Anthony Wheeler

Humble Executive.  Literary Artist.  Altruistic Libertarian.

The Deadly Highways

Why do we accept such senseless slaughter?

We could, of course, reduce casualties by automobile accidents to zero if we were willing to bear the cost—if in no other way—by abolishing automobiles.

                      Von Hayek, The Road to Serfdom

Almost 12 million traffic accidents occur every year in this country, killing on average more than 44,000 people.  In total, 3.6 million people have died on the highways in this country alone.  To put that into perspective, that would be equivalent to destroying the 2nd largest city in the US and killing every citizen in it.  As if Los Angeles was nuked off the map.  That’s more than four times as many humans killed in all the wars in US history. 

Except these aren’t trained soldiers, men who deliberately put their lives at risk, who are trained to defend themselves, who go into a fight knowing the dangers; this is 3.6 million men, women and children, all private citizens, all innocent, all dead, since 1900.  This is a mother driving to the local store to get milk for her children; this is a newly married coupled killed in a head-on collision coming back from a romantic dinner; this is a bus-load of children dumped into a local river as the driver suffers a heart attack; this is two teenagers racing their cars and one of them losing control and crashing into a tree. 

Does anyone truly understand the full magnitude of this national disaster?  A few thousand people die on 9/11, and the country rises up in arms and destroys another country.  More Americans die every month on the highways and no one raises their voice.  Twelve students get shot at Columbine High School, and the country goes into mourning, when that many people will die in Denver on the highways in just so many months.  Four students at Ohio State are gunned down by the National Guard and we write enduring music to remember.

As for the rest of the world, in 2010 alone, 1,240,000 people lost their lives on the world's roads, compared to a total of 440,000 murdered or killed in war that year.  And the worst part?  The victims of the highways are typically innocent women, men and children, completely underserving of their fate.

Why do we allow this ongoing tragedy?  Why do we accept this self-inflicted genocide?  Why hasn't anyone questioned the underlying causes for this senseless slaughter?  Why the silence?  Why the indifference?

Here is how Milan Kundera poses the question:

I also think of those daily slaughters along the highways, of that death that is as horrible as it is banal and that bears no resemblance to cancer or AIDS because, as the work not of nature but of man, it is an almost voluntary death.  How can it be that such a death fails to dumbfound us, to turn our lives upside down, to incite us to vast reforms?  No, it does not dumbfound us, because…we have a poor sense of the real, and in the sur-real sphere of symbols, this death in the guise of a handsome car actually represents life; this smiling death is con-fused with modernity, freedom, adventure…The death of a man condemned to capital punishment, though infinitely rarer, much more readily draws our attention, rouses passions: confounded with the image of the executioner, it has a symbolic voltage that is far stronger, far darker and more repellent.

Many people would assert that driving is simply dangerous, an unavoidable cost from getting from one place to another.  Yet it is twenty times safer to travel by train than to drive, on a per passenger mile basis.  It is forty times safer to fly.  Not twenty percent; not one hundred percent.  It is four thousand percent safer to fly than to drive.

Others would argue that we haven't any choice, unless we want to revert to horses and steam engines.  But the simple ugly truth?  None of this had to be; a transportation system based on privately owned automobiles careening along unsafe highways at high speed is an aberration, a distortion of what a safe and cost-effective transportation system could have been - had it evolved within a genuinely free society.

You can never predict what the involvement of the government—the application of physical force—will do to society.  In the case of highways, it has wrought terrible harm, despite generally good intentions.  To make things more difficult, the danger of automobiles came about gradually, and like the frog stuck in a pot of cold water over a fire, we didn’t realize how badly boiled we were going to get.

The highways are a subtle problem, insidious even.  It is difficult to criticize them, because the highway system has become embedded in our time and culture.  But the fact is, a highway system built around the operation of private motor vehicles is but one possible way to provide transportation, only one technical solution for moving people and their things from one place to another.  There are many other alternatives.  The reason that those alternatives have not been developed or implemented on a wider scale, or not at all, is due to pervasive government intervention.

