The Driving Force of Fear

06/11/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

An intriguing number flashed through the mainstream media a few weeks
ago and caught my attention. According to estimates from the National
Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 37,313 people were killed in motor vehicle
crashes during 2008.

Some reports gave that statistic a slightly positive spin; it's the
lowest number of road fatalities in this country since 1961. I'm glad the
toll went down, but I doubt many people cared one way or the other. Each
year when the highway mortality count is released, most of America just
shrugs it off.

Take a moment to consider those 37 thousand traffic victims this way:
It's like having having ten 9/11 attacks in one year. It seems like that
much carnage would cause an eruption of shock and anger across the country,
and a collective demand for action from our government to prevent it from
ever happening again.

Where's the fright factor with all this mechanized death? When it comes
to generating fear and anxiety, the subject of traffic safety has no
horsepower. The casualties just pile up year after year.

Oh the other hand, I'm still hearing sound bites on TV and radio from
concerned citizens who say the most important reason for US troops to be in
Iraq and Afghanistan is because "if we don't fight the terrorists over
there, we'll have to fight them here."

The fear of being harmed by a terrorist is genuine. I'm not going to
belittle anybody for that. But here's a question for everyone who believes
we must do "whatever it takes" to prevent "them" from coming here: If you
feel seriously threatened by danger from a potential terrorist attack, do
you feel the same threat level while driving a motor vehicle? And if the
answer is no, I'd like to know why, because your chances of dying in a car
wreck this year are much higher than the likelihood of being killed by an
Al-Qaeda agent.

A friend recently gave me an interesting explanation. He said, "A lot
of people feel totally safe inside their car, very protected. And they
figure most crashes are, like, screw-ups. Stuff happens. But the
terrorists, they WANT to hurt us. That's a really scary feeling."

Using this line of reasoning, death by deliberate intention strikes a
much more fearful chord inside many of us than death by careless mistake or
other human error. I don't share that feeling, but it's understandable.
I also understand that bad driving crosses social, cultural, and
political boundaries. There's no obvious group to target for any sort of
pre-emptive strike that will make us all safer in every lane.
I've had near-collisions with motorists who were young, old, male,
female, tall, short, bald, hairy, and one guy who might have been naked. The close
calls happen on highways, residential streets, supermarket parking lots,
anyplace where cars congregate and drivers may be in a hurry, looking at a
map, talking on a cell phone, or arguing with a passenger.

During the past four years, as the cost of the Iraq war climbs higher
and higher, I've often wondered how much public support a president might
get if he declared a coast-to-coast war on dangerous driving and promised a
six-year campaign that would spend twelve billion dollars a month to build
safety barriers down the middle of every busy highway, improve car safety
features, and put thousands of additional traffic officers on duty all over
the country.

For now, those 37,000 crash deaths in 2008 aren't setting off any
societal alarm bells. How high does the mortality rate have to get in order
to make average drivers pause when they get behind the wheel and think, "I
better be really, seriously careful out there."

Would 100,000 deaths per year be the tipping point? Half a million?
What kind of number would jolt the American public into saying, "Hey, this
car crash stuff is becoming a threat to national security. It's almost like
some new form of terrorism!"