Is This a Dangerous Precedent?

by Harry Browne

[This article appeared as an editorial  in Liberty Magazine, November 1997.]

Detroit, Sept. 2: Anti-driving activists cheered today when the head of one of the Big Three auto-makers admitted publicly that driving automobiles may have caused the traffic deaths of thousands of Americans.

For the past decade the auto-makers have steadfastly denied any link between driving and auto accidents. Leaked documents show that they have suppressed any internal studies tending to support such a link.

Other leaked documents indicate that auto-makers secretly tampered with the engines in their cars regulating horsepower and fuel content to make the cars more powerful.

The documents also support the claim that auto-makers intentionally target young people in their advertising by showing racy automobiles, pretty girls, and happy drivers. Anti-driving activists maintain that the auto-makers have to recruit 40,000 new drivers annually to replace those who die from car accidents.

Today's admission by the Big Three auto-maker may make it easier for state governments to win the many suits now in the court system suits demanding that auto-makers reimburse the states' Medicaid systems for money spent treating victims of auto accidents. However, supporters of the auto-makers have long contended that auto accidents save the states money by reducing the number of people who live long enough to receive state-supported health care.

The admission that driving may have caused traffic deaths still leaves unresolved the question of whether driving is addictive. When accused of trying to hook people on driving, auto-makers traditionally produce witnesses who claim to have quit driving on their own and who insist they lead drive-free lives by using public transportation. But anti-driving activists say that, at the very least, cars should have strong warning labels including a Skull & Crossbones, as with poisons.

Also unresolved are a number of questions relating to the "second-hand driving" issue. Does driving cause pedestrians to die in car accidents? And, if so, should driving be outlawed completely? Or should it be regulated by the BATF as a weapon? Should driving be prohibited within 500 feet of federal buildings and schools, as President Clinton wants?

Supporters of driving say the root issue is one of personal responsibility. They say people make their own decisions regarding whether or not to drive and they have the right to make those decisions for themselves. They claim the current anti-driving crusade is a "wedge issue" for moralists who really want to control all aspects of life. What, they ask, will be the next activity to be attacked? Eating fatty foods? Using step ladders? Taking showers? Pretty soon, individuals will be prohibited from every activity that leads to any deaths at all.

In short, once you accept the principle that driving is addictive and dangerous, and that drivers can be manipulated by the auto-makers, it is only a matter of time until the same reasoning is applied for example against smokers and tobacco companies.