The Social Costs of CARnage

Putting a dollar figure on a transportation-related injury or death may seem hard-hearted, but it can be done. It should be done, if only to underline the enormous human costs of our car/truck dominated transportation system.

By David Cohen
Published October 02, 2008

this article has been updated

It's the elephant in the room.

I refer to a recently published federal government study that found the "social costs" of "transportation" accidents in Canada amount to $40 billion a year.

You don't hear about it on the hustings. It made page 12, below the fold, in the Spec. No letters of outrage followed. Those were reserved for price "gouging" at the gas pumps.

Granted, in the current economic crisis we're getting used to big dollar numbers, but $40 billion is still a lot of scratch. "Social costs" are what we as a society spend as a result of the deaths, injuries, property damage, lost production, health care costs, etc., caused by transportation accidents.

Putting a dollar figure on a transportation-related injury or death may seem hard-hearted, but it can be done. It should be done, if only to underline the enormous human costs of our car/truck dominated transportation system.

The federal study was advertised as "ground breaking." Yet a similar study was published in Ontario in 1994 based on data from 1990.

Then, a transportation-related death was costed on average at $658,176, based on discounted future earnings. Other injuries: total permanent disability, $659, 630; partial permanent disability, $112,137; major , $32,327; minor, $3,839; and minimal,$1,593.

When all this was added up plus property damage, lost production, etc., the total for Ontario was more that $9 billion for the year 1990.

The year-by-year, largely predictable nature of this toll is indicative of the systemic nature of our transportation toll.

The French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss says a state of continuing death and injury is a systemic product rather than a result of "individual pathology."

That myth of "individual pathology" as a cause of transportation-related death and injury remains strong. We seek to blame someone or something when an accident happens.

We concentrate on drivers. Crashes are "caused" by speeding, drunkenness, carelessness, tiredness, cell-phone use, youth (carelessness, foolishness, etc.).

We are told (repeatedly) we must do a better job of educating drivers. If that doesn't work, we should punish them with harsh jail sentences and so on.

We hear this - daily, even hourly - from the police, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), and much of the rest of our auto-safety establishment.

It doesn't work. Not in the overall, societal sense, that is. A predictable number of Canadians are injured or die on the nation's roads and highways every year.

"Transportation policy in Canada focuses on individual behaviour as the chief cause of accidents and a major factor in environmental pollution," Prof. David MacGregor, of the University of Western Ontario, has written.

"Consequently, government is mostly blind to the larger picture of societal neglect, industrial malfeasance, and political irresponsibility that lies behind unacceptable death and injury rates, and dangerous air quality in major cities."

When there is no one to blame, we turn to our institutional experts on traffic, the traffic engineers employed by a cities and towns for guidance.

By training and job culture, they remain proponents of "traffic flow." Traffic flow attempts to eliminate "conflicts" that are caused, mostly, by pedestrians, cyclists and other slower-moving, non-motrorized objects on our roadways.

Traffic engineers, for example, blame pollution on impediments to traffic flow, which they claim causes cars to idle and therefore pollute.

More often than not they are part of the problem rather than the solution.

Thus, the car-truck imperium motors on, and we ignore the elephant in the room.

Update: this article originally implied that Claude Levi-Strauss had died. In fact, Levi-Strauss is still alive at age 99. You can jump to the changed paragraph. Raise the Hammer regrets the error. Thanks to R Blechman for catching this. -Ed.

David Cohen is a freelance writer and a part-time teacher. He has worked as a journalist and a communications officer (promoting workplace health and safety). He served on the Dundas Town Council from 1991 to 1994.


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By geoff's two cents (anonymous) | Posted October 03, 2008 at 03:46:42

Couldn't agree more, David, and it's a crying shame that we hear so much about "gouging" in this supposedly more eco-friendly era.

Driving is inherently dangerous, particularly in areas of higher speeds. Hitting anything at 100km/h will almost certainly kill it, and yet, for some reason, this often goes unnoticed.

If I nod off on the bus or train (it's happened a few times), I might miss my stop or drool on a fellow passenger (hasn't happened yet); if I nod off at the wheel, I might be out thousands of dollars in repairs, or even kill myself or somebody else.

Having owned a car for eight years, I happily sold it for these reasons above, and now find that I have added time to read while I commute. I'm also wealthier, and I can spend as much time downtown in a city as I want to without having to worry about when my parking ticket expires. I get more exercise to boot. A much smaller carbon footprint is a handy bonus, together with the fact that buses are usually air-conditioned in the summer.

Having recently rented a car, not only did I find driving on freeways incredibly boring and restrictive; I also found the air quality to be notably poorer than on a bus - possibly because bus passengers are elevated, I don't know.

Not that I can expect everybody to feel exactly the way I do, but I find it incredibly discouraging that "price gouging" gets as much attention as it does, while the study you mentioned is relegated to page 12. Would the top 5 be too much to ask?

