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The Automobile Paradox

In the United States, approximately 42,000 occupants in cars die in accidents each year. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, another 5,000 pedestrians are killed each year on the nation's highways, and nearly 3 million injuries result from automobile crashes. Worldwide, the number of automobile deaths is estimated at 1.3 million per year. The World Bank forecasts that by the year 2020, this figure could reach 2 million deaths per year. To put the matter into a larger social context, each citizen in every country in the world is fighting the equivalent of a major war every year against every other citizen on the country's highways. In most years since 1945, more occupants of cars and pedestrians were killed and injured than were killed and wounded in international warfare. There is something Hobbesian in this equivalent to war of "all against all," and I believe its perpetuation is governed by what I call the Automobile Paradox.

The Automobile Paradox has three parts. The first part: Of all the costs associated with driving an automobile, the most serious is fatality. Yet, ironically, the public most readily accepts this cost, combined with its risk of occurrence. This is counterintuitive. Why should people ignore the combination of cost and risk that is most threatening? Is ignorance of the facts the answer? Or is there a kind of nonrationality operating here that is strangely persuasive?

A sense of inevitability is perhaps the basic reason why people ignore the risks of driving. The second component of the Paradox is this belief that, in the aggregate, accidents just happen. There is nothing much that can be done about them other than to stay sober, educate young drivers, and wear safety belts.

But closely associated with this notion of inevitability is the confirmed opinion of every driver and passenger that accidents will happen not to them but to somebody else. This is the third part of the Automobile Paradox. So there is a curious ambivalence regarding death on the highway. It is inevitable that someone will die because the cost is unavoidable, but the risk is negligible for the individual because the individual thinks that someone else is likely to bear it. So the benefits of the automobile are thought by each driver to outweigh the costs because nothing can be done to eliminate the risk of accident, and, in any case, that risk will be assumed by someone else. —CD

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