation, electrification, and car sharing. Trends point toward safer roads and a brighter tomorrow. This is not a hopeless struggle.

But individual people need to speak up, or it will never totally change. Car deaths matter as much as gun deaths, and it’s a global problem. We should be focused on them equally. Join me in caring about this. Please. I could use a friend, and I’ll even buy you a beer. Assuming it’s happy hour. And assuming we don’t have to talk about cars the whole time.