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Turning a Blind Eye to the Risks of Auto Culture

In today’s New York Times article about how the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration withheld research data on the risks of cellphone use while driving, one little nugget in particular caught my attention:

[Dr. Jeffrey Runge, then the head of the highway safety agency,] said [the chief of staff for Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta] asked him, "Do we have enough evidence right now to not create enemies among all the stakeholders?"

Those stakeholders, Dr. Runge said, were the House Appropriations Committee and groups that might influence it, notably voters who multitask while driving and, to a much smaller degree, the cellphone industry.

3651591971_1b54ed7d58.jpg We’re good at ignoring the risks of auto culture, even when they’re right in our faces. Photo by rocknroll_guitar via Flickr.

In other words, according to Dr. Runge, the Bush Administration decided that it didn’t want to alienate the very people who are endangered by cell phone use by telling them what they’re doing is dangerous.

Maybe the NHTSA shouldn’t have been so worried that people would be paying attention. As Adam Voiland points out in a post on DC Bicycle Transportation Examiner, Americans have been warned for years that air pollution is a grave threat to public health — and yet they seem to have become expert at ignoring that information. Voiland is hoping that a new study, which shows that babies born to mothers exposed to high levels of air pollution have lower IQs, will wake people up:

Medical researchers have long known that particulate matter from car exhaust can cause or exacerbate asthma, bronchitis, and lung cancer. More recently, they’ve discovered that our hearts are vulnerable too; exhaust particles cause tens of thousands of premature deaths each year by hastening coronary artery disease, heart failure, and heart palpitations. Bits of evidence have even emerged suggesting that the stuff coming out of tailpipes increases the risk of appendicitis, damages sperm, and causes premature births.

Yet, overall, we’re curiously unconcerned about air pollution, despite fairly frequent reminders that it remains a major health risk

[But] over a couple of years as a medical reporter…I quickly learned that nothing riles American parents up like the knowledge that invisible chemicals with ominous scientific-sounding names may be threatening the health of infants. And that’s exactly why I’m guessing that the latest news about air pollution may resonate — and by resonate I mean frighten — parents in ways that previous findings have not.

A study published this week in the journal Pediatrics found that pregnant mothers exposed to high levels of air pollution — specifically polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) — for the last few months of their pregnancies bore children with lower IQs than similarly matched mothers in areas with lower pollution. The children exposed to the most air pollution scored 5 points lower at age 5 on the intelligence tests than those exposed to lower levels. The mothers were exposed to a variety of common urban air pollutants, especially from cars, buses, and trucks.

Patrick Breysse, an environmental health researcher at Johns Hopkins told the Associated Press: "It’s a profound observation. This paper is going to open a lot of eyes."

I don’t know that I’m so hopeful. The ability of Americans to ignore the multiple health risks posed by the automobile culture is so deeply rooted. For so many people in this country, there are no alternatives to travel by automobile. Until public officials and cognizant voters unite to change that reality, I fear the majority of Americans will remain unable to face the risks posed by the mode of transportation that is central to their lives.

Other eye-opening items from around the network: Transportation Blog asks if Dallas HOV drivers should turn in cheaters. World Streets has a post on integrating bicycles and mass transit. And The WashCycle looks at the Green Routes to Work Act.