Car Talk

Should Parents Drive Less To Keep Their Kids Safe? Can They?

Thousands of kids die from car crashes every year. Doug Gordon, co-founder of the War on Cars, has a few ideas for all of us.

by Michael Frank
Originally Published: 
Ariela Basson/Fatherly; Getty Images

Cars are one of the leading causes of death for kids in America. In 2020 alone, cars killed 4,112 kids aged 19 and under — a close second to guns, according to the latest data from Kaiser Health. And the trend is only going up for car accidents, which have increased 22% since 2019, according to the National Safety Council, which relies on data from the CDC.

Carmakers are aiming to fight this trend and there have been some impressive advances — from now federally mandated backup cameras to pedestrian and cyclist detection. But there’s a lot to contend with: speeding, driver distraction, poorly designed infrastructure, and the fact that there are more than 278 million cars registered in America (a good 50 million more than eligible drivers) whose cars continue to get bigger on average. As such, the latest numbers on American auto deaths show that they’re going up, continuing to increase from the current 15-year-high. The U.K., as a counter-example, is a country with less reliance on cars, a more robust mass transit ecosystem, and 95% fewer deaths among kids accounting for population.

Doug Gordon, a dad and one of the founders of the podcast, War on Cars, a small but influential show that talks about the intersection of the world of cars and pedestrians. The name of his podcast is a provocation — and a response. “‘A ‘war on cars’ is the kind of thing that you hear anytime you propose changing a street to make it a little less car-centric,” he says. But is making our communities a little less reliant on such vehicle really such a radical idea? Gordon doesn’t think so, and he has a growing following that tends to agree. There still will be blowback.

What is the aim of the War On Cars podcast?

When we started we were talking about policies, infrastructure. But when we dug in further, we started to talk about driving and cars culturally. America has a quote-unquote, “love affair with cars,” but that name is actually concocted by the auto industry.

That’s the result of trillions of dollars, a decades-long campaign, and a barrage of policy decisions. It was created. Only a small handful of neighborhoods [in the U.S.] allow you the freedom not to be utterly dependent on a car to get around. We wanted to tackle that dependency and sort through our cultural attachment to the car.

During your 100th episode, a woman left a voicemail that you played where she talked about biking her kid to school. She said she knew there were risks to riding with her kid. How did that strike you?

I think about my own experience biking to middle school. It was basically a straight shot, and it was under two miles. Today, that same route has a lot more housing developments. And everybody in those housing developments is driving much bigger cars, and they're all distracted. If I were a parent now in that community, I probably would tell my child “nope, I'm going to drive you.” That becomes this vicious cycle with no kids biking to school, because there are too many cars because all the parents are driving their children to school. You get this “helicopter parent” thing thrown around — but I think a lot of parents have good reason to be afraid.

Okay, so play this out. How do you dip a toe in the water of driving less?

Maybe you replace one trip per week, and you leave the car at home and you take an e-bike to soccer practice. You do some homework and find that safe route or you find a couple of other families that will bike with you so it feels safer. That’s a very simple way that you can do it. And maybe you do that enough times you think, ‘Hmmm, you know, I can go down from two cars to one.’ There's no silver bullet here that's going to make everybody go car-free, but lots of little decisions along the way can help you. I guarantee you there's somebody in your town or your friend circle who has an e-bike and is very happy to extol the virtues of why they're amazing.

We say ‘Okay, you can bike. Amazing! But you can't go anywhere other than the park with us, or your driveway.’

I was just in Holland and you see all these kids, maybe 10 to 15 years old, biking around with no parents in sight. It wasn’t so long ago that we had that in parts of the U.S. What are we losing by not giving that freedom to our kids?

If you think about it, what are the major milestones in your child's life, from the perspective of a parent? When they're babies, it's when they learn to walk and talk. The next milestone for a lot of parents is their kid learning to ride a bike. There's just something about that rite of passage. But then we kind of squash that freedom.

We say ‘Okay, you can bike. Amazing! But you can't go anywhere other than the park with us, or your driveway.’ And so that liberation of being able to ride and also to navigate and get lost and then find your way? We’re cutting [kids off from that experience.]

