A merry dance of Catholic social doctrine, permaculture, distributism, and other odd answers to pressing questions

Vol. I, No. 5

If Cars Ran on Grass (part 1)

2008 Mar 7, 12:00 Fri tags:


From the Editor

  • Feature Article: If Cars Ran on Grass (part 1)
  • Distributist News
  • Action: Give your car a few minutes of thought
  • Resources: New Urbanism and Shared Space
  • Selection: Chesterton on Cars
  • Backmatter


First, I apologize for the inexcusable delay in this issue. I've been moving these past weeks, and I didn't plan ahead properly. Running an ezine apparently requires, among other things, a reliable Internet connection.

You'll find this issue a bit shorter. The last issue was quite generous; perhaps you still haven't gotten around to reading it. I'm discovering that the ezine is a unique medium. I have my own folders stuffed with valuable ezines to read some day . . . maybe a shorter ezine is more useful.

The challenge is to go beyond a sound bite on complex issues, while not turning e-mail time into study hour. So I'm going to serialize an article or two. It worked for Dickens. I'll also try one selection per issue. Let me know what you think.

That being said, let's talk about cars.

Bill Powell, Editor

Our Predecessor, Pius XII, rightly asserted that our age is marked by a clear contrast between the immense scientific and technical progress and the fearful human decline shown by "its monstrous masterpiece . . . transforming man into a giant of the physical world at the expense of his spirit, which is reduced to that of a pygmy in the supernatural and eternal world."

And so the words of the Psalmist about the worshippers of false gods are strikingly verified today. Men are losing their own identity in their works, which they admire to the point of idolatry: "The idols of the Gentiles are silver and gold, the works of the hands of men."

John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, 243-44. (1961)


If Cars Ran on Grass (Part 1)

by Bill Powell

If cars ran on grass, they'd still be cars.

The car debate tends to focus on global warming and Middle Eastern oil. If we could only figure out some clean new fuel source, it seems, we'd solve the car problem.

I think this is a grave mistake. Global warming and the Middle East are two of the most distant and debatable aspects of the real car problem.

Death and Dismemberment

The most obvious problem with cars is that they kill people. Somehow, we've accepted this as a fact of life, but let's look at the actual death toll.

In 2004, 42,836 people were killed in "motor vehicle traffic crashes in America." This comes to 117 deaths per day, 4.87 deaths per hour. [See SOURCES for references on statistics.] Out of a resident population of about 299 million, that came to about 1 death in 7,000.

Maybe that doesn't sound too bad. The total American deaths in 2004 were 2,397,615, meaning only about 1.8% were from car accidents.

But over half of American deaths were from heart disease (27.2%) and cancer (23.1%), leading causes 1 and 2. And once you get to rank 3 (cerebrovascular diseases, e.g., stroke), we're already down to 150,000 deaths, or 6.3%. Rank 4 was chronic lower respiratory disease, or COPD, i.e. lung disease (121,987, 5.1%).

Vehicle crashes come under rank 5, all accidental deaths taken together: 112,012 deaths, 4.7% of the total. Over a third of these accidental deaths were from vehicle crashes.

Vehicle crashes were and are the leading cause of accidental death. Meanwhile, in 2004, only 32,439 Americans committed suicide, and 17,357 were murdered. Cars and trucks killed more Americans than suicides, murders, or illegal drugs.

While 1.8% of the total still doesn't sound like much, probabilities change dramatically depending on your age. Remember how heavily the total statistics are weighted by heart attacks and cancer. In fact:

If you're an American under 40, you're more likely to die by some accident than by any other leading cause.

And vehicle crashes are the most likely accident. Yes, any form of transportation is dangerous, even walking. There's always a tradeoff. But some are rather more dangerous. Though 42,836 is only 1.8% of the total, that's still forty-two thousand, eight hundred and thirty-six dead people, roughly the population of a small Midwestern city. Wiped out in one year. Which raises the question: is it worth using cars as often as we do?

