Another quintessential Philip Cohen take-down appeared this weekend. Cohen’s target this time was Pulitzer-prize winning New York Times reporter Matt Richtel’s new book, A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention. Cohen hasn’t even read the whole book yet, but what set him off was Richtel’s promotional tweet claiming that texting causes “more than 3000″ teen deaths a year (more than alcohol). That number, according to Cohen, is not only not accurate, it isn’t even plausible. Cohen explains: “In fact, only 2,823 teens teens died in motor vehicle accidents in 2012 (only 2,228 of whom were vehicle occupants). So, I get 7.7 teens per day dying in motor vehicle accidents. I’m no Pulitzer-prize winning New York Times journalist, but I reckon that makes this giant factoid on Richtel’s website wrong, which doesn’t bode well for the book.” No, it does not.
As those of us who read him regularly well-know, this kind of fear-mongering with bad statistics is the bane of Cohen’s existence. But at least in this case, Cohen is more interested in is how the attention to texting and distracting driving (accurate or inaccurate as the data and debate may be) actually distracts us from the deeper, more basic danger of driving itself–or as he puts it, “our addiction to private vehicles itself costs thousands of lives a year (not including the environmental effects).” Indeed, this is the real focus of the analysis and data he develops in the rest of the post.
Judging by the comments that have appeared so far, I’m not sure that everyone really understands or is ready for Cohen’s attempt to refocus attention to our modern reliance on driving for transportation. They continue to want to debate the dangers of texting or drinking or whatever. Or they find Cohen’s attention to mere driving as uninformative, disingenious, or even tautological. The typically dry, ironic way Cohen frames his argument probably doesn’t help . (The “shocking truth,” Cohen suggests, is that “the most important cause of traffic fatalities is …driving.”) But the bigger problem, I think, is that so many of us take driving so much for granted, that we can’t see it as a problem. We can’t see driving as a factor that can be causal, or a variable that could be manipulated and changed.
This whole situation reminds me of a thought experiment Joseph Gusfield posed in his brilliant, if under-appreciated 1981 book on drinking driving and the culture of public problems (a book, not incidentally, I have chosen for my “great books” graduate seminar this fall). Gusfield asks his readers to imagine that some all-powerful god has come to America and offers to give us a new technology that will make our lives immeasurably better by allowing us to go wherever we want, whenever we want, faster than we have ever gone before. The only catch? The god demands that we as a society sacrifice 5000 of our citizens every year for the privilege of this great technological innovation. Do we take that bargain? Would you? With our reliance on the automobile, Gusfield says, we already have. In rejecting the conventional wisdom and moralistic outrage about texting and bringing new data to bear on the dangers of just being in traffic on the roads, I think Cohen is just trying to force us to grapple with this consequences of this collective decision more honestly and directly.