- Text smaller
- Text bigger
Barry Glasner, author of “The Culture of Fear,” makes the good point
that airline travel is safe as compared with road travel. It turns out
that more than twice as many people die in auto accidents each
year than have died on airplanes in the entire history of flight.
That’s good news for the airline industry, but what does it say about
the treacherous roads we travel on every day?
Consider that more than 40,000 people are massacred every year on
government-owned and operated roads. Road travel (not smoking or drugs)
is the leading cause of death of young people age six to 28. And we are
not just talking about people crashing into each other. More than 12,000
people are killed every year in collisions with fixed objects like
trees, poles, and guardrails. At railway crossings, 500 people each year
are smashed by oncoming trains.
Strange how little we hear about this veritable holocaust on our
nation’s roads. Imagine if any private industry were responsible for
such carnage. Let’s say the forestry business were responsible for half
a million deaths in the 1990s. What would their insurance rates be like?
More strikingly, what would be the public perception of the industry?
Forestry moguls would be widely decried as merchants of death, profiting
from the blood shed by our nation’s workers.
Why, then, don’t we hear a similar outcry about road deaths? It’s
true that there are a thousand public interest groups agitating for a
range of road improvements to reduce the carnage. More road dividers!
Less drunk driving! Wider roads! Lower speed limits! But this kind of
gadgetry amounts to attempted improvements on a Soviet-like central
plan, and can only be applied after the loss of life has demonstrated
the inferiority of the present system.
Moreover, not all such fiddling works. Consider airbags. In 1977,
“consumer advocate” Joan Claybrook promised that airbags would make auto
travel safe and reduce deaths by 40 percent. In fact, it turns out,
according to Patrick Bedard writing in Car and Driver, that airbags kill
more kids than school shootings. These “passive restraints” turn out to
be very aggressive, and are particularly dangerous for children — the
folks the government is always claiming it wants to protect.
The real problem lies much deeper, and it is a problem with which we
are all too familiar: the government finances, owns, and manages the
roads. As with everything the government does, the cost overruns, in
terms of economic resources and human life itself, are absurdly high.
The roads are yet another example of the failure of socialist central
planning. Liability is vague, so no one takes responsibility. Improving
safety is a crapshoot because the road owners themselves don’t pay
insurance premiums, and there is no market test.
That roads are a government project also explains the deafening
silence about their dangers. The implacable ideological bias of
America’s road socialists has led to a conspiracy of silence about
highway carnage. We are told to herald the glories of Dwight Eisenhower
and his vision of government roads stretching from sea to shining sea.
We are not supposed to notice that these roads are death traps for which
the government ought to, but will not, take responsibility.
In fact, Eisenhower’s much-heralded Interstate Highway System was
nothing but a wealth-redistributing racket cooked up and passed under
the rubric of Cold War propaganda. The idea was that we needed these
roads to put nuclear missiles on wheels, so they could stay constantly
on the move and difficult for the Soviets to hit. Lovely idea, eh? How
would you like to have a nuclear bomb driving up and down the highway 5
miles from your house at 60 miles per hour? And we think roads are
In fact, towns and states with federal highways benefited, and those
without them lost, as the 1950s politicians, their hands out, knew all
too well. Predictably too, government roads have also become a source of
tyranny, putting the whole country in easy reach of agents of the
central state. Stalin couldn’t have dreamed up a better system for
controlling a country. Hitler, in fact, did dream it up. His autobahns
were an exercise in militarized social control.
Think of it: very few private owners would have let the tanks that
invaded the Branch Davidian church drive on their roads. But with
government roads, tanks, tax collectors, gun grabbers, and regulatory
swarms of all sorts can go anywhere they please, as could the troops of
any future martial law.
Another problem, as economist Walter Block
has pointed out, is that many economists fail to understand that roads
are not a “public good,” that is, something that can only be produced in
the right quantity by government. As with any other good or service
demanded by the public, roads can and should be produced privately.
Historically they were, until government stepped in to say that only it
was able to do the job right.
Yes, there would be fees attached to using many private roads, just
as there are fees associated with using telephones or having a cable
television hookup. Non-socialist systems of economics ration goods
through the price system. This would certainly cut down on traffic
congestion. At the same time, we have also seen how privatization can
lead to complete public access, as with the Web. Most sites charge
nothing at all and earn their revenues through advertising.
The most important effect of road privatization would be to properly
assign the responsibility for safety, not just to drivers but to road
owners, who would have the incentive to keep their insurance premiums
low and their roads just as safe as the market would demand. And
taxpayers would be spared the annual $200-billion-plus, pork-ridden
looting known as the highway bill.
A good first step would be to turn over the financing and management
of roads to the states — there’s no constitutional justification for
federal roads beyond post roads, themselves obsolete with e-mail — and
the states might figure out very quickly that entrepreneurs are more
than anxious to jump into the road business. This would be a glorious
blow against tyranny. And if roads were as safe as airline travel, the
lives of tens of thousands would be spared every year. All of this would
be possible by putting the road socialists out to pasture.