Stephen M. Walt

Terrorism and traffic

Terrorism and traffic

While I was traveling, Charli Carpenter and Matt Yglesias both picked up on a recent NYT commentary on the relative lack of attention that traffic fatalities receive. The basic issue is simple: Why do we get so exercised when nearly 3,000 Americans die on 9/11, but remain relatively indifferent to the nearly 40,000 Americans who die every year in traffic accidents? Presidents don’t organize their governments around a "war on speeding," even though an effective campaign against it would save more lives and cost a lot less than our current "war on terror. And we wouldn’t lose any lives improving highway safety or have to invade any other countries to do it.

There are some basic psychological dynamics that help explain the disproportionate attention that terrorist attacks and other vivid events receive, and no doubt the economic incentives that drive news coverage play a big role too. But I suspect another reason for the different reactions is that there are relatively few special interests in favor of better highway safety and a lot of powerful interests in favor of costly and ambitious foreign policy crusades.  Highway fatalities are randomly distributed (except for teen-age males, they don’t affect any particular social or ethnic group more than another). So with the exception of groups like MADD, whose members are often motivated by tragic personal losses, there aren’t a lot of powerful and well-organized political forces pushing for doing more. Meanwhile, there are concentrated interests (such as car manufacturers) who’d like to do as little as possible because making cars safer costs money). It took a lonely crusader like Ralph Nader to get the U.S. government to get serious about highway safety back in the 1960s, and Nader is a pretty unusual guy.

The result is that highway safety is treated like an ordinary part of public policy; it’s just one of the many things that state, federal, and local agencies are expected to deal with in the normal course of doing business. Governments do encourage improvements by regulating crash standards, by passing seat belt laws, and by making highways safer, which is why the number of traffic fatalities is going down. But nobody is ever up in arms about the issue and few politicians bother to make it a crusade. 

By contrast, a foreign terrorist threat immediately becomes a big money-maker for lots of well-organized groups (including defense contractors, think tanks, beltway bandits, and yes, more than a few universities), so the danger it poses gets blown out of all proportion. This may also explain why we worry more about foreign-based terrorism than we do about the purely domestic variety, even in periods when the actual danger from the latter is greater. This isn’t the only reason why the public tends to view foreign-based terrorism with alarm and traffic safety with a certain blasé, business-as-usual attitude, but I do think it’s part of the problem. Ironically, if the situation were reversed, we’d be safer here at home and we’d be doing fewer stupid things abroad.