Mugger: Baby, You Can Drive Your Car

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Last week, as my wife was driving the family to a local bowling alley, we had yet another close call at a dangerous intersection. Proceeding north as the stoplight turned green, a speeding minivan ran the red light, slammed on the brakes and caused several cars to swerve out of harm’s way. It wasn’t late at night, and the perpetrator certainly hadn’t just emerged from a two-drinks-for-one happy hour; rather, it was, in the parlance of political shorthand, a soccer mom who was ferrying five uniformed children to this or that sporting event. Yet she might as well have been soused, for the lack of remorse shown when the other imperiled motorists honked horns and hurled a few well-deserved barbs her way.

The problem, as you may have guessed, is that this middle-aged lady, probably an otherwise upstanding citizen who pays taxes on time and could be a member of a neighborhood watch committee who calls the cops when a menacing man appears to be casing a house, was yakking on a cell phone. She had one hand on the steering wheel, the other clutching the device that allowed her to gossip with Mabel, plus the distraction of the kids in the back seat.

As we left the scene and continued the journey, I immediately thought of an August 5 Los Angeles Times op-essay written by Gregg Easterbrook that, at least to my mind, was the most significant article published by that or any other newspaper this summer. There have been scores of opinion columns that I’ve clipped or printed—mostly on the subject of national and local politics, the absurd hostility directed at Barry Bonds or the ravings of Paul Krugman who, it appears, won’t be happy until a more presentable version of Hugo Chavez occupies the White House. But all of these articles—some of lasting significance, others trivial—pale in comparison to Easterbrook’s broadside against this country’s apparent “what, me worry?” attitude toward the hazards of taking even a short trip in an automobile.

Easterbrook’s opening paragraphs ought to be required reading not only for adult drivers, editors and legislators (the latter two of whom could actually have an impact on this ongoing problem), but teenagers as well. He writes: “Suppose 245,000 Americans had died in terrorist attacks since Sept. 11, 2001. The United States would be beside itself, utterly gripped by a sense of national emergency. Political leaders would speak of nothing else, the United States military would stand at maximum readiness, and the White House would vow not to rest until the danger to Americans had been utterly eradicated. [That further attacks since 9/11 haven’t occurred on American soil is in and of itself an improbability that almost no one would’ve predicted almost six years ago, but we’ll leave that for John Edwards and Hillary Clinton to ponder.]

“Yet 245,000 Americans have died because of one specific threat since 9/11, and no one seems to care. While the tragedy of 3,000 lives lost on 9/11 has justified two wars in which thousands of U.S. soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice [another digression: Easterbrook, a fellow at the liberal Brookings Institution, doesn’t note that the soldiers volunteered for the military], the tragedy of 245,000 lives lost in traffic accidents on the nation’s roads during the same time period has justified … pretty much no response at all. Terrorism is on the front page day in and day out, but the media rarely even mentions road deaths. A few days ago, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced that 42,642 Americans died in traffic in 2006. Did you hear this reported anywhere?”

I’ve wondered for over a generation about how people in, say, the year 2075 will look back at this ongoing carnage on highways and small roads, and whether the prevailing opinion will be one of amazement at how stupid their grandparents and ancestors were. Such mass barbarism might be considered the way we today think, in equal measures of shock and bewilderment, about the seemingly incredible fact that hundreds of thousands of Americans died of the flu earlier in the 20th century.

I’ve had my own brushes with mortality while driving a car—back in the days when I sat behind the wheel—and realize how fortunate it is that I’m still alive to tell the tale. One night when I was 18—after consuming several pitchers of beer while visiting friends at Princeton University—I poured myself and a companion into my mother’s Dodge sedan and, about 10 minutes later, hit the side of a bridge on the way home. No one was hurt, although the car was totaled, and when I awoke the next morning, worse for wear, suddenly remembered the incident and had to face the parental music. It wasn’t pretty.

Nevertheless, it wasn’t until the following year, after a lazy day of playing poker and drinking can after can of Schlitz beer, that I understood that even healthy young men and women can be wiped out—killed—in the time it takes to light a cigarette. This time, I was a mere passenger, with one of my roommates (now in the CIA) woozily driving his restored ’64 Mustang on the way to a campus dance. Rounding a corner, the car hit a piece of loose pavement and spun out of control, barely missing a utility pole and ultimately winding up about 10 feet in front of the picture window of a suburban split-level. Restitution was made to the justifiably irate homeowner—the manicured lawn was ruined—my friend’s Mustang was history, and I first began to comprehend the concept of vehicular homicide. This was back in the ’70s, when the drinking age was 18, before Mothers Against Drunk Driving received its media spotlight (reprised whenever a high-profile tragedy—usually involving affluent youths—occurs) and some progress has been made in the battle against drunk driving.

But using cell phones while driving, at least for now, can be just as lethal as a fifth of vodka. As a rule, I’m strictly against governmental regulation aimed at “crimes” that involve no potential victims other than the individual. So, it’s fine with me if marijuana is legalized or at the very least decriminalized, and certainly prostitution and gambling fall into the same category. I’ll admit that it still seems mighty strange to walk around city streets and see every other pedestrian talking on a cell—I don’t remember at the ’64 World’s Fair in Flushing roaming through any “exhibit of the future” that predicted such a phenomenon—but then change itself is often strange. Can any writer, professional or amateur, even contemplate a return to the days of using a typewriter with whiteout on the desk?

The advent of the “designated driver” has chipped away at this huge, and as Easterbrook convincingly argues, ignored cause of automobile fatalities and injuries. Now it’s time to throw the book at drivers who insist on talking while navigating traffic.

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