There are three major elements of government interference in the world's transportation system that have resulted in the cost (in human lives and suffering) of the current highway system.  All three have resulted in distortions that have prevented the creation of safer (and cheaper) alternatives.  All three stem from the government (local, state and federal) assuming direct ownership and control of the system.

Lack of Liability

The first is the most serious.  The government is legally exempt from legal suits stemming from death or injury on the highways.  In a genuinely free society, every organization is liable for the products, services, unsafe conditions or negligence that result in harm.  Anyone injured by such an entity has recourse with the courts.  If that entity is found guilty, they pay restitution to the injured party.  They may also be required to change specific practices to avoid injuring someone in the future.  

Perhaps an example would be helpful to illustrate the point.  A famous suit brought by an old woman against McDonalds:

On February 27, 1992, Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman from Albuquerque, New Mexico, ordered a 49-cent cup of coffee from the drive-through window of a local McDonald's restaurant located at 5001 Gibson Boulevard Southeast. Liebeck was in the passenger's seat of her grandson's 1989 Ford Probe, which did not have cup holders, and her grandson Chris parked the car so that Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee. Liebeck placed the coffee cup between her knees and pulled the far side of the lid toward her to remove it. In the process, she spilled the entire cup of coffee on her lap.[9] Liebeck was wearing cottonsweatpants; they absorbed the coffee and held it against her skin, scalding her thighs, buttocks, and groin.

Liebeck was taken to the hospital, where it was determined that she had suffered third-degree burns on six percent of her skin and lesser burns over sixteen percent.  She remained in the hospital for eight days while she underwent skin grafting. During this period, Liebeck lost 20 pounds (9 kg, nearly 20% of her body weight), reducing her to 83 pounds (38 kg). After the hospital stay, Liebeck was cared for 3 weeks by her daughter.  Liebeck suffered permanent disfigurement after the incident and was partially disabled for up to two years afterwards.

Other documents obtained from McDonald's showed that from 1982 to 1992 the company had received more than 700 reports of people burned by McDonald's coffee to varying degrees of severity, and had settled claims arising from scalding injuries for more than $500,000. McDonald's quality control manager, Christopher Appleton, testified that this number of injuries was insufficient to cause the company to evaluate its practices. He argued that all foods hotter than 130 °F (54 °C) constituted a burn hazard, and that restaurants had more pressing dangers to warn about. The plaintiffs argued that Appleton conceded that McDonald's coffee would burn the mouth and throat if consumed when served. [source: Wikipedia]

Whether the suit was justified or not (many argue that it was frivolous and that it was the old woman's fault for spilling the coffee on herself) the principle is clear: if an entity puts people in danger, they can be held liable for the consequences, and forced to pay damages.  In this particular case, due to the size of McDonalds, the original punitive damages were in the millions (later reduced).

If the courts can make so much of a relatively minor injury, absent the explicit legal exemption granted to the operators of the highways, it can be easily projected that the damages that would be sought and obtained by those injured in auto accidents would be immense.  No private operator could afford to remain solvent, or obtain insurance.  In a genuinely free society, such a transportation system simply wouldn't exist.

Suits cannot be brought against the government, even though the government builds and maintains the roads and highways.  This was demonstrated a few years ago when a private group wanted to build a highway in Nevada, and were unable to gain the same exemption from liability.  Without it, they couldn’t afford the insurance, as anyone injured could sue them.  Any industry that injured and killed its customer's at the same rate the government highways do would quickly be put out of business, and rightly so.

Conveniently for the operator, however, in that they are legally shielded from such law suits by the same law-making entity that operates and regulates the system that kills and maims so many innocent people every day, every year, year over year.


The transportation system is largely owned and operated by the government.  As such, there is no correlation between how the service is used and what it costs.  

