Keeping the drive alive

Editorial by Bruce Wark

illustration Graham Pilsworth

One sunny morning in September 1999, a wall of industrial fog suddenly rolled across a section of expressway near Windsor, Ontario, known as “carnage alley.” Within seconds, 87 cars and trucks began plowing into each other, creating a fiery pile-up of twisted steel. Crash survivors heard the screams of people trapped in burning cars. Seven died; 45 were injured. The spectacular incident made headlines. But most fatal crashes do not. The fact that more than seven people die in Canadian traffic accidents every day and that 48 are seriously hurt is not big news, even though these losses are equivalent to what happened in carnage alley.

We consider the daily toll of traffic fatalities almost normal. Yet, we would never tolerate 2,730 deaths and 17,533 serious injuries every year if the victims were riding in aircraft, trains or buses. Nor would we accept the horrendous costs. A report released last week by the economic measurement group GPI Atlantic points out that in Nova Scotia alone in 2002, traffic accidents cost nearly $975 million. Those costs included lost income, pain and suffering, medical expenses, police salaries and property damage.

The 550-page GPI report points out too that accident costs are only a fraction of the total bill we pay for a road transportation system dominated by the private auto. That bill comes to at least $6.4 billion a year, or $7,598 for every Nova Scotian. It includes the obvious costs of buying and operating vehicles as well as the tax money spent on things like roads and bridges. But the GPI report also calculates less obvious economic costs imposed by air and water pollution, climate change propelled by the car’s greenhouse gases and the land despoiled by building highways and paving parking lots. It’s the first time anyone has figured out the total cost of our car addiction.

That cost is significant when you compare it, for example, to the $4 billion in annual public and private spending on Nova Scotia’s health system. Yes, we spend $2.4 billion more every year just getting from point A to point B in our cars, SUVs, minivans and passenger trucks than we do on health care. And we’d be spending a lot less on health if it weren’t for traffic accidents and the illnesses caused or worsened by smogmobiles.

The GPI Atlantic report recommends a wide range of measures to reduce the economic costs of car mania. They include imposing road tolls, higher gasoline taxes and steeper parking fees to discourage driving while cutting income taxes to reward those who don’t drive as much. The report also says those who drive less should pay less for auto insurance and vehicle registration.

Unfortunately, though, it won’t be easy weaning us from our costly dependence on cars. Every time we turn on our TVs or open a newspaper, corporate car makers and their dealers relentlessly reinforce the message that cars mean freedom, glamour and power, and hey, you can buy one cheap with low monthly payments. Car advertising is the single largest revenue source for the mainstream Canadian media, so the propaganda barrage is sure to continue. Not only that, but governments in industrial societies have long seen the auto as a centrepiece of economic growth. That’s why they pour money into roads and bridges, hand out grants and tax subsidies to the auto and petroleum industries, encourage urban sprawl and the construction of huge, auto-friendly shopping malls while starving mass transit of the money it needs to compete with the car.

Yet, anyone who reads the GPI report will see that this madness can’t continue forever. World oil supplies are dwindling fast as energy consumption rises. Gasoline prices are sure to keep climbing. And, as the effects of global warming kick in, governments will be forced to promote mass transit. The 20th century belonged to the car. The 21st belongs to buses and trains.

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