I may have mentioned this before, but it’s worth repeating. I hate cars.

Sure, I enjoy driving, but I hate everything else about them –  parking, haggling at the dealership, buying gas, shoveling snow, breathing exhaust and wondering if their drivers see me when I’m crossing the street.

But I own a car and I drive it because I feel that I have no choice. There are some trips I just can’t make without driving, and once you own a car the incremental cost of a short trip that could be taken on a bike or on foot is tiny compared to the time you would save by driving.

That’s the trap. Once you believe that driving makes you free – taking you wherever you want to go, whenever you want to get there – you forget about all the demands of car ownership that limit your freedom.

Here’s one demand that I don’t want to forget. I really don’t want to kill anybody, and drivers kill a lot people.

There were 38,680 traffic deaths in America last year, a 7.2 percent increase over 2019, even though fewer miles were driven because of the pandemic.

The death toll was also up in Maine last year, and not a week goes by without another story about drivers killing pedestrians, cyclists, other drivers or themselves.

Some experts blame COVID. People started driving faster and more recklessly when fewer vehicles were on the road, and that results in more crashes and more deaths.

But even if things go back to normal next year, there would still be too many deaths. There were 155 traffic deaths in Maine in 2019, an average of almost three a week. How many of them could have been prevented if people didn’t feel that they had to drive everywhere?

Unfortunately, we’ve got a century of car culture and infrastructure investment that makes driving the only option for most people most of the time. We can pump $100 million in borrowed money to patch up our crappy roads every two years, but every alternative, right down to sidewalks, is viewed as wasteful spending.

There are things that we all could do right away to make a difference.

The first is to slow down.

Speeding is involved in about one third of fatal crashes, causing more of them than alcohol or bad weather.

We don’t tolerate drunken driving the way people once did. Responsible bartenders and party hosts are careful not to over-serve their guests. Responsible drinkers avoid getting behind the wheel when they are under the influence, not just because they are afraid of getting caught but also because a powerful social norm tells them that drunken driving is bad.

But we still joke about friends who have “a heavy foot,” and most of us indulge in a little speeding ourselves when we want to save a few seconds, I know that I do. There’s no social cost to getting a speeding ticket, but there should be.

Another thing we can do is to call these deaths what they are.

We would never say that someone was “stabbed by a knife” or “shot by a gun.” But how many times have you read that a pedestrian “was hit by a vehicle”?

But it was a driver who killed someone, not a vehicle. The driver was responsible, and we should never forget that when we are the ones behind the wheel. Thirty-eight thousand traffic fatalities a year is not an acceptable cost of doing business – it’s 38,000 family tragedies. That’s much too high a price to pay for convenience. We should never be comfortable with other people’s suffering.

And the other thing we can do is demand alternatives.

Individual cars are the only transportation option for so many people because of policy choices that have been made.

Maybe you can’t run commuter rail to every small town in Maine (although they somehow managed to do that a century ago), but you could build affordable housing in places where people could walk or take a bus to work.

We could stop subsidizing “free” parking, making people more aware of the costs that come with driving.

We could demand better public transportation from our government instead of wider highways every time we see a little congestion.

We don’t have to drive. We backed ourselves into this spot, but we can get out of it if we want.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.