Perhaps as a consequence of the losses in my own life, perhaps because my mother, who passed away last month at the age of 85, worked to overcome the tragic loss of young lives through crime and violence, I find that I focus much of my energies on dealing with and, where possible, preventing loss. Even before our daughter Bakhita died, public service had taught me that we must have the courage to learn from loss, not merely accept it. We can never bring a loved one back from the grave, but we can strive to prevent the unnecessary deaths that snuff out lives before they have been fully lived.
Which is why, for years upon years, I fought (successfully) to secure funding to improve a stretch of 40th Street in Tampa. It’s also why I’m gratified to see additional efforts to prevent pedestrian and bicycle accidents on Hillsborough Avenue in Tampa. There are things we can do to make our roads safer, to reduce the risk of unnecessary death and serious injury.
That same commitment to sensible safety improvements leads us to invest in better communication systems and body armor for our police officers. It’s why we acquire better protective gear and more effective equipment for our firefighters, and the best EMS support we can manage for our paramedics.
This desire to confront unnecessary loss and prevent future losses drives media attention and public outcry against corporations that place a premium on profit and a discount on human suffering. When it was revealed that General Motors knew about a defect in its ignition switches that was causing deaths, and did nothing about it, their new CEO had to recall millions of vehicles, was compelled to testify before Congress and (apparently) has been cleaning administrative house.
This is the way it’s supposed to work. When a technology threatens us with mortal risk, its manufacturers or managers are expected to fix it, to reduce the risk of death at least to reasonable levels.
But wait . . . something’s out of whack here.
While the ultimate total number of fatalities related to the ignition switch problem is in dispute, it would appear that 13 deaths have been confirmed.
Thirteen deaths since the defect was identified in 2001. Thirteen deaths in 13 years. An average of one death per year. Of course, the number may be higher . . . but probably not astronomically so.
And Hillsborough Avenue? Two fatal pedestrian or bicycle accidents in five years (2008-2012). Less than one a year.
Don’t get me wrong. I think these investments in safety are warranted. GM should recall the cars. The Florida Department of Transportation and the City of Tampa should make Hillsborough Avenue safer. Because the design (of the ignition switch, of the roadway) is part of the problem, and the design can be improved.
What’s out of whack is that we are so focused on these unnecessary tragedies, deeply tragic, but small in number, while we fail to focus on another technology that causes vastly more preventable deaths every year.
In the five years that unsafe conditions led to the deaths of two pedestrians on Hillsborough Avenue in Tampa, 150,000 people were killed by this unsafe technology. In the years that GM’s flawed ignition switch killed 13, this particular flawed technology killed roughly 390,000 people.
What is this profoundly dangerous technology that takes 30,000 lives each year, and about which we have done almost nothing to make the design less dangerous?
It’s the gun.
We applaud Congress for going after GM. Congress has, over decades, required multiple improvements to the design of the automobile to reduce unnecessary deaths.
But apparently we also applaud our state Legislature for increasing the opportunities for people to use a gun in a situation of conflict, and to have a gun available under conditions of considerable stress (evacuations).
Don’t get me wrong. I understand that there are some issues these bills address that have some merit. I just wish that, at some point, we’d see some effort to make this remarkably unsafe technology a bit safer.
We do it for cars and roads. How about guns?