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Doug Marlette, an editorial cartoonist best known for his syndicated comic strip “Kudzu,” was killed in a car wreck in Mississippi recently. On the previous Friday he had delivered the eulogy at his father’s funeral in North Carolina, and on Tuesday, July 10, he was on his way to Oxford to help a group of high-school students mount a production of “Kudzu: A Southern Musical.”
The theater director at Oxford High School picked Marlette up at the Memphis, Tenn., airport. On the highway to Oxford, his truck apparently hydroplaned in the rain and hit a tree, suddenly killing Marlette, age 57. He left behind a wife and a grown son.
In April, journalist David Halberstam was on his way to interview football great Y.A. Tittle in California when the journalism student who was chauffeuring him made a left turn across oncoming traffic. Halberstam, 73, was killed, cutting short a career that produced more than 20 fine books.
We’d like to find a rational explanation for deaths like these, but we can’t do much better than to say that they were just accidents, the result of a slick road or a moment’s distraction. In fact, about 120 other Americans were killed on the same days as Marlette and Halberstam, in some variation of the same way, by auto accident. And about 120 Americans are killed every day in car wrecks in a toll that mounts to impressive levels: 43,443 Americans killed, for example, in 2005, and 3.2 million killed since our infatuation with the automobile began early in the last century.
Of course, moving from place to place, by any means, requires risk. In “The Birth of the Modern,” Paul Johnson points out that travel by stagecoach and horse in the early 19th century, before the adoption of the relatively safer railroad, was fraught with danger. Figures aren’t available for the total number of accidents, but Johnson speculates that, per person per hour spent traveling, they may have been more numerous than is the case today. Collisions were rare, but carriages often overturned on bad roads. In fact, in 1829 a man traveling on a round trip from New York to Cincinnati reported that his coach overturned nine times. Fatalities weren’t unusual.
But travel in those days was expensive and therefore infrequent and limited to citizens with means. These days, nearly everyone drives or rides in an automobile nearly every day. Travel by automobile is central to our lives, but it’s worth noting that it takes place against a backdrop of largely unacknowledged random hazards that often strike without warning or rationale.
For perspective: About 10 times as many Americans die every day from cigarette smoking as from automobile accidents. But death by lung cancer is a controllable risk; it can be diminished significantly by avoiding cigarettes. Our safety behind the wheel, however, often depends less on our own behavior, which we can control, than on the behavior of others, which we cannot: Are they sleepy? Did they drink too much? Are they talking on a cell phone? Are they just bad drivers?
The flip side of this unacknowledged hazard of modern life is the potential for doing damage that we take on when we drive. Who hasn’t run a red light or endangered a pedestrian by a moment’s inadvertence? Halberstam’s driver has been charged with involuntary manslaughter, and Marlette’s is likely to spend years thinking about the accident. In short, whenever we’re driving, our lives can change dramatically — or end –without any warning whatsoever.
This level of risk isn’t inevitable. No method of travel is hazard-free, but travel by train, for example, or other means of public transport, is many times safer than travel by car, largely because factors like drunk driving, fatigue, carelessness and incompetence can be systematically controlled.
But the risk is the price we pay for the convenience of the automobile. Still, more than 40,000 Americans will die this year in car accidents, a figure on an order of magnitude comparable to 10 years of war in Vietnam. It seems like a lot. At the least, it might encourage us to drink less or speed less when we drive. At best, it might encourage us to reconsider entirely our fundamental approach to transportation.
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail jcrisp(at)delmar.edu. For more news and information, visit www.scrippsnews.com.)