Consider the following thought experiment: what if the government owned and operated all grocery stores, and all the goods within the store were free, paid for from tax revenue.  Shoppers could take anything they wanted from the shelves at no direct cost to themselves.  If this happened, the shelves would soon become bare, and the government would have to continually raise taxes to pay for more goods.  The government could never keep up with the demand, and no privately owned and operated stores could exist, for how could they compete with free goods?  That is why the freeways are so crowded in some places; the government cannot build them fast enough to keep up with the increasing demand, and the demand keeps increasing because they are free.  Only now—as they become so crowded that they no longer function—are alternatives being sought.  But any alternatives must be government owned and operated as well (like the trolley system in San Diego – a giant step into the past)  How can a private operator compete with free service?  They cannot, so privately funded and operated alternatives will never arise.

As long as the government owns and operates the highway system, things are unlikely to change.

An analogy

It remains impossible to predict precisely how the transportation system would have developed absent government intervention, other than to confidently assert it would have been far safer and more cost effective.  Same goes for the future, should an enlightened society commit itself to ridding such a monstrously destructive system.  What can be provided, however, is an analogy that closely matches the transportation industry, one that serves as a meaningful test-case.

Telecommunications are not all that different from transportation.  They both transfer something from one place to another.  The former, voice and data; the later, people and things.  Early in the 20th Century, AT&T was granted a monopoly to provide voice telephone service in the US.  This made it illegal for anyone else to offer such service to the public.  The only way such a monopoly can possibly be maintained is through the government’s threat to use force to prevent it.  This monopoly lasted until 1984, when AT&T was broken up into eight entities: AT&T and seven Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs).  AT&T would now compete to provide long distance service (MCI and Sprint their main competitors), while the RBOCs would remain local monopolies.  In addition to the RBOCs, hundreds, if not thousands, of smaller local telephone companies maintained their monopoly, and the subsidies that went with it.  Legislation in 1996 paved the way to remove the remaining barriers to competition in the industry, allowing anyone to provide local services in most locations, and the former RBOCs to provide long distance service once certain requirements were met.  In 2005, SBC (formerly one of the seven RBOCs morphed now into a massive telecoms conglomeration) purchased AT&T, and while keeping the brand name, absorbed the remaining bits of the former monopoly so that the original master no longer exists.

When I joined AT&T in 1990, the company was almost desperate, attempting to restructure and shed costs.  Sprint had just dropped the pin, emphasizing the quality of their phone service.  All digital, they proclaimed, leaving out the small detail that the majority of their traffic was carried by AT&T’s network.  That’s how Sprint began their business, by re-selling AT&T service, slowly transitioning to their own network as they completed their build-out.  They insisted, though, as AT&T’s largest re-seller, that all their traffic be carried only on digital transport, leaving much of AT&T’s customers to suffer from aging analog circuits.

AT&T had grown massive and inefficient through the decades of complacency brought about by serving a captive market.  ‘Ma Bell: We don’t care, because we don’t have to.’  A bumper sticker that aptly summarized the case.  When I arrived (a rare college hire, groomed for executive management) I worked for the Network Services Division, that part of AT&T that managed the core network.  NSD had just collapsed seven regional control centers into two: one in Denver and another in Conyers, Georgia (a small town about twenty miles east of Atlanta).  The centers housed the Network Operations Center (NOC), performed core provisioning and maintenance, and issued work orders to the various central offices around the country.  Massive downsizing (layoffs) and radical system upgrades accompanied centralization, both of which were considered fundamentally important to the long-term health and financial viability of the company.

To make the comparison between the continued existence of a killing highway system and the evolution of telecommunications, and how the recent history of the latter can provide insight into the potential future of the former, it's necessary to understand the basics of traditional telephony.  This will be referred to as ‘circuit switched network.’

