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How many people should we expect to die in car accidents?

Posted on 10 January 2014

the New York Times, 1924

The New York Times, 1924. Images via 99% Invisible

A father and two children, aged three and six, are all dead. They were killed on Highway 16 west of Prince George on Wednesday. They are the sixth, seventh, and eighth people to die on that highway in eleven days.

I’m trying to imagine any other activity that could claim eight lives in just over a week without there being some sort of public outcry, moratorium, or investigation. As a society, I feel like we’ve become so used to the idea of people dying in car accidents that we don’t really think about it.

In fact, that’s the standard for downplaying the dangers of something. “More people die in car accidents than doing x” is supposed to provide some sort of reassurance that an activity is safe, or at least safe enough. We all drive, right? How dangerous can it be?

There’s an excellent episode of 99% Invisible called “The Modern Moloch.” Moloch was an ancient god that some parents apparently sacrificed their children to. In 1923, deaths of children from cars were such a concern that a newspaper cartoon compared the car to Moloch, hence the title.

The whole episode is a fascinating look at how society hasn’t always been so accepting of death by automobile.

“Pedestrian deaths were considered public tragedies. Cities held parades and built monuments in memory of children who had been struck and killed by cars. Mothers of children killed in the streets were given a special white star to honor their loss.”


Imagine that. When a fatal collission happens now there’s private mourning, but publicly most accidents are sort of shrugged off. We note vehicle deaths but they don’t get nearly the sort of treatment they received a century ago. They are almost routine. Something to be expected.

I wonder if this makes people feel safer when they get into cars themselves? I know I don’t always get behind the wheel thinking about how I’m now in control of something that could easily and accidentally become a fatal weapon. And yet thousands of people in Canada alone are killed or seriously injured in accidents every year.

I remember after a heavy snowfall this past December, RCMP were asking people not to drive unless they absolutely had to. There were still lots of people attempting to get out on the road despite the dangerous conditions and reports that even tow trucks and police cars were going into ditches. I wondered what it would take to get those people to stop driving, just for the day. I mean, I get it— there’s jobs, groceries, errands. But we allow for sick days, partially to help prevent the spread of disease. Would it not be acceptable to take time off when the police are quite literally telling you not to drive because it’s not safe? Or at least find some other way to get from A to B?

There are obviously huge benefits that come out of cars and trucks delivering people and supplies over great distances in short periods of time. I’m not denying that. But just because there are benefits, it doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences.

The families of eight people are grappling with those consequences right now.

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1 Comment

[…] few weeks ago I wrote  a post titled “How many people should we expect to die in car accidents?” An […]

Posted by The crisis of complacency in road deaths | on 3 February 2014 @ 9am

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