In 2019, the National Safety Council estimates, 38,000 people lost their lives in automobile crashes.
The circumstances of those crashes are all different, but they all share the commonality of cause — the decision to get behind the wheel of a vehicle or be a passenger in a vehicle led to individuals’ deaths.
This is in spite of all the safety measures put in place. We know that, on particular roadways, a particular speed is safe, so we set parameters — we set up caution signs, set speed limits and install various measures to limit the way people operate vehicles.
We install safety measures on vehicles — air bags, design features and, of course, seat belts — in order to mitigate the damage should a crash occur.
We warn people to not drive while intoxicated, we train drivers and force them to go through licensure procedures and we take numerous steps to avoid not only crashes themselves, but also to reduce the risks inherent in operating vehicles.
What we don’t do is shut down the roadways for all.
While this analogy obviously doesn’t fit perfectly into the COVID-19 situation, there are parallels we ignore at our own peril.
COVID-19 has already had much more of a death toll than automobile crashes in a single year, and there are few activities into which the coronavirus cannot enter and become a factor. The normal operation of our everyday lives have been impacted and just going to work or going to the store can potentially become a fatal decision.
But there is a common factor in both automobile crashes and COVID — risk.
Each day we take a number of risks. Everything, from choosing to eat to the decision to take a vehicle to work, has inherent in it a number of possibilities that activity will lead to injury or death.
So we mitigate that risk, we take steps to prevent bad outcomes. In the case of vehicles, we commit ourselves to driving safely, we put on our seat belts, we engage the various safety measures. If we’re responsible enough, we don’t get behind the wheel intoxicated, we don’t check our phones while driving and we take care of each other on the road.
In our community, we will soon be entering the sixth month of dealing with COVID, and we don’t quite see the light at the end of the tunnel yet. There are promises of treatment options and vaccines, but nothing yet on which we can 100 percent rely.
And the reality we have to confront is that there may never be a 100 percent guarantee against COVID-19.
The key to reducing automobile fatalities — not preventing, because we can never mitigate the risk to zero — is much like the key to reducing the spread of COVID-19 and the resulting fatalities. It’s personal responsibility.
All the speed limits and traffic lights in the world mean nothing if we don’t voluntarily heed them and find ways to interrupt and punish those who don’t. All the airbags and seat belts in the world are meaningless if we don’t personally take the initiative to use them or to prevent their necessity in our actions.
It’s up to us. The government can help by making recommendations and instituting guidelines, but the only way it can eliminate with 100 percent surety the risk of death via automobile crashes is to shut down the roads and eliminate the use of vehicles. That’s absurd, but it’s also the idea that many have about COVID-19 — shut it down until it’s gone.
Government will not and cannot solve our current crisis. It can make recommendations and set guidelines, but it’s up to each of us to manage and mitigate risk.
That’s where the rubber meets the road on COVID-19. Government can continue to mandate and enforce lockdowns, despite all the easily-identified negative outcomes, but our behavior is what will decide the success or failure of any measure. In light of that fact, the government’s insistence that it’s taking these measures on our behalf loses some of its teeth.
Perhaps it’s time for government to set up the guardrails, define the parameters, then get out of the way and leave enforcement to the experts. Set speed limits, by all means, but stop closing the roads because of the risk.
It’s time for us to each take responsibility for our own safety, just as we do with seat belts, and the safety of others, just as when we don’t get behind the wheel intoxicated or use our phones while driving.
The real danger here, aside from the danger COVID itself presents, is that, when we get over to the other side, we find that, because of our fear, we’ve lost the ability to make our own decisions and define our own lives. This isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition, but it’s going to be awfully hard to reverse that.