The circuit switched network evolved directly from the very first phone networks.  Recall scenes from  old movies: someone cranks the ringer on the side of their old phone, and an operator somewhere nearby picks up the line.  ‘Connect me to Mrs. Smith,’ the caller (let’s call him Carl) may say.  The operator nods and takes a chord and plugs it into Mrs. Smith’s line, completing a direct metal path between the two phones.  When Mrs. Smith picks up her phone, the two parties can talk.  That simple network may look something like this (see first diagram to the right):

Now imagine that the Carl in San Diego wants to call Tom in Alpine.  To do that, he rings the operator in San Diego, and she seizes a trunk to the operator in Alpine, and requests the call be connected to Tom’s line.  Once the operator makes the connection, there is now a physical connection between Carl in San Diego and Tom in Alpine.  Note that a ‘line’ is exclusively usable by one phone, whereas ‘trunks’ contains multiple circuits that can be used and reused in any combination of lines.  (second diagram to the right)

The next major step in our story is to replace the human operator with a switch.  The network doesn’t really change:  (third diagram to the right)
The pre-1996 US telephone network would look something like this (showing only one long distance provider): (fourth diagram to the right)

The first switches were deployed before the monopoly was established in 1913 and remained the core of the network in 1996.  Originally, mechanical switches were deployed, and later converted to electronic and eventually digital switches.  These advances improved quality, call set-up time, and eventually added a few new features (call waiting, voice-mail, caller ID, for instance), but in essence, maintained the same fundamental architecture and capability as the network originally built in the early 1900s.  This would be analogous to the highway system adding stop lights, freeway on-ramps, and seatbelt in cars.  The actual infrastructure (the roads) don't change.  

The circuit switched network was designed and perfected to carry voice conversations, and little else.  All of the telecommunication voice networks in service in 1996 were of this design, all of them using the same circuit switched technology that was decades old. 

In a traditional circuit switched network, any time a call is made, an actual physical/electronic path must be established and maintained throughout the duration of the call.  As can be seen in the next diagram (fifth to the right), these network resources are utilized during the duration of the call.  The path itself operates at a fixed maximum of 64 kilobits per second.  While this works perfectly for a telephone call, the capacity of this electronic link is completely inadequate for most other uses.  Video, for example, or the transmission of large amounts of data.

The development and stagnation of the telecommunications infrastructure in the US up until 1996 is directly comparable to the state of the transportation infrastructure today.  I would even go so far as to suggest the upgrade from analog to digital in telecommunications comparable to building out the Federal highway system beginning in the mid-50’s.  Both changes made the systems incrementally better without changing the underlying architecture.  Both represent simple evolutionary steps within the constrained and unnatural course of their history. 

Most people believe that the highway system in the US is necessary and right (if they consider the question at all).  They remain unaware that superior alternatives exist, in terms of flexibility, safety, cost or convenience.  All they can imagine is some form of public transportation – buses, trains – and they blanch at the possibility of depending on either to get them from one place to another.  They want their own car, and the freedom that goes with it.

Prior to 1996, the same people had no idea what possibilities existed within telecommunications, what capabilities would become common within a short twenty years.  To fully appreciate the genuine nature of that industrial revolution within telecommunications, and to gain an insight into how something comparable could happen in transportation, it’s important to understand what actually changed.

The Telecom Act of 1996 eliminated most of the remaining legal limitations within telecommunications, allowing radical new capabilities to be developed.  The key to this revolution was the migration from traditional circuit switched network architecture (one that was designed and perfected for voice communications) to data networks.

Data networks have existed for a long time.  The signaling network that provided call setup in the traditional circuit switched network is an overlay network that uses packets to communicate between the various network elements.  This packet network arranges the path the call will eventually take, checking each switch for capacity in order to establish the dedicated circuit.  Ironically, that overlay network has in essence become the network of today, as everything is migrating towards packet/data networks.

Various data protocols exist, but have one thing in common: they all structure the digital content in discreet packets.  Sometimes called frames (frame relay) or cells (ATM), the concept is the same.  Each discreet packet has information regarding destination, error checking, and other variables, along with an actual payload of digital information.  This information can be anything: part of a voice conversation; a picture; music; video; email; financial records in spreadsheets.  Anything that can be made digital can be transmitted within a data (packet) network.