The Daily Drive

If you live in America, there's a good chance that you need a car to do pretty much anything. Anything. You need a car to get food, to get to work, to get to church, and probably to make eye contact with any good friend outside your immediate family.

This is not exactly an ideal system.

Please don't think I'm criticizing you if you happen to own a car! I have one too. A major point of Penny Justice is that we have far more power and choices than we realize, but it's quite likely that the car in your life is currently obligatory. Hence my difficulty in keeping my temper; the ordinary American can't easily choose to drop the car.

I don't think the matter is hopeless, otherwise I wouldn't bring it up. And I will have suggestions later on (besides Saving the World by Car Pooling).

But I find it more than a bit irritating that I'm a healthy adult, and yet I'm expected to rely on a gargantuan mechanical crutch to function. A hundred years ago, there were trains and boats and horses, but you usually didn't need any of these to get by.

How did we get to almost utter car dependence? Various reasons; for instance, at both federal and local levels, billions of tax dollars have favored roads over rails, trails, or sidewalks.

Basically, car roads take up space, and we've made too many. We have crafted a car-based landscape. Building codes have been rewritten to prioritize car and truck travel, often over every other consideration. This is documented extensively in books such as The Geography of Nowhere and Suburban Nation, but do you really need convincing? If you live anywhere that's been built or significantly modified since 1950, just look around. Can you imagine navigating a suburb without a car? Or a strip mall? Or an office park?

How often do you see busy neighborhoods that don't even have sidewalks? What life form are these houses intended for? Humans? Cyborgs? People who buy theses houses literally cannot go anywhere without entering into symbiosis with a machine or risking annihilation. And this is where they live.

Now I should add that in researching this article, I came across the work of Hans Monderman, a Dutch traffic engineer who has a new theory of traffic safety: no traffic lights, no curbs, no signs. Without instructions, this "shared space" makes people feel less safe--and they pay more attention. He's tried it, and mass carnage has not seemed to ensue. See more information in the RESOURCES below; if this works, I'm all for it! But even if we can reduce our traffic fatalities, we'll still have the problem of car-size distances in daily life.

I think it's not really debatable that the inhabited American landscape is almost unusable without a car. There are exceptions, but not many.

Was this landscape "inevitable" in a free market once cars were invented? Hardly. Even if cars are the second gift of Prometheus, they seem to have required and still require an awful lot of tax money to survive. Tax money is perhaps the definition of "evitable"; if the government has to do it, it did not have to happen.

So, cars are dangerous, and we didn't have to box ourselves into depending on them. Still, here we are. Aside from death and dismemberment, (and leaving global warming, peak oil, and the Middle East to the professionals), what are cars really doing to us? If you grant all the above, is a car landscape still a problem? In Part 2, I'll talk about how cars affect community, and what we can do about all this (besides move).

Happy driving, Bill Powell

[Continued in part 2: http://pennyjustice.com/ezine/01/06/]


Crash fatality stats from 1994 to 2006:

Table showing "accidents" as leading cause of death in 2002 until about age 40:
Taken from this article:

More information than you could ever want on causes of death in 2004:

Leading causes of accidental death:



As I was researching this article, I came across this small site advocating auto insurance reform. I'm not familiar enough with the system to judge the merits of this solution, but it looks interesting. What do you think?



This series of lectures on building Catholic communities features 10 speakers. It began in Februrary, and will run through April. If you're anywhere near Washington, D.C., don't miss it! Although "community" won't be discussed until the next issue, I want to mention this now, because the next lecture will be Wed, March 12. Jack Wilbern will speak on "Design Issues in Cohousing: What promotes community most?"



The "abiotic" theory of oil production holds that "oil and natural gas . . . are created by vast geological forces of heat and pressure under the Earth's crust." Which would kind of take the fossil out of fossil fuel. But how would we ever know for sure?