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By schmadrian (registered) | Posted October 03, 2008 at 08:53:50

Not exactly sure what your elephant in the room is, but mine is the automobile culture we have created (and by extension, the trucking industry). The fact that the car is arguably at the center of North America's value system. It built an economy, it takes up the lion's share of advertising (at the very least, tv advertising), and this reality speaks volumes about our society.

But back to the thrust of the article; never mind the dollar values, check out the stats for automobile casualties. Roughly 40,000+ in the US, and 3,000+ in Canada. Yearly.

And this is, essentially, accepted. It's regarded as an acceptable situation.

So roughly 45,000 people each year die in traffic accidents in North America. Can you imagine any other aspect of life having this level of risk being 'accepted'?

We live in a world where the car -and driving- takes precedence over just about everything. No worse punishment can be imposed, it would seem, than to take away someone's right to drive.

Cars and pollution and environmental concerns and the economy have become a front-and-center discussion. But really, it's the wrong discussion. It's a moot one, actually.

Unfortunately, a paradigm shift away from this is almost impossible. (No, the answer is never going to be rapid transit. But that's a discussion for another time.)

This, to me, is the elephant in the room.

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By R Blechman (anonymous) | Posted October 03, 2008 at 11:32:53

You wrote:

The late French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss said a state of continuing death and injury is a systemic product rather than a result of "individual pathology."

Professor Levi-Strauss is alive and well, thank you.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted October 03, 2008 at 11:54:30

R Blechman,

Thanks for bringing that error to our attention. I've updated the article.

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By Red Hill Veteran (anonymous) | Posted October 04, 2008 at 19:43:53

Great article as always, David. Keep hammering away. The understanding that the mass motoring system is really stupid is starting to sink in.

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By jamesandcannon (anonymous) | Posted October 08, 2008 at 13:56:15

How soon before the Red Hill to QEW interchange is ready and all the trucks they promised off our local roads can finally be rerouted?

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted October 09, 2008 at 14:56:22

I've often thought of trying to tally the total costs of our car'd make a really good PHD thesis. Think about it - the cars themselves, financing, fuel, insurance, roadways, parking, health care (traffic deaths, air pollution and physical inactivity), urban sprawl, policing traffic and the millions of hours lost every year in traffic jams. It's one big massive pit, down which we throw as much money, land, fuel, natural resources and human effort as we, as a society, can muster. I highly doubt that when all was tallied that the benefits would truly outweigh the costs.

The cost of buying a new car are on par with university tuition (often a few times a decade), and even compare to the costs of a mortgage for many families. Yet, while all of the above can easily rack up massive piles of interest, nobody expects an engineering degree or a bungalow to lose 10-20% of it's value each year. Added to the costs of fuel, insurance, repairs (the high price of buying a cheap car), parking and other associated costs, automobile ownership is pulling many thousands of dollars per year out of the average family bank account. In many cases, this is food children can't eat (in lower-income families), levels of education they won't attain and inheritances which will never allow them to escape similar cycles.

Sure, a car will move more quickly than my bike (though not in any dense area), but unless you count the thousands of hours spent working to pay for it, versus the one-time cost of a bicycle and low cost of maintenance (with fuel, parking, insurance and financing being negligable in most cases), it is simply false economy to assume a car is more efficient. As one oft-cited study showed, when all of that is included, average speed of automobile transportation drops to around that of a brisk walk.

And don't give me that "rational actor" nonsense either (if any "scientific" theory outside of economics suggested such things, they'd be laughed right into scientology). The decision to own a car is made in the context of social and cultural pressures ("only kids, seniors, the disabled and dirt poor ride bikes or take the bus") and a geography which has been transformed into low-density, single-use neighbourhoods designed only for cars.

Take the Trans Canada out west...I did, recently (and before y'all point fingers, I hitched and bussed, and no, I didn't behead that guy). Virtually the whole country's highway, from Northern Ontario, through the praries, into the rockies, up to and including the Port Mann Bridge, is being twinned at the moment, extending well into smaller roads up to and in Northern BC (the notorious Sea to Sky highway, for instance) and god knows where else. How much is this costing us? Billions and billions, as Carl Sagan would say. But where are all the crews twinning train tracks?

Foresight, anyone?

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By geoff's two cents (anonymous) | Posted October 09, 2008 at 18:19:06

Solid analysis, Undustrial. I agree that car culture is a fundamentally irrational - or arational - entity. The debate between those who decry the subsidization of public transit at the expense of the supposedly ulta-individualism private auto transport has always particularly frustrated me. Car culture is enormously subsidized, when you calculate the amount of dollars expended in servicing low-density neighborhoods, as well as the construction of the roads themselves. From Nazi Germany to post-WWII America, the extensive network of highways we take for granted - that enable us to feel as though we have penultimate control over our own destiny - were built at enormous expense using public funds.

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted October 10, 2008 at 12:52:40


If you want to do a solid analysis and something worth writing about you should identify the costs versus the benefits of driving cars. It's called cost-benefit analysis.