Instead of a diagram, the best way I can describe a packet network is to provide a specific example.    This is what a packet looks like in IP – that stands for ‘Internet Protocol.’  (sixth and final diagram to the right)

The first twenty bytes is the header.  A ‘byte’ is an 8-character digital word that can render unique values from 0 to 255.  You can see that the header consists of various sections.  ‘Type of service’ is particularly important, because that field will enable telephone service.  A packet identified as part of an ongoing telephone call will get prioritized as it enters each router, putting it at the front of the line for processing.  This improves quality and reduces the latency during an actual conversation.  The ‘Header checksum’ provides error checking.  If the numbers don’t match appropriately, the router knows the packet has suffered an error.  The ‘Source IP address’ and the ‘Destination IP address’ indicate where the packet originated, and where it is headed.  The ‘Data’ section can be various lengths, and will include a digital portion of a voice call, an email, a streamed video – any digital content whatsoever.

In a circuit switched network, the dedicated path is established prior to any content transmitted (a conversation, say).  Both ends are already set, so the content doesn’t need addressing information.  It can only go one place.  In contrast, when a packet is sent into a data network, it must contain a unique address, so each router can determine where to send it.  The packet will likely transit several routers prior to reaching its destination.  Once there, it will be assembled within the proper order (made necessary by the fact that the various packets that make up a discreet message may arrive out of order as they may have traveled the network along different paths). 

Error correction marks another difference between a data network and circuit switched network.  In traditional data networks, the accuracy of the data is paramount.  Charging a credit card, for instance.  You don’t want the wrong numbers to be sent or received.  To prevent errors that inevitably occur, most data protocols provide error detection.  If a string of data packets shows errors, the receiving router requests the sending router to resend the data.  That way, the precise information originally sent will be ultimately received at the far end.  If the transmission is delayed by a few seconds, or even longer, it won’t matter.  In a traditional voice network, on the other hand, such delays would cause unacceptable latency, making a conversation difficult to conduct, whereas occasional errors in the bit-stream would be rarely even noticed.  This is one of the main reasons that data networks were not seriously considered (prior to 1996) to be used for voice communications, as the voice quality was generally very low.

A data architecture has two major advantages over a circuit switched architecture, one of which would prove decisive.  In the first place, a packet/data architecture is far more efficient using the same network resources.  In a circuit switched phone call, the entire path is dedicated as long as the call takes place.  The only time content is delivered, however, is when someone actually speaks.  Any dead time means unused network resources.  In a packet network, the same phone call only sends data to the network when someone speaks. 

The second difference is simply this: where a circuit switched network will support excellent quality phone service, and extremely low-capacity data transmission (maximum of 64 kilobits per second), it can do nothing else.  A data network, on the other hand, has no architectural limits.  Virtually unlimited bandwidth can be transmitted, with any content delivered at speeds unimagined just a couple of decades ago.  Movies, phone calls, music – anything. 

Perhaps another comparison would be helpful.  Prior to 1990 or so, the only routine way to produce a letter-quality document was to use a typewriter.  When computers came into common use in the 60’s and 70’s, dot-matrix printers were common.  The same technology was used initially when PC’s became prominent.  Sure, you could create a document using a word processor, or a spreadsheet, but the only way to create a hard copy was by using a dot-matrix printer.  When HP came out with the first laser printer, this changed.  With the new printer, high-quality documents could now be produced using a PC and printer.  Not only that, PC’s could adjust the font style and size in an instant, whereas most type-writers only had one.  Finally, a user could do everything a PC could do, plus everything a typewriter could do, yet far more efficiently.  It wasn’t long before typewriters disappeared from everywhere except museums.  In time, circuit switched networks will go the way of typewriters for exactly the same reasons.

The conversion from a circuit switched architecture to a data architecture required building entirely new networks, establishing new protocols and standards, developing new technology and equipment, and creating new business models.  The results have been astounding.  New products and services and information sources undreamed of just a few short decades ago have become common.  Smart phones with high-speed web access; texting; downloading music; watching movies on a tablet; Skyping across the world; shopping for anything on-line, and reading reviews in real-time. 

