A Fair Trade?

Just how much are we willing to sacrifice for convenience? Quite a lot, it turns out.

By Ryan McGreal
Published April 09, 2006

A group of clever scientists and engineers approach our political leaders and - stop me if you've heard this one already - announce that they've got a wonderful new invention that will make people's lives easier and more comfortable, and generate thousands of well-paying jobs.

There's just one drawback: for the invention to work, four thousand Canadians a year must be selected at random and killed.

What would the politicians do? Adopt it and try to draw attention away from the killings? Reject the invention out of hand, repulsed by its grisly price? What would you do?

These aren't rhetorical questions. The invention isn't hypothetical; it's real, and most of us use it regularly, each hoping at some level of consciousness that he or she isn't picked for termination. It's called the automobile, and there's probably one or two parked in front of your house right now.

Even though I've come across this story a few times over the years, it never ceases to grab my attention. During the day-to-day minutiae of driving around, watching other motorists carefully, and avoiding collisions, it's easy to forget that over the course of this year, one out of every thousand drivers will get into a car and set out on the last trip of his or her life.

Higher safety standards, better training, and more public education can certainly help to reduce the death toll. That's laudable, but it's not going to solve the basic problem of millions of amateur drivers trusting each other to be alert and responsible. Just yesterday while walking across Main St., I saw an SUV nearly rear-end another SUV that was stopped at the light. The driver was talking on a cell phone.

We can ban handheld cell phones, but we can't ban fatigue, distractions, preoccupations, poor judgment, self-absorption, overconfidence, or any of the myriad other factors that affect our attention. In the meantime, people driving cars continue to kill themselves and each other.

Who has paid a legal or political price for the annual toll of the dead (aside from the victims themselves)? I'm not talking about a particular reckless driver responsible for a particular death; I mean very the system of driving everywhere that we have adopted, which makes those four thousand annual deaths an inevitability.

It's like a class action lawsuit for negligence causing death, only with millions of defendants. Who is willing to assume responsibility for this state of affairs? On whom can such responsibility even be laid? We certainly cannot throw everyone in jail, much as the Harper government might wish to.

If no individual can take responsibility for our driving culture of death and we cannot or will not take responsibility collectively, then how can we stop building more places that insist on us continuing to drive? Instead, we've made what peace we can with those four thousand people slated to die in the next twelve months.

So perhaps your parents lied to you, and if enough people jump off a cliff, it does become a good idea. I'm not sure how else to explain our reluctance to give up this wonderful invention, which makes our lives easier but exacts a price that wouldn't have felt out of place in the final days of the Aztecs.

It is a cruel deity indeed who demands such sacrifice, whatever the putative gains.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By Xalem (anonymous) | Posted September 13, 2007 at 10:02:20

Transportation was dangerous before cars. If all Canadians rode horses, how many would die falling from horses each year? Probably more than four thousand. The lack of transportation is also dangerous. If we gave up cars, including ambulances, how many would die because they could not get to a doctor or emergency room quick enough. Probably more than four thousand a year.

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By Anon (anonymous) | Posted September 13, 2007 at 10:35:56


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By Troll (anonymous) | Posted September 13, 2007 at 13:05:34

Yep. Totally pwned.

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