Auto Emissions Are Much Deadlier Than Accidents

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Cars are dangerous. Although vehicular transport has become absolutely vital and necessary to the world’s economy over the past century, along with the fact that there have been tremendous advances in technology, cars still kill a lot of people every year through a variety of means. While accidents and collisions are often the first thing you may think of when you see the words “car” and “deaths” in the same sentence, vehicular emissions are quickly becoming a huge problem in different areas around the world.

But are emissions actually more deadly than accidents themselves? From an American viewpoint, that seems almost absurd. After all, thanks to some regulation from the government, most cities have been able to clear up a good amount of smog and air pollution over the past couple of decades. And when was the last time you heard about anyone getting killed by air pollution?

Well, that’s the shortsightedness that comes from living in America, whereas in places like China, it’s an entirely different story.

To get to the bottom of things, CityLab, which is part of the Atlantic Media collective, decided to task itself with finding the answer. The question was originally brought up by David Levinson of The Transportationist in a post titled “Death By Car: Are You More Likely To Die From a Crash or Breathing its Toxic Emissions?” It’s an interesting topic, and it became the starting point for CityLab.

By focusing on the year 2005, CityLab looked at the number of deaths resulting from traffic accidents across the country, which added up to a little more than 43,500. Then, the publication contrasted that number with the number of deaths attributable to air pollution. Referencing a recent study conducted by MIT researcher Fabio Caiazzo, it was found that 52,800 deaths could be blamed on particulate matter generated from road transportation alone for 2005 by looking at epidemiological evidence used to relate long-term exposure of pollution to premature deaths.

By those numbers, it appears that car emissions contributed to 19% more deaths than auto accidents in 2005. That number actually increases when you figure in other factors, like ozone concentrations. Your winner is auto emissions, and by a long shot.

Those numbers and findings are astounding, and probably come as quite a surprise to most people. With so much energy and effort focused on preventing and protecting ourselves from auto accidents, the exhaust that pours out of vehicles has become the more potent killer. Of course, we can attribute some of this to the declining number of auto accident deaths over the past several decades. With the invention and implementation of numerous safety features like seat belts and airbags, it’s no wonder that deaths have come way down than from past decades.

But what about the incredible amount of deaths that can be traced back to particulates from emissions? There’s plenty of reason for concern, especially since a great number of Americans probably never really considered emissions to be a threat. Sure, there’s been a lot of talk about things like climate change and environmental devastation, but more than 50,000 deaths just in 2005 that can be blamed on emissions? That’s a real wakeup call.

However, there’s also reason to be optimistic that those are figures that can drop dramatically — and may already be doing so. With more and more consumers increasingly opting to purchase hybrids and electric cars, the levels of particles from vehicle exhaust are likely on the downturn. Another way that we can help is by investing more in public transportation systems, which get more vehicles off the road and therefore lead to less matter entering the air.

Again, there’s a long way to go on this front, but think about where we could be in a decade or two if as much effort and concentration is put into reducing emissions as there was in making cars safer to drive. It’s still a pretty big shock to realize just how deadly and dangerous emissions actually are. The real challenge will be getting policymakers and auto manufacturers to look at the data and make regulations and incentives to help shape the future.

China alone sees 670,000 of its citizens die every year from smog-related deaths. If that figure, along with the numbers CityLab has come up with can’t change minds, then we may be in for a rough ride.