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By geoff's two cents (anonymous) | Posted October 10, 2008 at 16:04:14

Capitalist, you have a point of view, evidently. We have provided a quick summary of some of the obvious costs. Enlighten us, please, as to what the benefits are. Having owned a car for eight years, and gone without ever since, I can't see what those benefits might be. Even the relative utility of the automobile is a function largely of the more efficient modes of transportation mass private auto ownership has displaced. I look forward to hearing your take on this.

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted October 10, 2008 at 16:40:19

geoff's two cents,

You want to know the benefits of automobiles? Are you kidding me? What do you think the price of food and other goods and services would be if we didn't have cars and trucks to transport them from their sites of manuafacture or farms into peoples neigbourhoods? How would sick people get to the hospital in emergency situations? Would they wait by the side of the road to use light rail? How would people be able to travel in a timely cost effective way between communities, especially rural areas where transit will never be an option?

People will never turn themselves back on cars because guess what - time is money. And most people with lives don't have the time to sit by the side of the road waiting for some bus that may or may not show up.

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By geoff's two cents (anonymous) | Posted October 10, 2008 at 18:16:52

Alright, Capitalist, you've got me on a couple points - I meant to impugn mass ownership in an urban/suburban context, which is where most auto-owning Canadians live, but gave my two cents a tad hurriedly: My post could have used a last-minute edit. I'm actually not as radical as that post makes me appear - though I'm sure a case could be made for a wholesale rejection of the private automobile. That's not my concern at present.

With this in mind, there is indeed a function for the private automobile in a rural context to transport agricultural and other resources, as well as to make the everyday lives of these people much easier.

As for sick people getting to hospitals, ambulances can work wonders in getting them there quite speedily. No question that waiting by the side of the road with a missing eye or something is out of the question.

Traveling between communities, even rural ones, is possible using train or bus transportation. Most small towns in Ontario were accessible this way in the heyday of rail transport. In Britain and continental Europe, bus and train transport between outlying communities is much more efficient than in North America.

You're partly right on your last point. People are, indeed, hesitant to give up their cars because they need a reliable way of getting from A to B. No question here.

The fact that auto transport is much more convenient to use in so many instances, however, is a function of the way our communities have been built around private automobile use. There aren't even sidewalks in many suburban neighborhoods, making waiting for a bus that comes once an hour (or doesn't come at all) a serious issue for people who have better things to do with their time.

It hasn't always been this way, however, and there's no reason it needs to be in the future. The article above outlines some telling social issues with the nearly ubiquitous mass auto culture we take for granted. The environmental problems are also obvious. Communities can, in fact, be constructed in a less sprawling fashion. This doesn't necessarily mean highrises either. The late Victorian style of building, manifest in many areas around Hamilton, would be a vast improvement on the wasteful and inefficient planning we see today. Townhomes and low-rise apartments can also be built to accommodate a much higher population density without making a community feel like a concrete jungle. This way of building is much more common overseas.

The "time is money" argument is also hard to swallow, given the proportion of hours per day the average family has to work in order to buy, maintain, fuel and insure a vehicle - or several. Add to this the additional time spent commuting from outlying, auto-dominated areas, together with the cost and man-hours consumed by other aspects of the suburban lifestyle (larger properties and heftier mortgages, less efficient heating and cooling, etc.), and the time/money equation is evidently not the determining factor. At any rate, it isn't calculated in a terribly rational fashion. Irrational aspects might include our susceptibility to corporate advertising, the ability of private autos and larger suburban homes to act as highly visible status symbols, the belief that cities are bad for children (and generally morally damnable places), and - this is particularly evident in early twentieth-century ideas concerning automobility - an almost mystical notion that reason and technology will enable us to effectively transcend the limitations imposed by our human skins - in short, mass private auto ownership makes even the most lowly of
us into an ubermensch of sorts.

Nor can the enormous social and environmental impact of this way of life be measured entirely in dollars - though I can't help but wonder what proportion of future work will be devoted to fixing problems caused by our twentieth and twenty-first century environmental negligence.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted October 14, 2008 at 16:06:30

All that we need to ask is thus: what would happen if every nation on earth shared our level of automobile dependence? We're beginning to see this with China and India, but virtually all of the planet, even industrialized nations like Europe, are still well behind.

There's no amount of fuel efficiency which could make up for this, regardless of hybrids, hydrogen or biofuels. The amount of roads, mines and parking lots would dwarf entire nations.

We in industrialized nations need to stop thinking that we're special - that for some reason we deserve a standard of living which is nearly unimaginable in (or for) the rest of the planet.

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By Jessica (anonymous) | Posted October 24, 2008 at 17:40:35

Who can argue that the car is king? If not convinced, take a walk (or drive) in the sprawl area of our city and look at the new houses being built. What is the first thing you see when you look at the house? Garages! and then a tiny part of the front facade is the person's entrance. Ugly! I call these places garages with houses attached.

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