by Richard Jehn
About 14 years ago, I became involved as a volunteer web tech with the East Lake Washington Audubon Society. At that time, light rail transit was a hot topic in the Seattle area. I recall having a discussion with one of the members of the society about the LRT project and being accused of wanting to return to horseback transportation. In retrospect, perhaps I did and do want to return to a slower way of life.
One of the “freedoms” that automobiles give is the freedom to drive almost as fast as we want, and assuredly faster than we actually need to be driving. Further conditioning our behavior in cars is that simple rule of capitalism, “Time is money.” And our cars handily cooperate by giving us the ability to hurry, sometimes a whole lot, when we perceive that we are running late in, as Marilyn Chandler McEntyre terms it, our “post-industrial, fast-paced, productivity-focused, time-driven culture.”1
On March 20, I was driving north on Haxton toward Slater Road and saw a car about one-half mile back in the rear view mirror. Within two minutes, that car was a couple of car lengths from my rear bumper. The speed limit there is 50 mph and I was doing between 45 and 50. The fellow in the car behind flipped on his bright lights, so I pulled aside to let him pass.
Automobile Fatalities in the US and Worldwide
In the United States and Canada, the number of road fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants per year stands at 12.3 and 9.2, respectively. Expressed in terms of number of deaths per 100,000 vehicles, the numbers jump to 15 and 13. It could be worse: In Bangladesh, 6,300 people die annually for every 100,000 motor vehicles! That means over 6 percent of drivers will perish annually in that nation. Another way to express this in terms for the entire world is that in 2000, 1.26 million (or 20.8 per 100,000) people died in traffic incidents.2
Whatcom county statistics are a bit better than the U.S. average. In the five years from 2006 to 2010, 83 people died in traffic fatalities (about nine deaths annually per 100,000 inhabitants).3
Environmental Damage from Automobiles
Given the mission of Whatcom Watch, our fundamental interest is in the damage the automobile has done to the environment. That damage comes in a remarkable variety of forms, from “roadkill” to atmospheric CO2 to dramatic destruction of the natural landscape (as more elaborate interstate highways are constructed) to the ubiquitous detritus that expired automobiles leave on the landscape (although that has been alleviated by recycling in more recent years) to our latest rage, “road rage.”
The estimated number of vertebrates run over each day in the United States is one million – that equates to 11.5 creatures run down every second. An estimated 90 percent of those accidents involve deer. (The average cost to repair an automobile after a deer encounter is $2,000.) In a 2005 High Country News article, figures for Yellowstone Park are cited: six bears killed by vehicles in 2004 and 1,559 animals for the years 1989-2003.4 Those figures are only for larger mammals in one national park. Although the statistics for Washington state are a little outdated, they reflect the same information. Deer kills on highways in the state average about 3,000 animals per year for the years 2000 to 2004.5
In the 1960s, roughly 5 million cars were scrapped every year in the U.S. By the 1990s, that number had doubled, and today Americans junk in excess of 15 million cars per year.6
Atmospheric CO2 Emissions
The United States Environmental Protection Agency cites sources of atmospheric CO2 emissions and a third of those emissions are from burning gasoline and diesel fuel in vehicles (although air, marine, and rail transportation are included). Total emissions in 2010 were about 5,500 million metric tons of CO2 and 31 percent of that is 1,705 million metric tons.7
As we continue adding ever greater quantities of CO2 to the atmosphere, we simultaneously remove the earth’s ability to scrub that air by deforesting huge swaths of land.
This is impossible for the earth to accommodate with natural “cleaning” processes. That means that many parts of the globe will become dramatically hotter, particularly places closer to the equator. Locally it means coastal plains going underwater sooner, more dramatic winter storms, and little or snowfall in the mountains. More migration to the Pacific Northwest is also likely as conditions get worse in the southern United States. Some predict extreme violence as climate change really takes hold.8
Positively, Whatcom county has some excellent things happening, such as an effective public transit system and a considerably higher per-capita population of cyclists. But many thousands of daily drivers in Whatcom continue to pour CO2 emissions into the air, myself included (because there is no public transit option to the west end of Slater Road).
I believe that a couple hundred years from now, if any of our progeny manage to survive the effects of climate change, science and society will be concluding that the automobile, although it served an interesting purpose for humanity for more than a century, was one of the worst inventions of all time and did more damage in a shorter period of time than any other single invention from the industrial period. Analysts will look back and see the negative impacts that resulted, the death of billions of humans and the extinction of entire classes of species as climate change engulfs the planet, and they will be forced to conclude that any number of other outcomes, including continued use of horse travel or more effective use of rail travel, would have been preferable to the result we got from the automobile. In the immediate future, the automobile is just bad for the human psyche, with its enabling of dysfunctional behavior manifested by excessive speed and road rage. Let’s park them and bike to work or use public transportation.
1 McEntyre, Marilyn Chandler. “Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies.” 2009. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
2 All statistical information comes from one web page on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_traffic-related_death_rate
4 All statistics in this paragraph are cited from High Country News, http://www.hcn.org/issues/291/15268. Of the 1,559 animals, 556 are elk, 192 bison, 135 coyotes, 112 moose, 24 antelope, and 3 bobcats.
7 Information from EPA http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/gases/co2.html and http://oceanworld.tamu.edu/resources/oceanography-book/co2problem.htm. The other two-thirds of emissions come from electrical power generation (40 percent), industry (14 percent), residential and commercial (10 percent), and other sources (5 percent).
8 Parenti, Christian. “Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence,” 2011. New York: Nation Books.