Irresponsible Auto Journalism

When auto journalists whose columns are usually sensible resort to attacking “safety Nazis” it is time to despair.

October 26, 2004

In the world of auto journalism, the Detroit News often leads the way with the latest stories and with insider knowledge — as indeed it should, given that it is located in the world’s car making capital.

But with that position of world leadership comes a big responsibility; after all, automobiles have killed more people in just over one hundred years than have all the wars in history, combined. According to the World Health Organisation, road crashes are now killing 1.2 million people each year and the situation is expected to get much worse between now and 2020.

Yesterday (October 25), I sat down to read John McCormick’s piece, “These car commercials are actually worth watching,” and for the first four paragraphs I was getting into it and enjoying the initial themes, which were to the effect that not only can automobile commercials be clever and entertaining but also that powerful sports cars can be fun and should be celebrated as such. (View article here.)

I agree!

But then I got to paragraph five, and read: “If ever an ad took a swipe at all the safety Nazis and assorted kill-joys out there, this is it.”

Rarely, if ever, have I sat so stunned by such an unnecessary and ludicrous comment by an ostensibly professional journalist, on any topic, in all of my life.

Firstly, John, get a grip; Nazis killed millions of people — and so, lo and behold, have automobiles. Your suggestion that people who campaign for a reduction in the incredibly high number of road deaths are Nazis is outlandish and pitiful.

Secondly, before making such insensitive and unjustified swipes at people who have saved countless tens of thousands of human lives, perhaps you should take a long, hard look at how poorly the USA performs in terms of reducing the number of people killed on the roads each year. For example, in the ten years from 1992-2001, data is available in respect of 23 member-countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) which shows that the USA made the least progress of all — a mere 4 percent — in reducing the number of people killed in road crashes each year. At the same time, other countries achieved reductions of up to 39 percent. (View table here.)

The majority of developed countries in the world are now engaged in programs aimed at reducing the actual number of people killed in road crashes each year by either 40 percent or 50 percent, by either 2010 or 2012 (depending on the country) yet what is being done in the USA?

Here, the DOT has a target of reducing the number of deaths in relation to Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT), from 1.48 deaths per one hundred million vehicle miles to 1.0 deaths, by 2008. In itself, this is laudable, but there are two important points to be made:
1. Between 2002-2003 the rate fell by just .03 — from 1.51 to 1.48 — so if one year of the program achieves a cut of just .03 what chance is there that we will see a total fall of .48 in the next 4-5 years?
2. Using the USA’s own figures, over the past few years, it can easily be seen that even though the VMT rate of deaths can be brought down this does not necessarily translate into a reduction in the number of actual deaths. This, in turn, begs the question of why the US DOT rarely uses the per capita rate — deaths per one-hundred-thousand population — the preferred international measure. Is it perhaps because out of the thirty countries currently listed in the International Road Traffic and Accidents Database (IRTAD) only three have a worse per capita death rate than the USA? (View this table here.)

Now here’s a key question, John: If Detroit — Motor Town — was not allowed to wield such immense political power in the USA, might the country have achieved a much lower annual death toll than it currently, unnecessarily suffers?

We all know the answer to that one. Detroit is big enough to flatten any safety legislation that it believes will affect the bottom line. So precisely who are the Nazis again, John?

For example, NHTSA recently announced that action has been taken on the safety of power windows — which have killed, by strangulation, many children who have been left to play in an unattended car on parents’ driveways and similar places. What was the action that was taken? The fitting of a different type of switch that will be less likely (but by no means impossible) to be activated by a child who is climbing around or simply playing.

And what was the alleged but facile justification for such inadequate action by a government department that only exists to protect people from injury and death? It was that fitting auto-reverse windows would cost auto makers an extra $50 per car.

Wow! Fifty dollars… That couldn’t possibly be a fair price to keep a child alive, could it?

And if the cost of auto-reverse windows truly is prohibitive, how come many European cars are fitted with them and have been for many years?

No, John, your back-handed swipe at safety-oriented individuals and organizations cannot be acceptable to any thinking person. It stands no scrutiny whatsoever and — sadly — is extremely damaging to a vital cause. And as for your “kill joys” tag, I can remember on too many occasions being the police officer who had to visit parents and tell them that one of their children had been killed in an “accident.” In that sense, John, you are right. That message is delivered about 120 times a day in America and 3,000 times a day worldwide. And yes, in the case of all those people who hear such dreadful news it really does kill joy…. for a lifetime.

Oh, and as for the Ford GT, I — a “safety Nazi” to use your silly phrase — would love to tear around a race track in one, with both the engine and the tires howling. You see, at least I can recognize where it is safe to drive like that; away from public roads, but the fact that I, and countless others, don’t want anybody else to get obliterated by either unthinking or deliberately reckless drivers on public roads does not in any way, shape or form make us Nazis.
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It would be gratifying to see John McCormick and the Detroit News publish a truly insightful article about the scale of road carnage in the USA, in order to redress the comments mentioned above. He/they might like to mention, for example, that if — God forbid — a tragedy on the scale of the World Trade Center massacre were to happen in the USA every 23 days it would still kill less people each year than do vehicles on America’s roads.

Fighting this ludicrous level of grief and death does not warrant or justify nasty asides from journalists.

Eddie Wren, Executive Director, Drive and Stay Alive, Inc.