Acceptable Collateral Damage
Every time we return safely home, someone else hasn’t. That driving an automobile is a dangerous activity is not open to dispute. We all understand the frequency of accidents, and what happens when cars crash: terrible collisions that ruin (or end) lives. This specter of harm hovers over all our machines, including motorcycles and airplanes, each of which has a long-term expectation to return a predictable amount of mayhem and misery. Cars, though, are America’s default choice for getting from here to there. Our nation is built around them. So, aside from their environmental impact and all the other unpleasantness they cause, cars are also the most frequently used method for injecting danger into seemingly safe lives.
The inevitable injuries and deaths associated with driving a car must then be considered one of the “costs” of operating the machine. Beyond the dollars spent on purchasing, maintaining, insuring, and fueling a car, operating it inevitably costs a certain number of people their life. We have enough data to understand that for every X number of miles driven Y number of humans will perish. It’s a mathematical certainty, a fait accompli, that stringent licensing requirements and thorough driver’s education courses cannot prevent. Driving a car means accepting the inherent risk of terrible harm.
Whether this is a morally acceptable outlook deserves some serious discussion. Some would argue that any amount of pre-ordained death and disfigurement caused by a man-made machine ought not be tolerated in a kind society. Others might say that a relatively small amount of deaths for the greater good — the rationale behind soldiers — is the simplest way to achieve desired results. No matter where you stand personally on the deaths-in-exchange-for-commerce-and-convenience continuum, you’re part of a society that has calculated the price in human lives and decided it’s an acceptable one to pay. Especially if we secretly expect the fickle finger of fate will point to someone else’s daughter or son.
Empowered by actuarial tables, insurance companies have a surprisingly accurate idea of how many of their customers can be expected to get in an accident each year, how many will be permanently disabled, and how many will perish. That’s their business: amortizing risk.
For us folks driving (and crashing) our cars in 2011, the cost in limbs and life doesn’t seem to have fully occured to us, probably because we delude ourselves into believing that if we exercise appropriate care, taking whatever safety precautions are available, we’ll be able to immunize ourselves from harm, as though our lap belts and air bags were a steel-repelling magic shield or an impenetrable plastic bubble. We tend to zip about in our death jalopies vaguely aware of the fraught environment we’re traveling through but blissfully oblivious to the bargain we’ve made with the universe. Only when we ourselves get in a wreck, or, horribly, lose a loved one to a car crash, do we seem to fully grasp how fine the line is between an uneventful commute and cataclysm.
When you drive a car, you’re accepting a certain amount of collateral damage — to strangers, to friends, to your spouse, to yourself, to your children. The question is How did you decide that this collateral damage was a fair price to pay for whatever it is a car brings to your life?