Saying We Should Treat Guns Like Cars Overstates How Well We Regulate Cars

Cars travel on a four-lane road, as seen from an overpass.
Guns and cars are both part of American exceptionalism.
Elvert Barnes/Flickr

First, the carnage. Then, the backlash. Finally, a familiar retort from gun-freedom advocates everywhere: Ban guns? Why not ban cars—they kill more people!

It’s a nonsensical, slippery-slope response that’s easy to make fun of: Oh no, is the government going to make us get a special photo identification cards and buy insurance in order to drive? In fact, liberals often respond, why not regulate guns like cars—with mandatory training, tests, licenses, registration, and comprehensive state-by-state databases?

The comparison is not so outlandish—though not for the reasons gun-control advocates believe. The American approach to cars and guns is more similar than they realize, in that on each subject we’ve shown a reverence for individual decision-making even when it jeopardizes public welfare. And on both issues we have fallen increasingly out of step with peer nations.

It is true that on the surface, the story of regulating cars and guns makes an appealing contrast: Motor vehicle deaths per capita have fallen by more than half since the early ’70s, while gun deaths (most of which are suicides) have risen slightly. There has been a nonideological consensus that reformed the conduct of both automakers and drivers for the better. Christopher Ingraham at the Washington Post explains:

The steady decline in motor vehicle deaths over the past 65 years can be attributed to a combination of improved technology and smarter regulation. The federal government mandated the presence of seat belts in the 1960s. The ’70s brought anti-lock brakes. The ’80s brought an increased focus on drunk driving and mandatory seat belt use. Airbags came along in the ’90s. More recent years have seen mandates on electronic stability systems, increased penalties for distracted driving and forthcoming requirements for rear-view cameras.

For a moment in 2014, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, guns and cars appeared to be killing Americans at the same rate.* But that’s no longer true. The nonprofit National Safety Council estimates that in 2017, car deaths per capita rose to 12.3 per 100,000 people, from 11.1 in 2014. The situation is even worse for pedestrians: According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 5,987 people were killed by cars in 2016—the highest number since 1990 and an increase of 23 percent since 2014.

Those numbers at first appear to be a blip in that long-term success story. Relatively speaking, however, American car laws are hardly a success. In 1990, the U.S. had one of the lowest per-mile rates of death in the developed world. In the ensuing 25 years we’ve been left far behind by many of our peers. Compared with the rest of the developed world, we have taken our foot off the gas.

According to OECD data from 2015—before the recent spike—the U.S. had 7 vehicle deaths per billion kilometers driven. That’s twice the rate in the United Kingdom and 40 percent higher than in Canada. Per capita, the discrepancy factors in our automobile-dependent building patterns and looks even worse. The U.S. fatality rate per capita is about three times what it is in Spain or Japan, and twice the rate in France or Italy.

Along with guns and infant health care, cars are a big reason the United States is such a dangerous country to grow up in compared with its peers. Guns are America’s special pathology, and our commitment to their easy purchase and free use has made American teenagers 82 times more likely to die by gun than their counterparts in a comparison group of countries (most of the EU, plus Norway, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) between 2001 and 2010.

But our record on cars is also pretty bad. During that time, U.S. teenagers were more than twice as likely than their international peers to die in car crashes. Crashes are the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 8 and 24. In that sense, the regulation of cars is both a positive example of the regulatory state getting the job done—and a cautionary tale of the U.S. falling behind the rest of the world.

So why are we lagging? As David Leonhardt noted in the New York Times, 74 percent of Americans speed, compared with 45 percent of drivers in the Netherlands and 22 percent in the U.K. Fifteen percent of American drivers do not wear seat belts, compared with 3 percent in the Netherlands and 4 percent in the U.K.

In short, while we’ve been relatively successful regulating vehicle manufacturers, we’ve had less success with human behavior. Efforts to rebuild streets and highways to limit speed have foundered; blame for soaring pedestrian deaths rests increasingly on pedestrians themselves rather than the distracted drivers who mow them down. Distracted driving is endemic: In Tippecanoe County, Indiana (home of Purdue University), a spike in crashes around Pokestops in the summer of 2016 appeared to cost the county between $5 million and $25 million. Speeding, which is as much a factor in car crashes as drunkenness, is thought to be a cheater’s right, like stealing Monopoly money. Some states have outlawed speed cameras; many more severely restrict their use.

Right now, gun control advocates look at the existing red tape in car ownership as a model for guns. But the instructive comparison will soon run the other way. Within decades, autonomous vehicles will make human driving look less like the messy necessity it is today and more like a dangerous, exhilarating sport. It will become possible to impose stiff penalties on bad drivers without threatening their livelihood. In certain places, at certain hours, human drivers may not be permitted. And then you’ll see staunch defenders of personal liberty arguing for the right to use a steering wheel and an accelerator despite the risk to themselves and those around them.

For now, though, we should stop looking at cars as a model. First, because as an outlier on car deaths, seat belt use, and speeding, the U.S. is hardly a good example. Second: Where it’s done right, car safety is as focused on mitigating infrastructure and design as on permitting and manufacture. In some ways, work on mitigating design (speed bumps, cameras, etc.) has functioned as a way to compensate for insufficient changes at auto plants (why does a Toyota need to go 130 mph?) and permitting (why do drivers who kill people stay on the road?).

Apply those priorities to the gun debate, and we’ll end up spending millions on metal detectors, bulletproof backpacks, and auto-locking classroom doors—taking the guns themselves for granted.

Correction, Feb. 21, 2018: This post originally misidentified the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Henry Grabar is a Slate staff writer.