And it's not just empowering for children, right? My daughter can walk to middle school herself, my son, we've just started experimenting with letting him walk a couple of blocks to the park. But it's also liberating for parents. As parents, we’re chauffeurs until our children are of legal driving age. So you know, to give children this freedom and independence and a really great life skill, we can also free up money and energy.

There is room for tech in transportation, but the only way to solve traffic is to give people viable alternatives to driving.

Imagine not needing to drive [your] kid to soccer practice or to sleep over at a friend's house. When we build communities where a child is comfortable walking to go get ice cream with a friend or walk to a park or bike to school, it has a multiplier effect. Not just on the kid themselves, but on the parents, on the entire community.

War on Cars likes to poke Elon Musk, Tesla, and his ideas like the underground car tunnel (The LVCC Loop). How do you feel about new car tech in general?

It's pretty easy for a story to get picked up in the media like, “this new trick will beat traffic forever!” And really that new trick is an old trick: It’s a bus that can hold six people; it’s better infrastructure. It’s 19th-century ideas like trains and bicycles. And it can be confusing to people. [They might ask] how are you going to solve 21st-century problems with 19th-century technology?

But that's it. We are. That doesn't mean I'm a Luddite. We all have Google Maps on our phones and I can unlock a City Bike with a QR code via an iPhone. There is room for tech in transportation, but the only way to solve traffic is to give people viable alternatives to driving. That's it. You can't widen highways enough. That's a century-old experiment that has failed.

But, to your earlier point about the cyclical nature of more and more people using cars because biking is unsafe, people will argue that biking is unsafe. Your co-host Sarah Goodyear has pointed out that driving is, too. So part of this is psychological. Can you break that psychological argument] down for me?

You can cite statistics and facts and figures until you're blue in the face, but if people feel unsafe, they're just not going to change their behavior. You see this playing out with the NYC subway right now. Like, statistically, it's actually quite safe to ride the subway, but there were all these high-profile crimes. And if you're a woman, if you're an Asian person right now, I can understand why you don't feel comfortable taking the subway, no matter what the statistics say.

It’s not going to be a great comfort to you that someone looks at you and says, ‘Well, did you know that you're statistically more likely to get in a car crash in New York City than to be mugged on the subway?’

But it is the truth that the most dangerous thing we as parents do in America every day with our children is put them in a car and drive.

It's not just children outside of cars being hit and killed by drivers. It’s children inside of cars being hit and killed. That is something that we need to reckon with and try to understand. But if that feels paralyzing, and you want it to be more comfortable for people like yourself to ride to the grocery store to school, just grab a friend, go to your town meeting and talk to your elected officials and ask them what are you doing to slow down traffic on this road or to carve out space for bikes so that an errant driver doesn't run us over.

I’m not asking everyone to become an advocate. But you can just make it known that there is a hunger for non-car transit, walkable, and bikeable ways of moving.

What do you say to the person who thinks this is all intractable, that they’re just not going to be able to bike in their town or walk there because it was all designed around cars?

First, no one's going to force you to get out of your car and onto a bike. And as long as you back sensible solutions to these problems, like putting in a bike lane on the street to make it safer for kids to bike to school, slowly but surely, hopefully, we can move the needle a little bit and people will opt for a smaller car or fewer car trips period.

We pay lots of money as parents to take our children to places like beach towns or Disneyworld, where you can get around without a car.

To be clear, we don’t blame individuals. Needing a car is rational if that’s the only way to get around. If we wag our fingers at individuals, we just get stuck arguing with each other. It doesn't really get us anywhere. We have to turn our focus to the car companies and the policymakers, and not stand in the way of sensible solutions.

What’s a vision you have that we can all wrap our minds around, especially if we don’t live in a densely populated place?

Intuitively I think families know what we desire. No one goes on vacation and says, ‘You know what I want? To be stuck in traffic.’ Where do we go? Beach towns. Places with boardwalks, where we can stroll. That’s what we love about little towns in Europe, or the coast in the U.S.

I just had the rite of passage trip to Disney World with my kids and the grandparents, and what did we love? What do we all love as parents about theme parks? Not just the rides and the characters and all that. You can walk around there. It's safe. We pay lots of money as parents to take our children to places like beach towns or Disneyworld, where you can get around without a car. We know this intuitively and we just have to apply that to our own neighborhoods.

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