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Q&A: Dr. Cynthia Wachtell on car accidents and U.S. presidents

Q&A: Dr. Cynthia Wachtell on car accidents and U.S. presidents

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Dr. Cynthia Wachtell, historian and American studies professor, wonders why an eerie number of top U.S. politicians have been personally affected by fatal car accidents, yet none promote innovation in car safety.

In the U.S. car accidents are the leading cause of death among those ages five to thirty-four. There are more than 30,000 deaths per year. To put these stats in context Dr. Cynthia Wachtell, a historian and research associate professor of American Studies at Yeshiva University, uses this comparison: More people die on U.S. roads in three months than have died in the decade-long war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Car and traffic accidents ought to be declared a public health issue according to Wachtell.

In her research on American car accidents Wachtell uncovered an eerie connection between U.S. presidents, vice presidents, presidential candidates and serious car crashes. It appears many of America's great politicians have been personally scarred by horrific vehicle accidents—events that have had a significant influence on their politics and world view. But still, despite being personally and profoundly affected by accidents, none have promoted change and innovation in car safety.

SmartPlanet spoke with Wachtell to get the details.

SmartPlanet: You have a keen interest in bringing the public’s attention to the insane number of fatal car accidents in America. You recently wrote a New York Times Op-Ed on the topic. What motivated you to take an active interest?

Cynthia Wachtell: I was aware for a long time of how deadly cars can be. It’s more dangerous to ride in a car than to ride in an airplane. My [academic] field is American studies. As I read newspapers, magazines and historical accounts I began to notice a pattern.

Which was?

Many of our presidents and vice presidents and presidential candidates have personally been affected by or involved in deadly or near deadly car accidents. And this struck me as quite profound.

Tell us about the presidents who have been impacted by car-related deaths or injuries.

Well for example Bill Clinton’s father, William Jefferson Blythe Jr., died in a car accident in May 1946. He was headed to Hope, Arkansas to see his pregnant wife. The future president, Bill Clinton, was born three months after the car crash. As a result Bill Clinton was raised not by his biological father but by a stepfather who was abusive.

If you look at George Bush, his wife, whose maiden name is Laura Welsh, was in a car accident two days after she turned seventeen. This was in November of 1963. She ran a stop sign near Midland, Texas and the car that she struck was being driven by her high school classmate and close friend Michael Dutton Douglas. He died at the scene. Laura Bush herself was thrown from her car. She was driving a Chevy. The friend was driving a Corvair. (The Corvair is the car that Ralph Nader singled out as being not safe at any speed.)

Wow.

Barack Obama’s father was in three car accidents in Kenya. After the first accident he spent nearly a year in the hospital. In the second accident, he lost both of his legs. In the third accident, which occurred in November 1982, he died. Barrack Obama was twenty-one.
And Obama’s famous book Dreams From My Father—well the title tells so much about his quest to connect with this absent father.

It’s eerie how many have been affected by very serious car accidents.

Right. And there is also Al Gore—his son Albert Gore III ran into a busy street in 1989 and was hit by a car. He was thrown thirty feet and nearly died. And Al Gore in his book An Inconvenient Truth writes, “Some events stay with you always and change the way you look at everything no matter how many years go by. My son’s serious accident was that kind of event for me. It turned my life upside down and shook it until everything fell out.”

So these accidents have absolutely affected how all the politicians view life and the world.

Yes. Even more horrific was the accident which touched Joe Biden in December of 1972. His wife, one-year-old daughter, and two sons were in a car accident while they were out Christmas shopping in Delaware. His wife’s car was hit by a tractor-trailer and she and his year-old daughter were killed and his two sons were critically injured.  This is something that he actually mentioned during the vice presidential debate where he said, “My wife was in an accident that killed my daughter and my wife and my two sons survived.” He’s talked about the anger and the pain he felt afterwards. And I believe that even now years later on the anniversary of that accident, which is December 18th, he doesn’t work in remembrance of the loss of his wife and his daughter.

It’s an enormous loss.

The list continues.

Good grief.

Mitt Romney was in a deadly accident when he was twenty-one years old. He was serving as a Mormon missionary in France and he was the driver of a car in a head-on collision. He was driving a Citroen VS which at that point may or may not have had seat belts in the front seat. They weren’t mandatory until that year. There were six people riding in a five-passenger car, which meant that the person in the middle of the front passenger seat definitely couldn’t have been wearing a seat belt, and that’s who died in the accident. Her name was Liona Anderson. And she was the wife of the head of the missionary, the mission’s president. The mission’s president was injured. Mitt Romney himself was injured. He suffered a broken arm, and broken ribs, and a concussion and some facial injuries.

And there is more?

