The Most Dangerous Machine (Ep. 147)
The latest Freakonomics Radio podcast is all about our long, risky, and mostly unrequited love affair … with the automobile. (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)
Every year, more than a million people die worldwide from traffic accidents. Last year, there were roughly 33,000 such deaths in the U.S. And while it’s widely believed that modern distractions — our mobile devices, our lattes, our podcasts — make driving ever more dangerous, here’s the surprising thing: in most places, the death rate has fallen, by a lot. Ian Savage, a Northwestern economist who studies transportation safety, tells us that this number has declined by two-thirds since 1975. And self-identified terrible driver Steve Levitt says that the data show “an amazing success story.”
You’ll hear about the many factors that have contributed to this success: seat belts, tougher drunk driving laws, demographic changes. You’ll also hear about some of the earliest safety inventions, some of which were much more successful than others. Museum curator Alison Federik tells us about a pioneering doctor who created lanes in her hometown of Indio, Calif.; and automotive writer Brett Berk fills us in on a short-lived invention from auto entrepreneur Preston Tucker.
So the good news is that we’ve gotten a lot safer behind the wheel. The bad news is we’re our own worst enemy. More than 90 percent of crashes involve some kind of human error. Greg Fitch, of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, ran naturalistic driving studies (including the impact of hand-held and hands-free) in which video cameras were put in cars to see what people were actually up to while driving:
FITCH: We have evidence of people talking on two phones at once, while smoking a cigarette while driving through a work zone and running a red, yellow light. We’ve seen videos of drivers relieve themselves behind the wheel. For over the road drivers we’ve seen examples of them actually meeting with a prostitute behind the wheel.
And no show about driving would be complete without going out for a spin. We’ll take you along on two rides – one high-tech, the other high-speed.
Autonomous vehicles may well become a reality in the coming years; you’ll hear host Stephen Dubner take a ride in a driverless car developed by the engineering wizards at Carnegie Mellon University. (You’ll also hear insurance veteran Fred Cripe explain how liability might be sorted out in a driverless-car future.) And the entrepreneur and car enthusiast Ari Straus takes us on a 140-mph Jaguar joyride at the Monticello Motor Club, a country club built for cars. And yes, it’s a sweet ride.