US roadway deaths rise 10.5% in one year

Fatalities on American roads increased quite a bit in 2021:

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Nearly 43,000 people were killed on U.S. roads last year, the highest number in 16 years as Americans returned to the roads after the coronavirus pandemic forced many to stay at home.

The 10.5% jump over 2020 numbers was the largest percentage increase since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began its fatality data collection system in 1975. Exacerbating the problem was a persistence of risky driving behaviors during the pandemic, such as speeding and less frequent use of seat belts, as people began to venture out more in 2021 for out-of-state and other road trips, analysts said.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said America faces a crisis on its roads. The safety administration urged state and local governments, drivers and safety advocates to join in an effort to reverse the rising death trend…

Buttigieg pointed to a national strategy unveiled earlier this year aimed at reversing the trend. He said earlier that over the next two years his department will provide federal guidance as well as billions in grants under President Joe Biden’s new infrastructure law to spur states and localities to lower speed limits and embrace safer road design such as dedicated bike and bus lanes, better lighting and crosswalks. The strategy also urges the use of speed cameras, which the department says could provide more equitable enforcement than police traffic stops.

Americans like driving and all that comes with driving. Because of this, Americans generally accept the risks of driving. While people may have fears of airplanes crashing or being hit by lightning or other improbable occurrences, the regularity of vehicle accidents does not seem to bother many.

Would a big jump in roadway fatalities catch people’s attention in a way that a typical year-to-year change would not? That this jump is tied to COVID-19 is also an interesting twist; driving might be more dangerous during and after a deadly pandemic. Also in the article, officials note the difficulty of quickly reducing roadway deaths. When do such deaths become an acknowledged crisis or a serious social problem?

How much land or how many homes should one actor be allowed to own?

A recent fact check highlighted how much property several American actors owned:

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“Bill Gates is buying up the majority of American farmland and BlackRock is buying the majority of single family houses but I’m supposed to believe the biggest threat to us is Elon Musk buying Twitter?,” read a Twitter post that was liked or shared more than 250,000 times.

But Gates doesn’t own more than 50% of U.S. farmland, according to The Associated Press. Even with recent purchases, he owns less than 1% of the nation’s farmland.

Gates, with 269,000 acres, is considered the largest private owner of farmland in the country. But his share is a small percentage of the nearly 900 million acres of U.S. farmland, according to the Department of Agriculture

Also, BlackRock does not own a majority of U.S. single-family homes, the AP said.

How much property ownership is too much? Putting the amount of land or property into percentages is one way to think about it. Gates owns less than 1% of the farmland, BlackRock owns under 50% of the homes. The first figure suggests Gates barely owns anything while the second number is not a great one to note since I suspect owning 49% would not assuage those who retweeted this (and the likely figure is way under 10%).

Putting the ownership in absolute numbers might make a different argument. Gates owns 269,000 acres. That sounds like a lot, even in a big country in the United States. Or, if someone said BlackRock owns 60,000 homes, that would sound like a lot, even in a country with many more homes than that.

But, before we decide what numbers to use, we have to know what the concern is: should someone own 1% of the farmland? Should a company own tens of thousands of homes? The numbers can help illuminate the situation but they cannot answer the moral and ethical questions of just how much should one person or organization own? Using big or shocking numbers (even if they are incorrect) to suggest people should pay attention to a particular social problem is not new.

Large disparities in risk of death across American transportation modes

Here is the risk of dying in a vehicle compared to other modes of transportation:

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Northwestern University economics professor Ian Savage examined American crash data over a decade, concluding that 7.3 people died in a car or truck for every billion passenger miles, 30 times the risk on urban rail and 66 times the risk aboard a bus. (If you’re wondering, motorcycles are by far the riskiest vehicles of all, while airplane travel is the safest.)

Even with these numbers, there are multiple reasons why many continue to prefer to drive:

Studies show that people typically feel safer in vehicles they control compared to those they cannot (i.e., a car compared to a bus or train). Worse, the rare transit crash is often a top media story, while daily car collisions barely register. “It’s baked into how we talk about crashes,” says Millar, of Washington State. “We had an Amtrak train crash here, three people died, and it was international news. That same week 10 people died on highways in this state—and it was the same the week before that, and the week before that.”

According to psychology’s “availability heuristic,” the intense attention paid to exceedingly rare plane or train crashes can lead us to unconsciously exaggerate their frequency, while the media’s shrug at car crashes causes us to discount the dangers of driving. One extreme example: A study found that the shift away from flying toward driving in the aftermath of 9/11 led to over 2,000 additional traffic deaths in the United States.

