Charles Komanoff


Letter to Lester Brown

September 20, 2002

Lester R. Brown
President and Founder
Earth Policy Institute
1350 Connecticut Ave. NW
Washington DC 20036

Dear Lester:

I never properly thanked you for sharing your bicycle manufacture and sales data for China with me a few months ago. Let me do that now - and then convey my concerns over an article that Earth Policy Institute released this week, "Air Pollution Fatalities Now Exceed Traffic Fatalities By 3 To 1." (It's on EPI's web site at

The article sought, quite appropriately, to dramatize the enormous worldwide toll of disease and death caused by pollution emissions from motor vehicles. Unfortunately, the rhetorical strategy chosen to make this point was, I think, a serious mistake. The author claimed repeatedly that automotive pollution far outranks road-traffic accidents as a killer around the globe. Let me explain why I think this argument is both factually questionable and tactically ill-advised.

To begin, although the article presents it as unquestioned fact, I don't think it's been demonstrated that vehicular pollution kills more people than crashes do. Even if the claim in the article is true that all air pollution kills 3 million people a year, while "only" 1 million die in crashes, more than a third of all air pollution (weighted by lethality) would have to be vehicular for automotive pollution to be more deadly than crashes. Is it? In fact, there's considerable room for doubt. Only 20-25% of all fuel-burning worldwide is by transport vehicles; and fuel-burning itself is only part of the air-pollution picture - a considerable quantity of air pollution comes from industrial and agricultural activities that don't involve fuel-burning.

Moreover, pollution deaths can only be estimated inferentially, whereas crash deaths are unmistakable. Weighing all these factors, I don't see any very good basis for the claim that motor vehicles kill more people through pollution than by crashing into them.

There's also a subtler but even more important point. Compared to pollution, which strikes older persons disproportionately, crashes kill equally across the age spectrum. And road accidents result in proportionally many more crippling lifelong disabilities, compared to outright fatalities, than does pollution. For these reasons, crashes wreak, proportionally, a much greater toll in healthy years lost, compared to fatalities, than does vehicular pollution.

As you know, public health authorities in recent years have increasingly adopted this concept of healthy years lost as a more meaningful measure of damage than outright fatalities. For example, the landmark 1996 report by the World Health Organization, "Investing in Health Research and Development," accords greater prominence to healthy years lost (their term is "Disability-Adjusted Life Years Lost") due to disease and other causes than to the number of fatalities. This makes sense. All deaths are heart- rending, but the loss of an 8-year-old child or a 30-year-old family provider is usually felt more grievously, while also wreaking greater economic damage, than the passing of a 70-year-old. Any serious examination of the human and social toll from pollution vs. crashes should reflect this insight.

That same WHO report indicates that the average road-traffic death or injury destroys 2-3 times as many healthy years as a death from heart disease, and 4-5 times as many as a death from chronic lung disease (those two being the primary categories under which pollution-related deaths are classified).[1] Thus, even if it is true that all air pollution (not just vehicular) kills 3 times as many people as traffic crashes, the real impacts from the two on the quality of human life are of roughly equal magnitude. And since only a fraction of pollution is in fact vehicular, it follows that crashes cost our world considerably more in healthy years lost than does vehicular air pollution.

So the article takes a misleading and fundamentally wrong-headed view of the human costs of automobility. But it gets worse. The piece is startlingly Panglossian about killer drivers and governmental complicity in their depredations. "Governments go to great lengths to reduce traffic accidents," the article states, "by fining those who drive at dangerous speeds, arresting those who drive under the influence of alcohol, and even sometimes revoking drivers' licenses."

This statement may be true of a few countries in northern Europe. But it is dead wrong - pun absolutely intended - about the other 99% of the world, the U.S. very much included. Here in New York, a city where pedestrians far outnumber motorists, drivers were found to be at least partly culpable in at least three-fourths of traffic crashes that killed pedestrians, yet the police issued citations for moving violations in only 16% of the cases, and the authorities sought criminal prosecution in a mere 1-2% of the deaths. (My colleagues at Right Of Way documented the above in our Killed By Automobile report analyzing over 900 such fatalities.)

