Post from Harry Hutchinson:
A couple of weeks ago, I did one of my favorite things: I took a road trip. A friend and I went to the New Jersey Pine Barrens. We covered maybe 250 or 300 miles in two days.
Joanna had been to the Barrens before, but not to the dwarf forest known as the Plains. They cover 30 or so square miles. Joanna stands four feet eleven, and she is taller than most of the trees. The subsoil is very dense and the taproots can’t penetrate it, so the trees adapt their size to their frustrated roots.
We had to be careful. It was a calculated risk going there in the warm weather. I rarely go into that part of the woods during the spring or summer without coming home with a few parasites under my clothes. But we took care and walked in the middle of the sandy lanes so we wouldn’t brush against high grass or branches. We didn’t go exploring the dwarf forest, but stayed on the sand by the side of the highway. It was an acceptable risk, and we came back without any stowaways.
Driving was an acceptable risk, too. It always is, but it is less risky now than it was only a few years ago.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration publishes records of auto accident fatalities, and they have always been an object lesson to me in what risk is.
Way back in 1970, more than 52,000 people died in traffic accidents on U.S. roads. Seatbelt laws, crackdowns on drunk driving, and safer cars have had their effect since then. But in the ’90s the numbers seemed to hit a plateau.
Driver education campaigns, appeals of all sorts, and enforcement together couldn’t seem to bring the death toll to fewer than 40,000 people a year. Then in 2008, the toll fell more than 9 percent. The same thing happened again in 2009. In 2010, 4.7 percent fewer people died in automobile crashes.
The latest numbers are tentative for the first nine months of 2011. They show an additional decline of just under 2 percent.
Society deserves a pat on the back for the achievement. But still, more than 24,000 people died on the road between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30, 2011.
How would the public and the government be reacting now if that many people had died of a new strain of the flu?
But that’s where the object lesson lies for me. Yes, thousands die each year in accidents. But I wonder how many others are alive because of the automobile. I don’t count only the injured and distressed who reach emergency care because of motorized ambulances.
I have to consider the wealth of my world because of the motor vehicle. It brings me nourishment from across the country. It is a key component of the country’s wealth. It takes people to jobs, to stores, to doctors.
That is acceptable risk.
Yes, human nature can make it dangerous. Human nature can make stairs dangerous, too. But we’re not all going to move into ranch houses or tents, are we?