Is Driving Like Smoking?

Hush Magazine has a piece up today arguing that driving is the new smoking, that is to say, “selfish, anti-social, unhealthy, and destructive”.

It’s an interesting philosophical question. No, not the larger one – has “X is the new Y” jumped the shark? – but the immediate one – is driving an activity on par with socially destructive things like smoking?

As you may have surmised from the way I phrased the title, I don’t think so. The difference lies in motivation. Nobody ever had to smoke in order to access a job, find affordable housing, or provide for their family. Smoking is an entirely voluntary activity. On the other hand, most people don’t drive for enjoyment, but because it’s the most rational choice of the options presented to them. If you smoke in busy public places, you’re basically saying you’re a jerk and you don’t care. But many people who drive do care! They don’t want to make air pollution worse or contribute to climate change or run people over, but they don’t have a realistic option other than driving.

The difference in motivation is important. Anti-smoking campaigns have two points: (1) you probably don’t want to die for no reason, (2) you’re kind of being a dick if you don’t care that your actions are harming other people. You’re being a bad person. The goal here is to create a stigma around the destructive activity, so people feel societal pressure to stop. This is pretty effective for things that really are voluntary, like smoking or littering or using racial slurs.

With driving, though, stigmatizing runs the risk of alienating people who want to help. Screw you, I’m not a bad person, I just need to get my kid from daycare before they charge me for being late. So what might be a better analogy? I can think of a couple: CFCs and coal-fired power generation.

Driving Is The New Refrigeration

Back in the 70s, people realized that CFCs had the potential to cause the destruction of ozone in the stratosphere, resulting in an increase in harmful UV radiation. Now, the people who were doing stuff like freezing perishable goods, painting things, and suppressing fires weren’t malicious or reckless. They weren’t releasing CFCs and destroying the ozone for no reason. They were trying to accomplish some economic activity that society generally wants done.

The ozone problem wasn’t solved by shaming the people who used CFCs or by getting rid of refrigeration. It was solved by action that phased out CFCs and provided people with better (or at least acceptable) replacements.

Driving Is The New Acid Rain

Burning coal releases things like sulfur dioxide that make rain more acidic in places downwind. Again, back in the 70s, this was becoming a serious problem, because acid rain was killing trees and making lakes and rivers too acidic for fish. The people burning coal weren’t doing it for no reason, they were doing it because lots of people want to have electricity and steel and other industrial goods.

Acid rain has been reduced through two main methods: requiring power plants and other people burning coal to remove some of the SO2 at the source, and shifting to alternative fuels that emit less SO2, like natural gas. Again, the solution was better technology and practical alternatives to the undesired activity.

There Are Still Jerks

Of course, there will always be jerks, like the people who smoke on their balcony and let it blow in your window. To paraphrase Upton Sinclair, the corporation making huge profits on the undesired activity will always be a reliable source of d-bags. This is true of the tobacco industry (it lied about the dangers of smoking for decades), the CFC industry (Dupont fought controls on CFCs, at least until they had patented the replacements for CFCs), and the coal industry.

Driving is no exception. There are people who do reckless and malicious things, like drive after drinking or commit hit and runs. The auto industry produces and promotes cars capable of going far faster than a normal human being is capable of safely operating them in an everyday environment. If there is a place for creating a stigma, this is where it’s at.

Help Me Help You

The majority of people, though, don’t want to be responsible for destroying the planet or killing other people. Many people would like to drive less, drive safer, and have less impact. So I think the right way to approach driving is to realize that many people have those goals, and then articulate how your policies will help them get there. Like solving ozone depletion and acid rain, there are two fronts of attack: better technology, i.e. technology that makes cars less polluting and less dangerous, and practical alternatives, like high-quality transit and dense, affordable land-use patterns that reduce the need to drive. It may not be as flashy as putting graphic cigarette-style warning labels on cars, but it might be more effective.


One thought on “Is Driving Like Smoking?

  1. Pingback: Car Pollution! A concern for the future or an existing problem? | Car Ego-Dystonic

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