Apparently, they've found methane lakes on Saturn. Big ones.

[This short link will redirect you to the full article.]

As this Distributist article points out, even if oil is renewable, totally relying on it still isn't smart.


We'll have more car-related actions next time; For now, why not just think about cars for 5 minutes? Doesn't have to be negative: if you like your car, think about why you like it. Penny Justice is about making choices, and you can't choose without considering pros and cons. If you love spending time in the car, that's worth noting. If not, that is too. Or maybe you'd like to use it sometimes, but not every day. Forget the actual landscape for a moment. How often would you like to use your car?


Interested in alternatives to the car landscape? Consider New Urbanism.


The site's been around since 1998, and shows it, but these pages are a quick intro. There are prettier New Urbanism sites out there, I promise.

On the other hand, Hans Monderman, as mentioned above, has a different idea on how to live with cars. What would happen if you got rid of traffic lights, signs, and curbs? Would everyone die? Or would people have to use their own judgement--and do it?

"A Path to Road Safety with No Signposts."
[This short link will redirect you to the full article.]

"Makkinga: Village without traffic signs"
[This short link will redirect you to the full article.]

I don't think "shared space" contradicts all the New Urbanism ideas, especially as the priorities are largely similar, but it's certainly a fascinating idea.


Chesterton on Cars: "THE FREE MAN AND THE FORD CAR"

I am not a fanatic; and I think that machines may be of considerable use in destroying machinery. I should generously accord them a considerable value in the work of exterminating all that they represent. . . . If, therefore, we find that some machine enables us to escape from an inferno of machinery, we cannot be committing a sin though we may be cutting a silly figure, like a dragoon rejoining his regiment on an old bicycle. What is essential is to realize that there is something ridiculous about the present position, something wilder than any Utopia.

The other day I found myself in a Ford car, like that in which I remember riding over Palestine, and in which, (I suppose) Mr. Ford would enjoy riding over Palestinians. . . . The railway is fading before our eyes--birds nesting, as it were, in the railway signals, and wolves howling, so to speak, in the waiting-room. And the railway really was a communal and concentrated mode of travel like that in a Utopia of the Socialists. The free and solitary traveller is returning before our very eyes; not always (it is true) equipped with scrip or scallop, but having recovered to some extent the freedom of the King's highway in the manner of Merry England. . . . To that limited extent the Ford motor is already a reversion to the free man. If he has not three acres and a cow, he has the very inadequate substitute of three hundred miles and a car.

Upon this point of immediate compromise with machinery, therefore, I am inclined to conclude that it is quite right to use the existing machines in so far as they do create a psychology that can despise machines; but not if they create a psychology that respects them. The Ford car is an excellent illustration of the question. . . If possessing a Ford car means rejoicing in a Ford car, it is melancholy enough; it does not bring us much farther than Tooting or rejoicing in a Tooting tramcar. But if possessing a Ford car means rejoicing in a field of corn or clover, in a fresh landscape and a free atmosphere, it may be the beginning of many things--and even the end of many things. It may be, for instance, the end of the car and the beginning of the cottage.

Thus we might almost say that the final triumph of Mr. Ford is not when the man gets into the car, but when he enthusiastically falls out of the car. It is when he finds somewhere, in remote and rural corners that he could not normally have reached, that perfect poise and combination of hedge and tree and meadow in the presence of which any modern machine seems suddenly to look an absurdity; yes, even an antiquated absurdity. Probably that happy man, having found the place of his true home, will proceed joyfully to break up the car with a large hammer, putting its iron fragments for the first time to some real use, as kitchen utensils or garden tools. That is using a scientific instrument in the proper way; for it is using it as an instrument. The man has used modern machinery to escape from modern society; and the reason and rectitude of such a course commends itself instantly to the mind.

[Paragraph breaks inserted for sanity.]

Full document:
G. K. Chesterton, The Outline of Sanity

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