John McCain who was the presidential nominee before Romney, his first wife was in a horrible car accident. When he was held prisoner in North Vietnam, she was home visiting her family and was in a car accident in Philadelphia on Christmas Eve of 1969. She skidded on an icy road, hit a telephone pole and was thrown from her car. I think she was hospitalized for six months and had something like twenty-three operations over the course of two years. McCain didn’t know about this until he returned from Vietnam. She didn’t want to cause him further distress while he was there.

Another fatal car accident involving one of our presidential candidates, John Edwards, who ran for the democratic nominee in 2008—his son Wade Edwards died at the age of sixteen when a gust of wind blew his jeep off the highway and flipped it in North Carolina in 1996.

It’s just haunting how many accidents there were.

And how does this tie into the message you want to promote?

A lot of these accidents are not part of the public dialog. It wasn’t until last Spring that people started talking about Mitt Romney’s accident. Laura Bush didn’t write or talk about her accident at all until her book, Spoken From the Heart, came out in 2010. She wrote in the book, “Most of how I ultimately coped with the crash was trying not to talk about it, not to think about it, to put it aside.”

So again, it was something that I had noticed as a student of American studies that I kept coming across these details. I asked myself why is it that none of these politicians championed the cause of auto and road safety?

It’s always been a challenge to entice the public to care about the statistics of fatal car accidents. Most of us get into a car or bus every single day. And the stats prove that it is by far the most dangerous thing we’ll ever do. Right?

Vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death among those ages five to thirty-four in the United States.

The leading cause?

Approximately a hundred people die each day on our roads.

So that’s more than thirty thousand deaths per year. But when you think about the total number of crashes, it’s even more. There are 315 million people in America. There are roughly 2.2 million crash injuries per year.

Seat belts, airbags, car safety seats have saved tens of thousands of lives over the last several decades. According to one estimate, seat belts alone save over sixty-nine thousand lives in America from 2006 to 2010.

And mandatory seat belts are a relatively recent preventative measure, right?

It was not until 1968 that federal law required the installation of front seat belts in new passenger cars. It was not until 1984 that New York became the first state to mandate seat belt use.

Just to provide another context: In the first thee months of this year, an estimated seven thousand six hundred thirty people died in motor vehicle accidents in this country. And to offer a comparison there, roughly six thousand five hundred and eight United Sates service members have died in our war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that’s been over a decade. So again, more people are dying on our roads in one quarter of one year that are dying in a decade long plus war.

Wow, that does put it in stark context.

The sad irony is that among veterans who return from those wars, car and traffic accidents are ranked as the leading cause of their deaths. So you can survive the war and then still die on the streets of America.

Right, it’s just extraordinary. It trumps everything, even guns. Sometimes I ask myself what is it about human nature that just won’t allow us to understand the numbers right in front of us.
Perhaps when one hears “vehicle accident” you think that’s "ho hum everyday," but when you hear “breast cancer” or “died in Iraq” it’s a story.

You’ve mentioned there is an economic cost as well, of course.

The AAA has estimated the annual societal cost of traffic accidents in America to be $299.5 billion. It just makes sense to implement innovations to our roads, to our cars, to our traffic systems.
I definitely have wondered why it is that our politicians and others don’t use their power to make motor safety more of a national priority.

And what reasons have you come up with?

Maybe for people who have been touched by accidents it’s just too painful to go there. That’s one conjecture. Or maybe our leaders might think it’s too politically risky to challenge Americans’ right to drive a big car down a big freeway with a big gulp and cell phone in their hand.

What about the global situation?

If you look at the number road fatalities form 1979 to 2002, Great Britain reduced their number by forty-six percent. Canada reduced their number by 49.9%, and Australia reduced their number of road fatalities by 51.1 percent.

And the U.S.?

We reduced ours by just 16.3%. Clearly there is something more that can be done, because these three other countries did it.

Can you imagine if we did not pursue effective measures to prevent heart disease or breast cancer or prostate cancer? People would be up in arms about it.

There’s a man named Leonard Evans who is a former safety researcher for General Motors. And he a book called Traffic Safety. He wrote that the countries with the best traffic records acknowledge crashes as a major “public health problem” requiring urgent attention to a much greater extent than occurs in the U.S.

And that’s just it. We just had an entire presidential contest in which the word traffic accident never came up, except during the vice presidential debate when Joe Biden felt obliged in response to something Paul Ryan was saying about a family which had been personally affected by car accidents.

Joe Biden responded by discussing his own tragic experience. But no one built upon it. No one asked any of the candidates what are you going to do to make our roads safer.

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Christie Nicholson

Contributing Writer

Christie Nicholson produces and hosts Scientific American's podcasts 60-Second Mind and 60-Second Science and is an on-air contributor for Slate, Babelgum, Scientific American, Discovery Channel and Science Channel. She has spoken at MIT/Stanford VLAB, SXSW Interactive, the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council, the Space Studies Board and Brookhaven National Laboratory. She holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Dalhousie University in Canada. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure