How did more than 30,000 annual motor vehicle deaths become something that most Americans accept as normal? A new paper by Boston University professor Itai Vardi tries to answer that question.
His work is in a similar vein to University of Virginia professor Peter Norton, whose book Fighting Traffic recounts how the forces of “motordom” reshaped American streets by changing how people thought about cars in the city. Like Norton, Vardi has identified key conceptual frameworks that eventually led people to adopt the “matter-of-fact” tone we use to discuss today’s staggering rate of traffic deaths.
Vardi’s research encompasses historical accounts from media outlets, auto and insurance industry publications, activist groups, and, eventually, federal safety agencies. Here are three big factors that, according to Vardi, shaped the modern American view of traffic violence.
1. Thinking of traffic deaths in terms of fatalities per mile driven
[B' Spokes: If it interesting that MDOT chooses to advertise Maryland's fatality rate per miles driven which is near average but not our fatality rate per capita, which is rather high. But as the article points out it does seem the main point is to give a smaller number so lots of deaths does not seem so bad.]
2. “Saving Lives”
Vardi calls “saving lives” — which is actually part of NHTSA’s motto — “a rhetorical device to meet institutional goals.”
Forecasting future deaths, Vardi writes, also sidesteps the tricky question of what is an acceptable number of deaths.
3. Seatbelts and Drunk Driving
Finally, once highway safety was placed in the hands of “dispassionate” federal agencies, they framed the problem as one of individual mistakes or mechanical failures, rather than systemic flaws. This paradigm was, ironically, advanced by the Ralph Nader-led reforms of the 1960s aimed at car manufacturers, Vardi says.
For example, the top chart, published in 1933 by the Travelers Insurance Company, omits structural contributions to the high rate of traffic deaths — such as street design and poor non-automotive travel options.