08/21/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

America: Gassed to Death

For the last decade, highway fatalities in the United States remained relatively constant, at 42,000 deaths a year. Every year, in other words, we lose more people on American roads than we did in the three year long Korean War.

But in 2008, when oil prices spiked, Americans drove a lot less, and that saved lives. In 2008, around 37,000 people died in automobile accidents. That's really quite extraordinary. When gas prices went up by a couple dollars per gallon, we saved more lives than perished in the September 11 attacks. We should call a gas tax the "preventive health surcharge," and include it in a comprehensive universal health care plan.

Higher gas prices have other advantages, of course. If we drove less, we would reduce our carbon emissions. If the government imposed a tax that boosted the price of gas, it could raise needed revenue to address climate change.

And if we drove less and used less oil, we could fundamentally change our foreign policy.

As Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) columnist Conn Hallinan points out, the map of global conflict corresponds rather closely to the map of known energy reserves. Iraq sits on a big puddle of oil. Afghanistan is a crucial crossroads for energy pipelines from the Caspian basin. The United States is jostling with Russia and China for control of these riches. "The U.S. has enormous military power. But as Iraq, and now Afghanistan, makes clear, the old days of cornering a market by engineering a coup or sending in the Marines are fast receding," Hallinan writes in Blood and Oil in Central Asia. "The trick over the next several decades will be how to keep the competition for energy from sparking off brush fire wars or a catastrophic clash of the great powers."

The competition for oil extends to Africa as well. The Pentagon set up its new African Command (AFRICOM) to coordinate military relationships with key allies, like Nigeria, which just happens to pump out what will in the near future become a quarter of all U.S. oil imports. Nigeria's Joint Task Force (JTF) launched a recent offensive against a rebel group that has attacked oil installations in the Niger Delta.

The collateral damage to civilians has been enormous. "The United States and other members of the international community should send clear signals to the Nigerian government that they are paying attention to the developments in the Delta and that they expect the government of Nigeria and the Nigerian military to adhere to basic humanitarian principles, including the protection of civilians, unfettered humanitarian access, and freedom of movement for noncombatants," writes FPIF contributor Andrew Blum in his Postcard from...the Niger Delta.

"Fighting in the Delta has reduced the country's oil output by more than 20%," writes FPIF contributor David Kampf in In Defense of Aid. "Through development and diplomacy, Washington should push for peace in the Niger Delta and prevent backsliding in anticorruption initiatives."

I don't own a car. But the last time I visited the pumps to fill up a rental, I was shocked to discover that I could watch Gas Station TV. The screen above the twirling numbers displayed a high-octane mix of ads, infotainment, and updates on sports and celebrities, all crimped and styled to fit into the couple minutes it took to fill the tank. As I stared at the screen, mesmerized and horrified, two separate scenarios, one top-down and the other bottom-up, came to mind.

In the first scenario, a group of environmentalist hackers replaces the usual fare on Gas Station TV with a two-minute video on the real costs of oil: the lives lost in foreign wars, the environmental catastrophes in Alaska and Niger Delta, the carbon footprints of SUVs and corporate jets. It would be like showing the documentary Super Size Me inside a McDonald's.

In the second scenario, the Obama administration imposes a $2 a gallon gas tax and nationalizes Gas Station TV. On the screen, while we fill our tanks a gallon at a time with the precious fluid, the administration broadcasts public service announcements. The words "friends don't let friends drive" would appear on the screen, accompanied by a graph correlating higher gas prices with a significant drop in highway fatalities.

Now wouldn't that be a gas?

Crossposted from Foreign Policy In Focus, where you can read the full post.

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