Lots of interesting factors to consider here. Do the perceived advantages of driving block out any consideration of the risk? Even if people had these numbers at their fingertips, would they consider risks or numbers?

I have argued before that the preference for driving is strong. If people in the United States have the resources and opportunity, they will pick driving over mass transit. Of course, the system is set up to make this choice for driving easier with an emphasis on roads and linking important cultural values and driving (such as individualism, taking road trips, suburban life, etc.).

This may be a prime case where making an argument from the numbers simply will not get far given the cultural narratives and social systems already in place. Perhaps the numbers could be paired with a compelling story or narrative? Even then, it could take a long time to convince Americans that because driving is more dangerous than other options they need to switch to other modes of transportation.

Expectations and realities: “Being in the most advanced country in the world, why can’t we do [blank]”?

One person stuck on I-95 overnight due to snow and conditions responded to the situation this way:

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“Not one police (officer) came in the 16 hours we were stuck,” she said. “No one came. It was just shocking. Being in the most advanced country in the world, no one knew how to even clear one lane for all of us to get out of that mess?”

I have seen some version of this quote in numerous contexts in recent months. It could reference:

-health care

-US military and political involvement in Afghanistan

-infrastructure issues

-conducting elections

-responding to natural disasters

-passing basic legislation

The expectation is that the United States is highly advanced or the most advanced country in the world. The country boasts a history of innovation and pragmatism, a powerful military, and an influential set of ideals. If all of this is true, why then can the United States not address such basic issues (in the eyes of the questioner)?

Implicit in this question is whether the United States exists amid a massive contradiction. For all of those markers of success, perhaps the country is not as advanced as its people think. Perhaps there are difficult issues to solve, complex concerns that we do not know how to or do not have the will to address.

Take the above example of unexpected bad weather. Large highway backups during snowstorms are not unknown in the United States. They occur even in areas more accustomed to cold and snow. Sure, local responses can differ. But, these systems are complex with natural forces, hundreds of autonomous drivers, governments and private actors responding, and the relatively long distances Americans are used to traveling on a daily basis.

All of the issues mentioned above as something an advanced country should be able to address are not simple. The expectation that a country should always easily get it right might be unrealistic. Even so, if a large number of people think the issue should be easily solvable, this quickly becomes a problem when it is not.

Asking tough questions of American athletes

The story of a Danish journalist who covers the NFL and asks certain questions of players hints at cultural differences in approaching both sports and important social issues:

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Back in 2016, Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen lived in Burbank, Calif., for a year with his wife and son. It had always been his dream to spend some time in the States, so when his parent company asked him to help its esports arm transition from Twitch streaming to television studio production in Los Angeles, he jumped at the opportunity. He had a great house and a pool. He had friendly colleagues at work.

But what he noticed over time is that he’d end up having a version of the same conversation every day, one that never broke beneath the surface. He remembered, for example, being confused about a situation involving how to get the local water authority to turn the water on at his house and wanting to ask someone about it—a step beyond hello and how are you. He felt like there was an immediate recoil…

It shines a light on something that seems to permeate culturally, reverberating from the sporting world that Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen finds himself thinking so much about. Maybe it’s the end result of widespread, rigorous media training, which creates a fast-food experience of well-meaning words pieced nicely together but ultimately containing no substance, an appeal to our innate desire to move on. In some unconscious way, does our lack of exposure to actual humility and openness inform our default setting, which is to simply wince through the tough stuff and avoid it in real life, too?…

The phenomenon is not necessarily unique to the U.S. Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen saw, for example, the further any players drifted from Denmark (perhaps to the English Premiere League) the less likely they were to be interested in answering difficult questions or exhibiting any kind of remorse for something negative that had happened. It creates a situation where it feels for Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen like he is doing something wrongwhen he’s merely asking fair questions.

At the least, this story sheds light on how others in the world can view what many Americans would take as normal. The NFL is the NFL. Except when you are viewing it with a different lens. Americans also have the ability to watch many sports around the world through an American lens with an American network and broadcasters providing the commentary and interpretation.

At a deeper level, this asks what we expect to hear from athletes and others regularly in the public eye. Does it generally ring true that Americans just want to stick to sports, rather than consider the actions of athletes and those associated with teams? Probably, even as sports has been an important social scene regarding social change (and resisting it).

Moral minimalism and addressing social issues

In the 1989 study The Moral Order of a Suburb, sociologist M. P. Baumgartner argued that suburban order rested on what she called “moral minimalism”:

A kind of moral minimalism pervades the suburbs, in which people prefer the least extreme reactions to offenses and are reluctant to exercise any social control against one another at all. (3)

In a later description of moral minimalism, she writes:

Moral minimalism entails a considerable degree of indifference to the wrongdoing of others…If people in such places cannot be bothered to take action against those who offend them or to engage in conflicts, neither can they be bothered to help those in need. (131)

Most residents do not want to involve third parties when conflict arises (unless it involves strangers) – it would be better to do nothing at all.

