Some conservative commentators have offered that we should do nothing about COVID19 because, after all, people die every year in automobile accidents (or from cancer or otherwise, the list goes on). So what’s the big deal? People die. Dr. Fauci dismissed this as a “false equivalency”. He’s right. There is no comparison between the two different ways of dying and the rates of death. Yet there are lessons to be learned and applied if we look at deaths in automobiles.
The latest full-year statistics show that 36,560 people died in automobile accidents in 2018. Yes, that’s a lot of people. But historically, it’s a very low number. Deaths peaked in the United States in 1972 at 54,589. In raw numbers we’ve seen a decline of roughly a third. Yet the decline is more significant.
The population of the United States was approximately 327 million in 2018. In 1972 the population was roughly 210 million. There are fifty percent more of us, yet deaths dropped by a third. Overall death rates are calculated by what’s called a “mortality rate”, pretty much meaning deaths per 1000 people of a population. Comparing the mortality rates between the two years (0.0003 and 0.0007) shows that the number of deaths has been cut by more than half. The why matters. It shows us a path forward on COVID19.
My paternal grandfather was born in 1910. He would have learned to drive sometime in the 1920’s. The car he used is significantly different than the ones we have today. That car used a solid steel bar connecting the front axle to the steering wheel. In certain accident conditions the steering column would impale the driver, resulting in death. I was born in 1960. The cars then had no seat belts, virtually no safety equipment. Dashboards were made of steel, were about form, not safety or function. Children died being impaled on shift levers. There were no air bags, no ABS, no padded dashboards, no crumple zones. Since then design has changed to emphasize not only style, but more importantly, safety. Yet perhaps the biggest change, the one that resulted in the largest drop in the death rate was a social change.
A significant number of automobile deaths are alcohol and drug related. Not all, but a lot. And that’s where the biggest decline in the death rate has happened. When I was in high school drunk driving was common. It was tolerated. It was almost treated as a joke. If someone were stopped by a police officer advice to drive slower and more carefully was more likely than arrest. That has all changed. It started with Mother’s Against Drunk Driving (MADD). They said enough is enough, we are tried of burying our children who have died at the hands of a drunk driver. Penalties have been increased as has enforcement. This social change saved lives. And that’s the key lesson. Changes save lives.
A key point in every discussion about COVID19 is “flattening the curve”. Listen carefully. The message isn’t completely about reducing the number of cases, it’s about spreading them out so that the capacity of our healthcare system isn’t overwhelmed by the sick. Italy clearly has shown that the death rate goes up when the medical community is strained past the point where it can treat people. Whether it’s changes through “social distancing”, working at home, not attending events, closing business, or otherwise? Just like with automobiles, what we do won’t stop people from dying. If we rely on science, follow effective practices, we will reduce the number who die.