And costs have plummeted: it cost less today for unlimited local and long distance telephone service for a month than what a single four-minute call between LA and New York City cost in 1980.  One short phone call cost more just a few decades ago than a month’s worth of unlimited service today.  

None of these things would exist today if the government hadn’t finally removed legal barriers in the telecommunications industry.  A comparable transformation would take place in transportation, if the government got out of the transportation business.

Prospects for Change

For things to truly change, the government must create the appropriate social, economic and legal structure to allow a transition to take place.  Once they do so, it would be up to the investors, engineers, visionaries and entrepreneurs to step up and take advantage of the new circumstances. 

While it remains impossible to predict how things would evolve – any more than anyone could have predicted the changes wrought by divesting AT&T in 1984, and passing the Telecom act of 1996 – we can assert with confidence that in time, probably sooner than most of us would predict, new alternatives would be established for getting people and things from one place to another, and that ultimately these alternatives would be safer, faster, more efficient and convenient than what exists today.  The recent history of telecommunications provides the necessary demonstration.  Only the use of restrictive violent force keeps things the same, or at best seriously retards advancement.  Only the government can apply such restrictive violent force.  Remove the threat of such force and human creativity will bloom.  Increase the threat of violence and the human spirit will be greatly subdued, if not crushed altogether. 

Consider this nation’s three greatest catastrophes, all directly brought about or encouraged by the US government: Slavery, and the ensuing discrimination against Black Americans; the Vietnam war, killing almost sixty thousand Americans and over a million South-East Asians; and the one costing the most American lives (3.6 million since 1900), the highway transportation system.  Traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 34.   Every month almost as many people die on the highways that were killed on 9/11.  For every person killed on the highways, roughly seven more will suffer severe injuries, resulting in years of disability and lost income.

Taking a wider view, it has been estimated that 1.2 million people were killed and 50 million more were injured in motor vehicle collisions in one year (2004).  The global economic cost of auto accidents has been estimated at over $500 billion per year.  These numbers are staggeringly large, beyond our ability to truly comprehend the magnitude of this ongoing disaster.  Yet more distressing still is to hold the understanding that it never had to happen.  Transportation systems could have evolved that would have eliminated 95% of the historical cost in human lives and property.  As of today, we can expect continued death and destruction on a similar (if not greater) scale in the coming decades.  This too, doesn’t have to be.

What are the chances that anything will truly change?

Not likely.  Examining the literature concerning the topic reveals debates that dance around the basic issue, and avoid the root cause: the system itself.  For example, The New York Times published an on-line debate titled ‘Do We Tolerate Too Many Traffic Deaths?’ with the following contributors:

  • Tom Vanderbilt, author, “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do”
  • Adrian K. Lund, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
  • Jamie Kitman, Automobile Magazine
  • Dan Burden, Walkable and Livable Communities Institute
  • Jull Cooper, University of California, Berkeley
  • Peter Kissinger, AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety
  • W. Kip Viscusi, Vanderbilt University
  • Grant Baldwin, Centers for Disease Control
  • Pam Fischer, New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety
  • Clarence Ditlow, Center for Auto Safety
  • John Graham, Indiana University

None of these writers address (or even bring up) the root issue.  They debate issues related to drunk driving, driving while distracted, use of safety belts and child seats, safer vehicles.  That’s what people suggest as a means to reduce the carnage.   

Everyone assumes that the current transportation is acceptable as it is; no one challenges the social, political, legal or economic basis for its genesis and ongoing evolution.  They take the deaths in stride, as just another part of nature. 

Yet there is nothing natural about highway tragedies.  There is nothing right about what it costs to get from one place to another.  Governments have inflicted this on their citizens, the very citizens they are tasked with protecting.  Unfortunately for us all, it requires the same government to radically change in order to create a safer future for our children and grandchildren.