Material World: Roadkill

A massacre of 28 children and teachers at a school in Connecticut on December 15 has received weeks of intensive media coverage. And yet very little attention is paid to the roughly 100 people killed in the U.S. every day by motor vehicles. The carnage at the scene of a serious road accident is just as horrific as a battlefield, but only those directly involved – the victims and the workers whose job is to clean up the mess – are fully aware of it as an everyday reality.

Millions of animals – deer, badgers, frogs, birds, etc. – also die on the roads. They are called ‘roadkill’. That seems an apt term for the human casualties too. Worldwide human roadkill is estimated at 1.3 million a year. The injured number in the tens of millions.

Average annual human roadkill in the U.S. in recent years has been about 40,000. (Another couple of million are hurt; 250,000 of them have sufficiently bad injuries and sufficiently good health insurance to be hospitalised.) There has been a modest decline since the 1970s, when the yearly average was about 50,000.

Various reasons have been suggested for the decline, including a crackdown on drunk driving and the adoption of certain safety features, especially seat belts and eventually (in the 1990s) air bags. We owe these improvements to persistent efforts by campaigners for safer car design, Ralph Nader being the best known.

Feeling safe

This example demonstrates that campaigns for reform can sometimes achieve worthwhile results. Worthwhile, but limited and temporary. Because there has been no decisive reorientation of car design toward safety as opposed to style, power and comfort.

Thus, as Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez point out, car manufacturers prefer to make the driver feel safe rather than help him drive safely. By swaddling driver and passengers in a warm, quiet and smoothly moving cocoon, insulated from the noise and bumps of the road, they ‘prevent drivers from sensing how fast they are going or how dangerous the road conditions are’ (Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and its Effect on our Lives, Palgrave Macmillan 2010, p. 179).

However, the biggest setback to the cause of safe design has been the rise of the monsters known as Sport Utility Vehicles. SUVs are much more prone to roll over than ordinary cars and much more lethal when they collide with other road users (Keith Bradsher, High and Mighty: The Dangerous Rise of the SUV, PublicAffairs 2002).

The decline in human roadkill is partly the result of people minimising their exposure to traffic as pedestrians, though at a high cost in the form of isolation and loss of community. In the old days, when motor vehicles were few and far between, children were free to roam around on their own and play with friends in the streets. Now they are cooped up at home. There they can prepare for their future role as drivers by playing video games like Carmageddon, where the goal is to smash up as many other cars and run down as many pedestrians as possible.


Beside direct roadkill, cars harm and kill people through the pollutants that they emit into the air we breathe. Here too campaigns for reform have had some successes. In particular, exhaust filters are now in wider use and petrol no longer contains lead additives.

Here too, however, the few successes are overshadowed by a daunting list of failures. And here too SUVs are the worst culprits. Motor vehicles still emit enormous quantities of tiny particles and poisonous compounds, including nitrous oxides, carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds that react in sunlight to form ozone. Most of these gases and particles do most harm to the respiratory system, causing such diseases as asthma, bronchitis, emphysema and lung cancer. Another pollutant, benzene, damages the bone marrow and immune system and causes leukemia and other blood cancers.

A car emits poisons into the air both inside and outside, making it hard to tell whether it is less unhealthy to ride with the windows closed or open.

Burdens on society

These are not the only burdens that the car imposes on society. It devours enormous material and labour resources and generates a vast stream of material waste, much of it hazardous and/or non-recyclable. The car and the hydrocarbon fuels that power it make a big contribution to the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases and thereby to climate change.

Cars have a huge impact on land use. Land is used to manufacture cars, sell cars (showrooms), service and repair cars (garages, filling stations), wash cars, drive cars (roads, driveways) and – no small item! – park cars (roadsides, car parks, home garages). An expanding area of arable land is being used to cultivate biofuels for cars.

These burdens grow heavier as the numbers of cars (and especially SUVs) increase. The total number of motor vehicles in the world passed the one-billion mark in 2010. It can be expected to continue rising rapidly as cheaper models open up new consumer markets in countries such as India and China.

A central issue in clarifying the general shape of a socialist society is what place cars would occupy in it. Will it be possible to provide everyone with access to car transport in some form, provided that a switch is made to electric cars? Or would it be necessary to restrict car use to a bare minimum?

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