Potentially Dangerous Technology
According to Wikipedia, that source of all modern knowledge, in 2009 there were 254,212,610 lethal weapons in the United States, the sale and servicing of which being important enough to the economy so that two presidents felt compelled to provide billions of dollars to keep the weapons’ manufacturers solvent during economic hard times. Americans use these weapons to kill approximately 40,000 of their fellow citizens annually, although some of the fatalities are undoubtedly illegal immigrants. Among the 40,000 dead are people of all ages, including infants. Furthermore, we purchase these weapons at the rate of about five to eight million a year. Use of these weapons also wounds tens of thousands more, some of them severely, with wounds including paralysis, loss of limbs and eyesight, and brain damage. An enormous number of us think nothing at all about endangering our fellow Americans through daily use of these instruments of mass destruction. In case you haven’t figured it out by now, I am talking, of course, about motor vehicles.
As is the case with deaths from firearms, the United States ranks high in terms of automobile deaths with 15.5 per 100,000 citizens per year, slightly ahead of Belgium (15.4). Globally, the overall motor vehicle injury rate is about double the death rate, at 30.8 per 100,000 per year for males and 11.0 for females; the vast majority of these injuries occur in nations with relatively low economic status, especially in Africa and Southeast Asia. In the United States, almost a hundred people a day die in motor vehicle accidents (93 is the reported number), which are the leading cause of death among people younger than their mid-forties, and result in over $400 billion per year in medical costs and lost productivity. Obviously, we’re willing to pay an enormous price for our freedom and mobility.
In contrast to some other hazards such as guns, illegal narcotics, and unwanted pregnancy, we as a nation treat motor vehicle death and injury mostly as a public health problem rather than a legal one. Thus we have a multi-faceted approach to the control of death and injury from several-thousand-pound packages of steel, plastic, and highly combustible liquids legally traveling at speeds up to 75 MPH on publically-owned property. We enact laws designed to protect people from their own irresponsible behavior (seat belt use laws, speed limits, legal blood alcohol limits), we design machinery to reduce the effects of both irresponsible behavior and simple accidents (air bags, antilock brakes, head supports and cushions), and we take away their rights to use these weapons if used in irresponsible manner (DUI, multiple traffic violations). We routinely imprison people who use these weapons in a way that hurts others (motor vehicle homicide). Finally, we pass laws to help protect people from financial problems resulting from irresponsible behavior of others using the weapons (required liability insurance).
We also spend a great deal of tax money to build and maintain places where these weapons can be used safely, if used responsibly (streets and highways.) Our public health measures are not 100% effective because we still kill and maim tens of thousands of our fellow citizens annually; as a result, statistically speaking, American motor vehicles are much more dangerous than American shotguns, rifles, and pistols. Furthermore, we glorify the use of big, explosive, vehicles in a variety of ways: television ads that attempt to join glamour and sex with this technology, designs that build convenience and luxury into them, and formalized contests in which we eagerly watch for their destruction (NASCAR, Indianapolis 500).
Motor vehicles are not nearly as dangerous, however, as a much smaller, more easily concealed, and strikingly simple, technology, namely, cigarettes. These items consist basically of plant leaves wrapped in paper. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the nation’s agency responsible for health statistics, in the United States over 440,000 die prematurely, every year, from smoking, and over eight million have chronic, serious, illness, e.g., emphysema, resulting from tobacco use. Second hand smoke is a major health hazard to non-smokers, with over half of American children under age eleven being exposed, the results being everything from sudden death syndrome, asthma, and respiratory tract infections, to lung cancer. According to CDC, second hand smoke causes annually in non-smokers about 3000 lung cancer deaths, 46,000 deaths from heart disease, and up to 300,000 cases of lower respiratory tract infections in children younger than two years old. The public health toll from tobacco use is estimated at about $200 billion a year, half of that in lost productivity.
(John Janovy, Jr.)