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Gun, road safety veer in different directions

Trick quiz: Name the leading source of violent death in America.

If you answered “guns,” you were close. If you said “motor vehicles,” you were also close. But if you answered “motor vehicles and guns,” you get first prize.

Together these two ubiquitous mainstays of the American scene are involved in more than 60,000 fatalities a year. They divide the statistical honors about evenly. In 2011 guns figured in 32,163 deaths; for motor vehicles the fatality toll was 32,367, according to government data (The National Safety Council estimates that crash deaths rose 5 percent in 2012 with the improving economy).

From a public health standpoint, the gun-motor vehicle parallel in violent death involvement is striking as well as instructive. As a starting point it provokes other disturbing questions and answers, such as:

How many guns and motor vehicles are in the hands of American shooters and drivers? (300 million and 250 million, respectively.) How does U.S. gun and motor vehicle ownership compare to the rest of the world? (On both counts this country vastly outpaces all other nations.) How does the U.S. experience with gun deaths and motor vehicle deaths compare with that of other comparable nations? (Very poorly. Of all firearm deaths in the 23 highest-income nations, 80 percent occur in the U.S., even though the combined population of the other 22 is twice that of this country. As for highway crash deaths, the U.S. lags far behind other high-income nations, with about twice as many such deaths per capita.)

Quibblers may challenge the similarities by pointing out that in its data, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention makes a categorical distinction between gun-related injuries and those involving motor vehicles. That’s true, but it’s a distinction without a difference. CDC denominates gun deaths as “intentional injuries” and car crash deaths as “unintentional injuries”. But in physics, both involve the same deadly mechanism – kinetic energy gone amok. Being hit by a speeding car and being hit by a bullet have the same lethal results, intended or otherwise.

Nor is the distinction clear-cut when it comes to intention, which is grounded in human behavior and motive. The Baton Rouge teenager who accidently killed his 2-year-old brother in January when the gun he was playing with went off certainly did not “intend” to cause the child’s death. And what about the car manufacturer who knowingly sells a vehicle with a lethal safety defect; might not its behavior kill people, whether “intentionally” or not?

Yet despite their discouraging parallels, deaths from firearms and deaths from motor vehicle crashes are strikingly different in one critically important way: over time, gun fatalities have crept upward, while road crash fatalities, which topped 43,000 in 2005, have been dropping despite increases in the number of cars and of vehicle miles traveled.

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And therein lies a valuable message for injury-prevention advocates. Public health progress depends on implementing lessons learned from large-scale chronic assaults on human life and limb, of which motor vehicle crash injuries and gunshot injuries are leading examples. Efforts to change public policy in favor of reducing injuries caused by harmful products such as guns and cars inevitably confront powerful organized opposition; the auto companies fought tooth and nail against federal vehicle safety regulation before it was finally enacted in the 1960s, just as the gun manufacturers and National Rifle Association are fighting against gun control today. Another case of instructive similarities?

In the past four decades auto safety regulation, while too often putting the interests of manufacturers over those of consumers, still has saved hundreds of thousands of lives and prevented millions of severe injuries. Car crash trauma remains a pressing public health problem, but it would be far worse if federal and state government mandates – driver testing and licensing, vehicle registration, and vehicle safety standards – weren’t in place. Adopting similar controls for guns would result, slowly but surely, in a downward path for firearm trauma.

The painful but unavoidable fact is that even when opposition is overcome and countermeasures are adopted, results come gradually at best; the less aggressive the countermeasures, the slower the payoff. For gun control advocates, like auto safety proponents before them, the road to results will be a long, hard – but ultimately worthwhile – slog. It takes incredible levels of persistence in the face of tsunami-level lobbying and PR efforts funded by seemingly bottomless corporate war chests, a willingness to constantly badger public policymakers for mandated solutions, and a constant reminder to the media that this public health problem won’t go away without meaningful government action. What it shouldn’t take is another Newtown.

FairWarning is a nonprofit news organization based in Southern California that focuses on public health, consumer and environmental issues.

Ben Kelley, a former Department of Transportation official, is on the board of the nonprofit advocacy group Center for Auto Safety.

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