The pervasive moral minimalism found in the suburbs contrasts sharply with claims that American society is particularly violent or litigious. However true such characterizations may be for other settings, they do not reflect suburban reality. Residents of suburbs like Hampton rarely aggress against one another physically, and for them, law remains primarily a theoretical option for handling grievances that arise in their everyday lives. They are happy to have police at as their champions in preventing and resolving trouble that unknown persons might cause, but beyond this, they have very little use for law. When problems occur, most people do not seriously consider recourse to legal officials, and, in fact, they generally act as if law did not exist at all. In this sense, suburbia is a king of limited anarchy. (127)

In conclusion:

suburbia is a model of social order. The order is not born, however, of conditions widely perceived to generate social harmony. It does not arise from intimacy and connectedness, but rather from some of the very things more often presumed to bring about conflict and violence – transiency, fragmentation, isolation, atomization, and indifference among people. The suburbs lack social cohesion but they are free of strife. They are, so to speak, disorganized and orderly at the same time. (134)

All of this does not lend itself to addressing social issues or community problems. If people are used to leaving each other alone and avoiding conflict, what happens when legitimate structural issues arise? Or, what happens when others make the case that addressing a structural issue is necessary or helpful? Or, if there is need, how do people used to moral minimalism respond? Convincing suburbanites to move on from moral minimalism, particularly when it seems to “work” in wealthier, whiter communities where people have the resources and agency to generally do what they want (having a single-family home, a good life for their kids, etc.), is a difficult task.

Interpreting data: the COVID-19 deaths in the United States roughly match the population of my mid-sized suburb

Understanding big numbers can be difficult. This is particularly true in a large country like the United States – over 330,000,000 residents – with a variety of contexts. Debates over COVID-19 numbers have been sharp as different approaches appeal to different numbers. To some degree, many potential social problems or public issues face this issue: how to use numbers (and other evidence) to convince people that action needs to be taken.

This week, the number of deaths in the United States due to COVID-19 approached the population of my suburban community of just over 53,000 residents. We are a mid-sized suburb; this is the second largest community in our county, the most populous suburban county in the Chicago region outside of Cook County. The community covers just over 11 square miles. Imagining an entire mid-sized suburb of COVID-19 deaths gives one pause. I had heard the comparison a week or two ago to the deaths matching the size of a good-sized indoor arena; thinking of an entire sizable community helps make sense of the number of deaths across the country.

Of course, there are other numbers to cite. Our community has relatively few cases – less than hundred as of a few days ago. Considering the Chicago suburbs: “If the Chicago suburbs were a state, it would have the 11th-highest COVID-19 death toll in the nation.” The COVID-19 cases and deaths are scattered throughout the United States, with clear hotspots in some places like New York City and fewer cases in other places. And so on.

Perhaps all of this means that we need medical experts alongside data experts in times like these. We need people well-versed in statistics and their implications to help inform the public and policymakers. Numbers are interpreted and used as part of arguments. Having a handle on the broad range of data, the different ways it can be interpreted (including what comparisons are useful to make), connecting the numbers to particular actions and policies, and communicating all of this clearly is a valuable skill set that can serve communities well.

 

 

McMansions as misplaced societal priorities

An obituary of a notable architect turned architectural critic concludes with a passage linking McMansions to larger societal ills:

Michael Sorkin, a fiery champion of social justice and sustainability in architecture and urban planning, who emerged as one of his profession’s most incisive public intellectuals over a multifaceted career as a critic, author, teacher and designer, died March 26 at a hospital in Manhattan. He was 71…

“Civilizations are marked by their priorities,” he wrote, “and ours are too given over to prisons, malls, and McMansions and too little to good housing for all, complete and sustainable communities, green energy, rational mobility, structures of succor. Politics programs our architecture. The emblem of Trump’s agenda is a piece of architecture — that absurd pharaonic wall he bruits for the Mexican border. His whole project trumpets control, and his mantra is shared by many an architect: just leave it to me!”

This would fit well into the fourth dimension of the term “McMansion” I discuss in analyzing hundreds of articles in the New York Times and Dallas Morning News that use the term. Here, McMansions are symbols of larger issues. In this case, Sorkin argues that society has the wrong priorities; instead of McMansions, we should look at “good housing for all.”

