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Acknowledging automotive deaths


We don’t like to talk about how automobiles can be deadly. This is most obviously seen in the car buff media, where a “boys with toys” mentality prevails. Hey, don’t spoil our fun by bringing up something r-e-a-l.

But even those of us who consider ourselves “green” can hop into the car without acknowledging that the “human body was not meant to travel more than a few miles per hour; we were engineered accordingly, and traveling any speed much above that is a crapshoot,” noted an automotive analyst. (If you need a reminder about the ways things can go wrong, check out this video of car crashes.)

We are all powerfully influenced by American culture, which gives little attention to automotive fatalities — at least aside from gossip about the occasional celebrity death.

Curtis White pointed out in 2003 that every 10 years “we wipe out the population of four cities the size of the one in which I live, Bloomington-Normal, Illinois. Dead. And we leave a population the equivalent of a major metropolitan area (close to three million) as walking wounded, carting around the pain of pins in their ankles, knees like pudding, and ruptured vertebrae. Where is the memorial to those deaths and wounds?”

Photos by Olympia, Earth Images

The annual death toll dropped by 18 percent since White’s words were published. Nevertheless, his point is still compelling. From 2005 to 2015 there were 398,308 motor vehicle fatalities, according to Wikipedia. That’s four times larger than the number of U.S. military deaths associated with the Vietnam and Korean wars (Wikipedia).

So where are our memorials? Interestingly, they are most likely to show up in rural areas. A case in point is a lonely stretch of Highway 101 near Humptulips. Close to the top of a mild grade are two crosses a few yards away from the two-lane road. These memorials are unusually large and well-decorated so I took a few photographs.

The images raise a variety of questions, such as what happened? I started to do some research but decided to let the photos speak for themselves. That’s partly to respect the privacy of the families but also to avoid losing sight of the meta issue — the automobile is not a benign tool.

Yes, cars and roadways have become safer. The 2015 death toll of 35,092 was substantially lower than the peak year of 54,589 in 1972. In addition, auto fatalities are far lower than other leading causes of death such as heart disease and cancer, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention.

Nevertheless, there were 35,092 vehicle fatalities in 2015, the last year when data was available. To acknowledge these deaths does not make one “anti-car” or overly fearful of modern life. It makes one human.


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