Is the automobile a social problem? In author and Pulitzer Prize winner Edward Humes' view, the car is worse than that -- it's a health and economic problem as well.
In his new book, Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation, Humes says Americans are uniquely dependent upon the automobile.
"Americans prefer to move door to door. They want to close one door and find themselves in front of another. This is one of the reasons why we, as a society, are so car-dependent. Only a system built on trucks and automobiles can do this," he told The New York Times. "We drive these vehicles that weigh 4,000 pounds and are built to carry five people and eight suitcases, and most of the time, it's just one person and this giant machine going to work. We've got transportation overkill.
"The car is our single largest household expense. We're paying for it round the clock. Yet, it sits idle for 22 hours a day. Plus, it's horribly inefficient in how it uses energy. The average car wastes about 80 percent of the gasoline put into it. By comparison, an electric vehicle uses about 90 percent to actually move the car."
According to National Safety Council data, car crashes last year killed 38,300 people and seriously injured 4.4 million, he says. Humes says our speed limits are "fictitious" because the roads are built for faster speeds.
He refuses to use the word "accidents" because he says most crashes result from choices drivers make, such as trying to text while driving.
"In the 1920s, The New York Times referred to what we now erroneously call "accidents' as "motor killings.' There was more outrage then."
Any bright spot in Humes' grim prognosis?
"I have a lot of hope for driverless cars. The great news about them is that life-or-death decisions will not be left to distracted cellphone users and drag-racing teens."
Before driverless cars are adopted en masse, Humes has another suggestion.
"Cars already have speed governors in them: cruise control, which permits drivers to set the maximum speed a car should go. If you link navigation apps which know the speed limit for any given road and add it to cruise control, it takes the decision out of the hands of the driver."
Bradford Wernle is a staff reporter at Automotive News and former reporter with Automotive News Europe.