Elsewhere in the U.S., the imbalance of terror on the streets is even worse (with the exception of drunken driving, which has been fetishized to such an extent that virtually any dangerous driving by sober motorists is ignored). With the aggressive export of U.S. auto culture to the developing world, the number of healthy years lost in road accidents was projected (in the WHO report) to more than double from 1990 to 2020. No doubt we are halfway there already.

Let me call to your attention a U-Mass / Harvard Med School analysis, published in Homicide Studies and cited in the New York Times last month, crediting vastly improved trauma care, rather than car- or traffic-safety measures, with keeping automotive fatalities from increasing at least 3- fold in the U.S. since 1960. In other words, the underlying rate of human damage from automobility in the U.S. has in fact vastly increased; fortunately, medical technology has been able to keep pace with the carnage, but the downside of this undoubted triumph is that the public remains complacently unaware of the ever-increasing peril in which their vehicles place them. Regrettably, the EPI article will have tended to reinforce this ignorance rather than dispel it.

I have one more passage to quote - the article's closing sentence: "While only some motorists contribute to traffic fatalities, all motorists contribute to air pollution fatalities." That's a snappy conclusion all right, but it's also quite insidious as it reinforces the prevalent and falsely comforting notion that it's always some other, "bad" driver who causes the problem. To be sure, drunks and other deviants do kill more people, proportionally, than regular folks. But "proportionally" is an important caveat. Most traffic fatalities, in absolute terms, involve and are caused by ordinary, non-criminal, non-pathological people. And this is not an act of God or a law of nature; it is policy that daily turns all these solid citizens into killers, by requiring them to go everywhere they do go - and at great distances - by car.

Lester, you know the high regard in which I hold your work, which has probably done more than that of any other individual over the past 30 years to further renewable energy and transport (including bicycling) and to meld analysis and advocacy with personal responsibility. To this day, I well remember the thrill that hundreds of us experienced when you addressed our Auto-Free Cities Conference here in 1991.

But I have to tell you that this article misfired badly. For several years I participated, with other members of the Right Of Way collective here, in creating hundreds of "street memorials" where pedestrians and cyclists were run down, and in documenting the entrenched policies that valorize drivers and marginalize the rest of us. I've held the hands of grieving parents, tried to help them get a measure of redress and respect from City Hall, even gone to jail for memorializing victims.

It isn't bad air that keeps hundreds of thousands, even millions, of New Yorkers and millions more around the world from getting on a bike every day. It's the knowledge that at any moment, in the blink of an eye, they could be knocked off their bike and run over by a motor vehicle whose driver will probably drive it away from the scene - a driver who will have been, more likely than not, one of the "good motorists" granted a free pass in the article.

(And where do we fit the calculation of the many deaths and healthy years lost from the suppression of physical activity due to cars - including "clean" cars driven by "good" drivers? Work by Meyer Hillman and others on the health costs of not cycling suggests that this may be the greatest single health consequence of car-dominated transport.)

Lester, I would like to work with you to find a way to reframe the argument so that the many damaging expressions of automobilia are seen as intrinsic aspects of a single pathology. To emphasize pollution suggests that the fix is cleaner engines. To emphasize pedestrian casualties suggests that we need to keep the peds off the street. But you and I know that car-centered transport is a single disease etiology, though with many faces; and that what we need to do for both individual and planetary health is to stop the spread of cars and get rid of most of the ones we have.

I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Best wishes,

Charles Komanoff

[1] Dividing the number of road-traffic disability-adjusted life years lost in 1990 by the number of road-traffic fatalities for the same year yields 34.4, indicating that road-traffic deaths kill and disable large numbers of younger people. Analogous calculations for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and ischaemic heart disease yield ratios of just 13.2 and 7.5, respectively, indicating that heart disease and chronic lung disease are heavily associated with old age. See Tables A1.2 and A1.11.