MORRIS: The American Love Affair With Cars

My 2 year old granddaughter doesn't particularly like cars. She'll get over it. We all do. For most Americans the car has become a symbol not only of status but of power and freedom. "Don't Tread On Me" now takes on a more literal meaning -- don't stop me from using my treads.Future historians will marvel at the extent of our addiction.Last month a widely praised study by two Canadian epidemiologists made a one week splash in the media. The two scientists found that talking on a car phone, whether hand held or mounted, increases the likelihood of being involved in an accident by 400 percent. For drivers the new slogan should be, "Reach out and wreck someone." Dialing and driving is statistically as dangerous as drinking and driving. And although drinking and driving may be on the decline, dialing and driving is surging. Ten million more people signed up for cellular phones last year.Brazil, Israel, Switzerland and parts of Australia have responded to the growing dangers of car phones by prohibiting their use while driving. In this country the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association reacted by issuing a list of recommendations to car phone owners. My personal favorite? "Never take notes while driving." A group called Mothers Against Dialing and Driving has yet to be formed.A few days after the Canadian study, the New York Times informed us that many more Americans now die in car collisions with light trucks than in collisions with other cars, even though light trucks comprise less than one third of all vehicles. And when a death occurs, 80 percent of the time it is the occupant of the car that dies.What the insurance and medical profession views as a health problem, the car manufacturers see as a marketing opportunity. Jerry Hirshberg, Nissan's president of North American design says of their sports utility vehicle, "There's a feeling ÔWhen I'm in this car, I'm in command of my future'." David P. Bostwick, Chrysler's market research director exults, "you get to be Superman for a day." This year 50 percent of all vehicle sales could be light trucks. More and more people are buying 3 ton vehicles as a defensive weapon. Driving a sports utility vehicle in 1997 is like wearing a gun in Tombstone in 1877. Come to think of it, that's a splendid new marketing slogan for GM. "Drive a Chevy Suburban and Live."Twenty years ago Congress passed energy efficiency standards for new cars. Light trucks were a rarity then so Congress exempted them. Today light trucks are the fastest growing segment of vehicle sales but their energy efficiencies are about half those of new cars. Some bold politicians tried to close the efficiency loophole. An aroused American public responded, "Pollution be damned. Full speed ahead."Talking about speed, last year the federal government let states set speed limits on interstate highways. Twenty nine immediately raised their speed limits. Montana abolished theirs. To be more precise, the Montana law requires motorists to drive in a "reasonable and prudent" way. To most Americans that means pedal to the floor. Fatalities on Montana highways soared. Montana legislators have tried to reimpose a speed limit but so far their freedom loving citizens refuse. "Drive free or die." The new American motto.Iowa may raise the speed limit from 65 to 70 despite the fact that every state touching Iowa that has raised its speed limit beyond 65 has increased traffic deaths while every one that has not has seen a reduction in traffic deaths. The higher speed limit would shave 20 minutes off the 300 mile drive from border to border at the cost of 15 additional lives. A fair tradeoff for most American drivers. The bill sailed through the first House Committee with only one dissenting vote. The lone dissenter was a former state trooper.The car is the nation's largest single polluter. Car accidents are the number one killer of young adults. Yet the car remains the most heavily subsidized of any products in America. By some estimates, the average car owner receives subsidies greater than welfare mothers in several states.But try to raise these arguments in the U. S. of A. in 1997 and you're labeled a communist. At the dawn of the twenty first century freedom means driving down a Montana highway at 100 miles an hour, in a car as big as a small house, having a friendly argument on the car phone.Our legitimate desire for personal mobility has metastasized into a dangerous addiction to speed and power. We've confused freedom with license. My darling Tessa knows this intuitively. Would that more of us could heed our instincts and resist the siren call of the car.

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