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Cars are the new cigarettes: America’s other deadly habit

Stop Sign in Vancouver BC.jpg
Stop sign in Vancouver BC (click for
larger version so you can
read the fine print).
(Photo J. Maus)

Close readers of this site might recall that on several occasions I’ve written that, “cars are the new smoking cigarettes.”

It’s something that came from my continued bewilderment that, while most everyone realizes the multitude of negative impacts that come with America’s love-affair with cars, we are just now (and hardly still) beginning to think of them in the same way as cigarettes. That is, as something that is very dangerous, has broad public health implications, and claims the lives of thousands of people each year.

Way back when, cigarettes were cool. Everybody smoked them. From housewives to movie stars, nobody considered the negative impacts of puffing away (like lung cancer, asthma from secondhand smoke, and so on). But, as people started dying by the tens of thousands (including two Marlboro Men), suspicions grew.

Suddenly, the health care community caught on, the government started warning consumers, and popular culture eventually followed.

Now, cigarettes are banned in many public places and the number of people smoke regularly has dwindled to a much more sensible amount.

But there’s another silent killer in our midst — cars. They pollute our air, they kill tens of thousands of people each year (usually in “accidents”), they contribute to obesity, climate change, sprawl, and oil dependence, they degrade our public spaces, and so on.

Fortunately, people are starting to make the connection between cars and cigarettes. They’re beginning to understand that there are serious consequences for all of us because of our high rates of car usage.

Today, I came across even more validation that the comparison is valid while reading the excellent blog, How We Drive. The blog is written by Tom Vanderbilt, the author of Traffic: Why we drive the way we do.

In a post he titled, Changing Entrenched Behaviors, Vanderbilt shared a slide from a talk given by Michael O’Hare, a professor of public policy at University of California at Berkeley. In the slide, O’Hare compares cigarettes in 1968 with cars in 2008. Check it out below (click for larger version):

Taken from a slide presentation by Michael O’Hare via the How We Drive blog.

Vanderbilt wrote on his blog that, “I imagine there would have been few people in 1968 predicting that by 2008 smoking in public places would largely be a thing of the past.”

I hope everyone realizes that I’m intrigued by the ‘cars are the new smoking’ idea not because I simply hate cars and don’t think anyone should drive them. Cars have their place, just like cigarettes have their place. There’s nothing wrong with them, the problem is with us.

I drive my mini-van now and then and I have nothing against taking a drag from a cigarette, a cigar, or other rolled tobacco product if the opportunity presents itself.

It’s not the cars (or the cigarettes), it’s how we choose to use them. I just hope it doesn’t take 40 more years for America to kick this deadly habit.

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