In this kind of argument, the McMansion is a symptom of larger issues. Fight against McMansions, as some critics and communities have done, and the larger issues still remain. If McMansions are part of larger issues, addressing the design and construction of McMansions may do relatively little to change conditions or address important social problems. Indeed, addressing architecture and local regulations might be much easier to do that considering systemic concerns. What about building large houses in general, not just McMansions? What about incentivizing or requiring the construction of affordable housing? What about sustainability? What about building communities with fewer private spaces and more attractive public spaces? McMansions might be particularly noteworthy – hence McMansion Hell – but they are products of particular conditions and processes.

Perhaps flipping the question around makes for a more provocative conversation: instead of thinking of how McMansions symbolize larger social problems in American society, we could think of whether a more just or equal or good society would or could have as many McMansions. Are they mutually exclusive? Must the McMansions decrease so that better outcomes would result?

“98 opioid-related deaths last year in DuPage” and local decisions

As Itasca leaders and residents debate a proposal for a drug-treatment facility in the suburb, an update on the story included this statistic:

There were 98 opioid-related deaths last year in DuPage.

Illinois appeared to be in the middle of states with its rate of opioid deaths in 2017 (see the data here). DuPage County has a lot of residents – over 928,000 according to 2018 estimates – and the Coroner has all the statistics on deaths in 2018.

In the debates over whether suburbs should be home to drug treatment facilities, such statistics could matter. Are 98 deaths enough to (a) declare that this is an issue worth addressing and (b) suburbs should welcome facilities that could help address the problems. Both issues could be up for debate though I suspect the real issue is the second one: even if suburbanites recognize that opioid-related deaths are a social problem, that does not necessarily mean they are willing to live near such a facility.

Does this mean that statistics are worthless in such a public discussion? Not necessarily, though statistics alone may not be enough to convince a suburban resident one way or another about supporting change in their community. If residents believe strongly that such a medical facility is detrimental to their suburb, often invoking the character of the community, local resources, and property values, no combination of numbers and narratives might overwhelm what is perceived as a big threat. On the other hand, public discussions of land use and zoning can evolve and opposition or support can shift.

Cities and societies always at risk of declining?

I feel that I regularly run into these narratives: cities are in decline and American society is in decline. After seeing a recent example of the cities-will-fall-apart argument, I thought it could be worthwhile to briefly think about where these narratives come from and what they are trying to do.

In terms of cities, Americans on the whole have an anti-urban bias. Data suggests Americans would prefer to live in small towns and even President Obama (resident of numerous big cities) noted the importance of small-town values for the development of the United States. Stephen Conn details anti-urban bias in the twentieth century when the United States experienced a significant population shift to the suburbs, locations where many Americans claim they can find their best life. Population loss is a public rebuke to an entire community. The decline of Detroit is held up as a tragedy and/or lesson.

Added to this is a political edge: cities are seen as strongholds for Democrats while Republicans rule in more rural areas and are against cities. Conservatives link Democratic leadership in these cities to all sorts of problems. Some conservatives see liberal plots to urbanize Americans against their will. Declining cities would then weaken one political party and their values.

In terms of societies, I have heard arguments from evangelical religious groups that society is declining, falling into a moral abyss, and headed toward ruin. Some of this is linked to particular theological views: some Christians believe the decline of society at large will hasten the end times. Others make these claims in order to try to spur believers into action and engagement with society. Still others might argue this is a reason for retreat from society in order to conserve or protect particular religious traditions.

This is also a common tactic of groups looking to address social problems: without tackling this important issue, society is in trouble in the long-term. Additionally, such arguments can also be part of political debates. Which party is in charge when these decline starts or accelerates? Which events are interpreted as harbingers of the end? Who exactly is trying to ruin the American experiment or distort American values? Is every presidential election the potential end for the other half of Americans because yet again it is the most important election we have ever seen?The possibilities are endless.

All of this apocalyptic thinking could have some serious consequences. Do such regular narratives discourage or encourage participation and trust in communities and institutions? Do they lead to long-term optimism or pessimism about individual lives and communities? Does it all distract from good news also taking place as well as small steps that could be taken toward positive change or community building?

It is true that cities and societies can decline and have indeed done so in the past. Just because a particular city or community or country is doing well now does not mean that this is guaranteed for the future. I read a thought-provoking book on this a few years ago from a scholar who studied numerous societies that had collapsed and concluded they reached a level of complexity where an issue in the system meant that all of the social machinery could come crashing down. But, predicting decline as it is happening might be difficult just as predicting trends is difficult.

Decline may happenbut with all the competing claims of decline of this or that (plus differing views on the same phenomena) makes it very difficult to know what to do with any of the claims.