It always works the same way.

First comes the breaking news headline; the latest concerned last week’s incident involving an 86-year-old man who drove his car through a Santa Monica, Calif., farmers’ market, killing 10 people.

Then there are the follow-up reports on the background of those involved and the circumstances that led to the “deadly tragedy.” They usually include interviews with witnesses, bystanders and the families and friends of the victims and the perpetrators, as well as so-called experts, who explain how a mechanical defect or social or regulatory problem contributed significantly to the event.

Then the TV and radio talk shows, along with the newspaper editorial pages, weigh in. They attempt to put the situation in perspective, and call for various reforms to reduce the chances such an episode will happen again.

Last, the politicians convene hearings and investigations to determine if new rules or regulations should be imposed.

All well and good, but in this case, as in so many others before it, sooner or later the hubbub dies down, the public and media attention wanes, and the issue is temporarily and conveniently forgotten — until the next time, when it starts again.

It is a sad but predictable process, and worst of all, it misses the point.

I don’t wish to minimize the suffering of the injured or the grief of the families of the dead, but the attention paid to the Santa Monica tragedy is misplaced because it ignores a far, far larger problem. The real highway safety story of the past week — the one that should have provoked widespread public outrage — was provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Last Thursday, NHTSA reported 42,815 people were killed on American roads last year — an increase of 2.1 percent from 2001 and the highest number in 12 years.

That’s 42,815 otherwise healthy people who had their lives snuffed out just as suddenly and violently as the 3,500 or so men and women we have lost over those same 12 years in the Gulf War, Mogadishu, Khobar Towers, the USS Cole, both terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center as well as on the Pentagon, and in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In one year, we have killed 12 times as many people on our roads as terrorist and military actions since 1991. Over the past 50 years, more than 2.2 million people have perished on America’s highways — nearly double the total dead from all our wars, military expeditions, incursions, police actions and acts of terror.

In terms of death and carnage, America’s highways are unparalleled.

Those are the facts, yet they scarcely receive attention at all, let alone the above-the-fold treatment accorded to the daily losses of one or more soldiers in Iraq. Every day the country suffers a military casualty in Iraq, it also suffers nearly five an hour to traffic fatalities.

Where is that headline? Where are the talk show discussions? Why aren’t the papers full of passionate letters? Why aren’t politicians calling for investigations? When was the last time a candidate for president — Democrat or Republican — even mentioned highway deaths in his nomination speech?

I have been writing about this issue for nearly 10 years, but I still have not been able to compose an answer to these questions. Neither can anyone else who specializes in highway safety. Generally, it comes down to this: As a society, we have become numb to the highway violence because it has become so regular, so “normal.” So we tolerate an annual death toll on the highways that we never would accept in any other way.

If you doubt this, consider what 4,280 deaths — one-tenth the highway total — would have meant to the Bush administration if those deaths had occurred during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Or to the airline industry if they were produced by 15 or more large commercial jet crashes in a single year.

The only time we ever seem to pay attention to highway casualties is when something spectacular happens, such as the incident in Santa Monica, or a hundred-car pileup on some foggy interstate, or when half a dozen teens perish in a fiery crash after a night of partying.

We seem to exhibit a peculiar psychology when it comes to the danger behind the wheel. We will recoil in fear from the news of a shark attack on a beach, or a roller coaster fatality at an amusement park. Many of us need tranquilizers to fly. But we rarely think about the dangers of motor vehicle collisions when it comes to ourselves. Instead, we harbor a shocking amount of collective ignorance about our own behavior.

Take speed limits. After several years of daily personal observation, I estimate more than 90 percent of American drivers exceed legal speed limits nearly all the time. The situation has evolved to the point where speed limit signs no longer serve their original purpose: designating the maximum allowable speed, in good weather, on a given roadway. Now, a speed limit is the minimum consensual speed. In other words, it is the slowest you can go without provoking a rude or dangerous response on the part of other drivers.

Many of us treat stop signs as advisories. Instead of coming to a complete halt, as we were taught back in driver’s education and in the state Department of Motor Vehicles manual, so many drivers execute what politely can be called a rolling stop — slow down a little bit, then keep on going. The same goes for turning right on red.

Red-light runners must be the fastest-growing segment of the driving population, because intersections have become the most deadly places on the road.

The real highway advisory signs, meant to convey cautionary information to motorists, are ignored. They might as well not even exist. Drivers speed by “congestion ahead” warnings as if the road was clear forever.

These kinds of behavior now comprise the norm. We are encultured as speeders, tailgaters, stop-sign scofflaws and red-light runners. As a driving population, most of us exhibit two habits that, examined objectively, could be called foolish — we speed up to slow down and we rush to stop. It is as though we only know two modes behind the wheel: stopped in traffic and going like hell.

Add to this the perpetual problems of drunken drivers, people who still refuse to take the basic precaution of wearing seat belts and clueless souls who will not protect their small children in safety seats and you create what has become our most dangerous everyday activity.

The automobile industry exacerbates it all by what passes for its sales promotion on television. Almost all ads for new models include the words “more powerful” in their voice-overs, and extol ever-growing engine displacements. It used to be disturbing enough that car ads featured new models careening down empty highways. But now they scream across landscapes — either sideways or spinning around in circles. The ads, in typical weasel fashion, carry the fine-print disclaimer: “Professional driver. Closed course. Do not attempt.”

It is useless, at this point, to try to figure out how we got into this mess. The urgent discussion needs to be about how we can fix it. How do we stop the monster that devours 118 of us daily and injures more than 8,000?

The problem is that the answer is probably going to be too painful to contemplate, because it will involve one of two possibilities: We must change our individual driving habits radically or we must impose Draconian measures to force better behavior on the highway.

Based on the experiences of the past 50 years, neither prospect seems likely.

Last week, when NHTSA announced the 2002 fatality statistics, Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta said he would dedicate the next 18 months — between now and the 2004 elections — to reducing traffic death and injuries.

Commendable, but it is doubtful the secretary will attempt to do what is needed to cut the death toll drastically.

Over the past half-century — the era of the modern superhighway — only two measures have been shown to work:

*Install a vast network of cameras that capture the license plate numbers of violators and send them summonses through the mail. Everywhere the cameras have been tried, the result has been a large drop in violations. The problem is, installing cameras in the numbers needed would be hugely expensive — even though the investment would pay off over time in reduced deaths, injuries and property damage.

*Flood the roads with patrol cars, especially the ones that roll along with traffic, ready to pounce on the bad apples. Again, the cost would be prohibitive. State and local budgets already are stretched to the limit. Few jurisdictions have the funds to double or triple their highway patrols.

Too bad, because those extra officers could engage in an operation that would bring speeding and aggressive driving — the scourges of the roads — to a complete halt almost immediately. How? By imposing a penalty usually reserved for 2-year-olds who throw tantrums: a “time-out.”

Instead of writing a ticket carrying a $100 or $150 fine, bad drivers would be forced to sit in their vehicles for an hour or two. It would be the equivalent of the penalty box in hockey — or maybe the village stocks of Puritan times — where the violator would sit in plain sight, contemplating his or her bad habits and feeling shame.

An intriguing idea, but it isn’t going to happen. Just as unlikely would be a massive improvement in driving habits at the individual level. Why? Because criticizing driving skills is the equivalent of impugning someone’s intelligence.

Instead, the requisite hearings and investigations and special commissions will continue, along with the news reports, editorials and mild public indignation. All this will allow the participants to feel self-satisfied because they paid attention to the issue. But the net result will be no real change.

Our enormous social problem continues unabated, with each passing hour adding five more souls to the roll.

Copyright 2003 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

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