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Give me a wheel in my hands," says a recent hero of American fiction, "and four on the road." Americans are endlessly, incredibly on the road—"freewheeling inhabitants of inner space," as Transportation Expert Wilfred Owen says. Along the nation's 3.5 million miles of concrete and asphalt, gravel and rutted dirt they roll, in 74 million cars, trucks and buses, flowing to work and back again, hauling goods, carrying children, pursuing weekend and vacation fun. Oftentimes they drive just to be driving, to roll, to move, to "burn gas."
The automobile is America's prime expression of freedom, of independence, of the treasured privilege of being able "to get away from it all." Man or woman, poor or rich, old or young, it is the American's last-ditch weapon against being tied down, his latter-day covered wagon in which he can always seek a new horizon. Yet it is a symbol of freedom that carries in itself the seeds of its own restrictions: by their very numbers Americans are encroaching upon this cherished privilege; with their own driving habits and the very cars they drive they are slowly but inevitably closing down the open road.
"It's meant to be fun," said Indianapolis Driver Rodger Ward in this magazine a year ago (SI, Jan. 30, 1961), but for 38,000 Americans every year driving is death. Traffic accidents are the single most perilous factor in restricting the freedom of the open road today. The daily toll of more than 100 lives is worse than that for any single-plane air accident in history except one. Moreover, so many people are injured that no one even attempts to count them all precisely. The National Safety Council, using one criterion, estimates 1.4 million yearly, the Public Health Service, using a different one, says four million. The Safety Council has also estimated that at least 100,000 are disabled for life.
Those figures are all the more appalling because the young are hit hardest. Between the ages of 15 and 24, traffic accidents cause more deaths than all other leading causes combined, including heart disease and cancer.
"We are bleeding to death," says Assistant Surgeon General Albert L. Chapman, one of a growing number of men who have come to regard the toll as a chronic epidemic, a health problem of calamitous dimensions.
This havoc on the highways brings in its wake enormous patching-up problems—of treating the injured, who forever tax the hospitals; of sweeping up the debris of 10 million separate accidents every year; of settling accident litigation in courts forever clogged, forever behind schedule. The cost in dollars, says the Safety Council, is in the neighborhood of $6.5 billion yearly.
There is small comfort in the fact that much safety progress has been made since the bad old days when, with fewer cars and drivers, we were killing people at a faster clip. There is not enough comfort in the fact that roads and cars are better, that really aberrant drivers are more quickly spotted and curbed, that new drugs and improved hospital emergency care save some lives that a generation ago would have been lost (although emergency treatment at the crash scene is still chaotic). Nor is there much comfort in the fact that the death rate for every 100 million vehicle-miles (one car, bus or truck driven one mile equals one vehicle-mile) has dropped to a record low of 5.1—down from 12 in 1941, the worst year ever for deaths—when 38,000 still die every year.
This mileage rate for measuring progress is by no means a perfect yardstick; it tells little more than the broad national trend. The rate is virtually worthless for comparing the safety performances of disparate states, nor can it be used to calculate accident odds for the individual driver. In 1960, for example, Rhode Island's 1.9 mileage death rate was the country's lowest, Nevada's 8.3 the worst. Was Rhode Island doing a four-times-better safety job than Nevada? Nobody knows. The comparison only tends to confirm what traffic authorities do know: that urban rates are customarily lower than rural rates. Heavily urban Rhode Island normally would have a lower rate than mostly rural Nevada.
As for the driver, any driver, there is no way to calculate his individual chances of survival. There cannot be, because every set of driver-car-road situations differs at any instant in time from all the millions of others, and all these sets are instantaneously changing. Some degree of danger is the only constant.
Thus the disease is not a simple one. It is monstrously complex. Every part of it poses special problems; none will be easy to solve.