Accessibility links

Breaking News

Thank You For Driving

(visualization by Russian Sphinx)

Do you imagine that in the future we will be driving emissions-free electric cars or hybrids powered by renewable biofuels?

When you think of cars, do you associate them with freedom, mobility, convenience, and opportunity?

When you think of road safety, do you think of seat belts, air bags, instructing children on how to safely cross streets, or cyclists wearing high-visibility clothes?

If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, it may be because the discussion of these issues has been dominated for decades by powerful interests in the automobile and hydrocarbon industries.

“There are different ways we can respond to the road-safety problem,” says Ian Roberts, a professor of public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and author of the 2010 book “The Energy Glut: Climate Change And The Politics Of Fatness.” “Some of those ways are very beneficial for public health and the sustainability of the planet. For example, redesigning urban environments so that they are safe for walking and cycling is the obvious thing to do.”

“But those aren’t the sorts of solutions that the car industry prefers because they are solutions that don’t promote the use of motor vehicles,” Roberts told me in a recent telephone interview from London. “Whereas solutions like getting cyclists to wear helmets and teaching children how dangerous the road is are very popular with carmakers. And you don’t have to be a genius to see why.”

When vested interests seize the agenda on issues like this, it is called “corporate capture.”

Take the example of breakaway street signs and streetlights. A few decades back, it was noticed that a lot of drivers were seriously injured or killed by plowing into rigid, fixed poles on streets and highways.

The “obvious” solution? Re-engineer the poles so that they break away on impact, of course. People inside the car are safer, of course, and it doesn’t much matter about the added potential danger to people outside the car, right? Or the cost of re-engineering the poles and replacing all the broken ones. Look at the pictures in this article and you can see that the two breakaway poles functioned perfectly and the driver escaped without injury.

In general, industry loves “engineering” and “technological” solutions to problems, especially when (as with biofuels and electric cars) developing the technology and promoting its adoption are heavily subsidized by the government.

But while these schemes could help reduce the operating emissions of road transport, they do nothing to respond to the public-health crisis, to the breakdown of communities, to the stress and congestion issues, and the intense carbon footprint involved in producing and disposing of automobiles, and so on. And the use of rare-earth metals for car batteries and precious arable land for fuel production create a host of new resource-related issues that could be as geopolitically destabilizing as the oil industry has been.

Take a look at the “Fortune” list of the world’s leading companies. Eleven of the top 20 for 2010 (even after the global economic crisis) are either oil and gas companies or automakers. Many of the other nine are electric companies (electric cars!) and insurance or financial companies that are heavily vested in the automobile. No. 13, General Electric, is also hot for the electric car market ("Charging ahead!").

The No. 1 company is Wal-Mart, whose entire business model is based on the car (what percentage of Wal-Mart customers walk or cycle to do their shopping? Just getting from the street to the store is exhausting and nerve-racking.).

In “The Energy Glut,” Roberts gives the powerful example of the Commission for Global Road Safety (CGRS) that was set up in 2006 by the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA). The blue-ribbon panel was originally chaired by former UK Defense Secretary and former NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson (Robertson is also a member of the board of directors of the Russian oil company TNK-BP).

The commission includes one representative from each of the G8 countries, and, as Roberts puts it, “if you wanted to represent the interest of motoring classes, you could not put together a more able group of commissioners.” Canada: executive director of General Motors. Japan: a board member of the Bridgestone Corporation, a major tire producer. Russia: the president of the Russian Automobile Federation. Italy: a former president of the Automobile Club of Italy. Germany: retired Formula-One driver Michael Schumacher. And so on.

(The FIA has responded to Roberts's criticism by asserting "the FIA Foundation has no relationship with industry whatsoever and plays a leading role in promoting higher automobile safety standards worldwide, for example through independent consumer crash test programmes.")

Although automobiles kill more than a million people each year globally and cause billions of dollars worth of damage and public costs, the commission’s main recommendations have been to hold a “ministerial-level conference on road safety” (which took place in Moscow in 2009) and to ask the United Nations to declare 2011-20 the “decade of action for road safety.” The commission has also urged the World Bank to “ensure that at least 10 percent of their road budgets are dedicated to road safety measures.”

Rush-hour traffic in Yerevan, Armenia (Photolur).
According to Roberts, the words “speed limit” appear only once in the main CGRS report, while the words “buses” and “cyclists” do not appear at all.

In large part, as a result of corporate capture at the political, economic, and public-relations level, imaging a world where cars are not the primary mode of transportation is practically impossible for many people.

Likewise, they can’t understand that cars restrict freedom as much or more than they enhance it, by turning our towns and cities into empty parking lots and clogged, uncrossable roadways.

They can’t think that road safety can best be enhanced by offering people a choice of modes of transport, reducing traffic speeds, and producing smaller, less powerful, less “sexy” cars that are treated as tools instead of toys (What, for example, is the message behind this kind of BBC programming?).

And so the destructive march goes on despite the clear logic behind reducing global automobile dependency. Governments around the world continue to prop up the automobile industry and to subsidize driving on an unfathomable scale. At a major auto industry show in the dying city of Detroit this month, General Motors introduced the Chrysler 300. “It is an unapologetically large car that [a spokesman] predicted would appeal to consumers not interested in downsizing,” “The New York Times” reported.

What is needed is a major paradigm shift, Roberts says, such as when the world changed its mind about slavery. There was a time when “you couldn’t possibly imagine a world without slaves,” he says, “but such a world came to pass, and it came to pass quite quickly once the abolitionist movement got started.”

He also compares the issue to the development of public sanitation. There was a time when “we always threw our sewage into the streets. And there were problems about it, but we thought: ‘Well, we’ve always done it this way.’ But it changed. And that's another one that changed quite quickly. Sorting out the sewage was considered one of the great public-health advances of the last 200 years, and I think sorting our decarbonization of transport and society more generally will be the next great public-health advance.”

Tellingly, in 1848, “The Economist” editorialized (see page 61 of this link) against the installation of public sanitation, writing: “Suffering and evil are nature’s admonitions; they cannot be got rid of and the impatient attempts of benevolence to banish them from the world by legislation, before benevolence has learned their object and their end, have always been more productive of evil than good.”

That same august publication earlier this month expressed pessimism about changing mentalities in London on driving: “Economists might recognise a phenomenon called ‘path dependency’; London has for so long been dominated by cars that installing proper cycle lanes might mean demolishing some buildings and closing busy roads for long periods. With cycling accounting for only one trip in 50, it would be a brave mayor who did that.”

Books like “The Energy Glut” have to potential to help people break away from the “corporate capture” of these crucial questions. Roberts says part of that corporate capture has been the spreading of the idea that decarbonization means “darkness and coldness and toil.”

But as a pediatrician and a public-health expert, Roberts has a completely different perspective. “I think that decarbonization could be the best thing that ever happened to humanity,” he says. “We could be healthier, happier, fitter, leaner, with stronger communities, safer urban environments, socially useful jobs. It could be the best thing to happen to us.”

And, in closing, another exercise in perspective. At the recent Detroit auto show, Volvo crashed one of its new electric cars to show “that its electric cars are just as safe as every other Volvo on the road.” For the person inside the car, maybe. For the people outside the car, it is clearly just as dangerous as every other car on the road. (Volvo is also big on promoting the use of bicycle helmets.)

Here's a graphic video of a traffic incident in the city of Chelyabinsk, Russia, in February 2010: