Every Breath You Take

By Tooker Gomberg, Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Twenty years ago, smoking in public was commonplace. Let’s hope that in 20 years cheap gas and thoughtless driving will be artefacts of the past. Here’s how to get there. (Originally published in Alternatives, Jan. 2004.)

I remember when people used to blow toxic fumes into my lungs while I waited in line at the bank or the cinema.

Now smokers are banned from most public indoor spaces, treated like pariahs and forced outside to burn their du Mauriers. Cigarette packages display graphic pictures of diseased lungs and warnings of the dangers of tobacco smoke. Advertising is banned. And voila — the quality of indoor air quality is dramatically improved…

The air outside is another story. Every breath you take is laced with a cocktail of toxic gases and poisonous particles delivered to you by the largest corporations on Earth: the oil and the car corporations.

When the horizon turns orange and smog gets in your eyes, all those tailpipes are largely to blame. Noxious car fumes are especially damaging to the lungs of those most vulnerable: the young and the elderly. Everyone knows someone suffering from asthma — one in ten Canadians has the disease, and the rate is even higher among children

The costs of all this automobile use are enormous. One report concluded that the costs of car crashes in Alberta alone topped $3 billion dollars annually. That’s approximately $1,000 per person annually. Add to that another $10 billion spent annually in Canada for roads, highways and parking lots. Subtract 250,000 people around the world who die annually in car crashes — and that doesn’t include those killed or maimed by smog. The sum total: a huge and preventable carnage.

Let’s borrow a few tools from the anti-smoking toolkit and push for a major reduction in toxic tailpipe emissions from our overuse of cars. Here are some ideas to get started.

Warning labels. Every car sold in Canada should have a warning label affixed to its bumper. Possible slogans:

* Cars are the greatest killer of kids in Canada.
* The more you drive, the greater the risks of climate catastrophe.
* Get healthy: ride a bike, or walk.
* Thank you for not smogging.
* Improve your karma: stop driving.

“Kick the Car Habit” information should be included with every car sold, every licence issued, every driving lesson. Autoholics Anonymous chapters should be set up in cities and towns across the land and a toll-free number could offer help to those who want to break their car-driving addiction and save money by driving less.

Ban car ads. New drivers are seduced through slick, expensive and sophisticated advertising campaigns. Car ads should be prohibited because driving is a dangerous activity, killing around 3000 Canadians annually in crashes alone, not including those who lose their lives or are sickened from air pollution. The federal government estimates that every year 16,000 Canadians die prematurely from dirty air.

Get the car off welfare. Gasoline and diesel fuel taxes should be increased to more accurately account for their true social costs. One study, called “The Real Price of Gasoline”, concludes that if you included the full costs of burning gasoline, such as increased health care costs, damage to the environment, buildings and agricultural crops, time wasted due to congestion, and so on, then gasoline would actually cost between $1.88 and $5.09 a litre. Most of these costs are hidden, borne by everyone in society, even those who don’t drive.

As levels of driving go down, so too will asthma rates and, as people get more exercise from walking and cycling, levels of obesity will also be reduced. This will bring substantial savings in health care costs, not to mention increased quality of life.

Twenty years ago, smoking in public was commonplace. Let’s hope that in twenty years cheap gas and thoughtless driving will be artifacts of the past.

Follow up

Find the calculations that went into determining the “real price of gas” at the International Center for Technology Assessment.

More research on the costs of car culture can be found at the Victoria Transport Policy Institute.