Sunday, July 16, 2017


The automobile takes a lot of criticism, some of it deserved.  Yes, they consume fossil fuels and contribute to air pollution, but engineers are working on that and things have gotten much better.  The worrisome criticism is the number of fatalities, and injuries.  It’s not as safe as airlines, but then Island Air does not come to my door. Not quite as safe as busses that only pass my community 6 times a day (or not) and seldom go where I need to.  What if I need to go to 3 places or 10?  Think of the things you could not do without your car.
Critics forget two important things. The fatality rate is relatively low compared to the alternatives and for the benefits autos confer.  I did lot of research for my accident analysis books.  It’s hard to locate comparable data for injury accidents relative to walking, horses or bicycles but the available data suggests it’s much higher per mile. Horses bite, kick, run wild, pollute and carry disease.  Planners feared in 1890 that New York City would soon be uninhabitable due to horse manure.  The gross accident numbers for non-motorized travel injury appear small because so few miles are traveled.
The automobile is the flying carpet of Arabian Nights. It takes you where you want to go, when you want, quickly in any level of comfort you are willing to pay for and you can take the family.    Henry Ford did more for common people than any statesman.  His inexpensive Model T gave the working man the power to go anywhere to get a better deal: better wages, hours, or working conditions.  Farmers got the ability to take produce where they got the best price and all of us the ability to shop where prices and service are better.  Kekei go to better schools.   It has been a great equalizer, the elderly and disabled can travel as quickly, and almost as comfortably as the privileged.  You can describe middle-class as car owners.
How many lives are saved every year by the motor ambulance and fire truck?  How much would fresh groceries cost without refrigerated trucks to distribute them? How would you get fresh food home without your car?  Would it even be available or would you be content with bread and beans?
Cars changed our attitude towards strangers.  Driving or walking we have learned to trust drivers to not put us in danger. Some of us pick up hitchhikers, and sometimes hitch a ride to solve a problem, trusting strangers. To facilitate cars we paved the roads almost everywhere, and they are clean.  Before, paving was only in the wealthy areas and even those roads were mostly rough filthy cobblestone.  Filthy rods make life dirty.  There is the sheer pleasure of driving, being free.  I could go on, but plainly motor vehicles improve our lives immensely.  True there is a cost in injuries, but evidence convinced me that it more than offsets the injuries and deprivation there would be without them.  
Our right to travel freely is under assault.  In the name of Zero Fatalities®, an admirable goal, speed limits are lowered with totalitarian enforcement. This European congested city, pedestrian oriented strategy cannot reduce crashes, because it creates chaos.   Can you imagine cultivated traffic jams, or $3000 speeding tickets? The Department of Transportation proposes such unrealistic measures toward that goal. They claim that no one dies from congestion, but traffic delay wastes thousands of lifetimes, one minute at a time.  Why would you cause it on purpose?  When the National 55 mph speed limit was repealed state speed limits went up and traffic fatalities went down!  A car trapped in gridlock seems safe but that’s not what cars are for.
Ken Obenski is a forensic engineer, now safety and freedom advocate in South Kona. He writes a monthly column for West Hawaii Today. E-mail

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