Keeping Pace with the Hidden Cost of Economy Cars

There's a clever car commercial on the air this spring. I don't remember what brand of car it's for, but then, the commercial doesn't seem to be advertising any particular brand of car, but the qualities of cars in general.

The commercial consists of a humorous presentation that argues that a particular brand of car is so inexpensive that it makes driving less expensive than walking or running. It compares the cost of the car itself, the gasoline, repairs and oil changes with the cost of shoes, socks and medical treatments for spinal injuries due to the wear and tear of moving one's body without gasoline-powered assistance. According to the commercial, walking or running actually costs a few cents more per mile than driving a car.

To those people who have a general awareness of what things cost, this commercial's claims will sound unrealistic. Surely, owning and operating a car is more expensive than stepping out the door and going for a walk, but the commercial makes the issue sound so cut and dry. What gives?

Not surprisingly, the advertisers forgot to include many of the less obvious expenses of driving a car. One of these is the need to buy a new car every few years. The human ability to walk long distances usually lasts somewhere between 50 and 70 years. Cars, on the other hand, are rarely owned by the same person for a single decade. So yes, a person who walks quite a bit might have to pay for some sort of surgery to deal with the stress of self-locomotion, but this is done with the assumption that the body itself will last quite a while longer. Cars need some sort of repair every year or so, and tune-ups even more often. Even with all this attention, they fall apart in no time, and quickly become useless, ugly nuisances.

In addition to the high frequency of repair, car owners must deal with an incredible amount of expensive paperwork. Just to put the key in the ignition and drive down to the corner store, car owners need to pass driver's tests and pay for a driver's license, inspection, registration, and insurance. The only time anyone is required to take a walker's test is when he or she hasn't been driving very well. Nor is there a license needed to walk. We even let babies do it on their own, if they feel up to the task. Shoes don't have to be licensed or registered with the local government, and no one bothers to inspect them. If your sneakers have gaping holes in the toes, that's your business.

What's really great about walking is that no one keeps a record of your accidents. You may bump into people while shopping, trip over cracks in the sidewalk, and stub your toe against a telephone pole, but you don't have to report it to the police. There's no speed limit either. We don't have "no sprinting" zones in front of our schools, and most cops know better than to lay speed traps on jogging trails.

Best of all, it is legal to drink and walk. You can be falling down drunk, but as long as you can get back up again, there's no problem.Will a bartender lecture you about drinking and walking, demanding that you tie your shoelaces together until you sober up? Heck, no. You might even be encouraged to walk out the door if you get obnoxious enough.

Of course, these factors pale when compared to the serious medical costs of driving. There are the costs of cardiovascular disease from lack of exercise, lung disease caused by breathing air filled with car exhaust, and cancers resulting from contact with motor oil and other toxic substances that leak from automobiles. Even more threatening is the risk to drivers and non-drivers alike of serious injury from automobile collisions. When two people on foot run into each other, the resulting injuries are usually more embarrassing than life-threatening. If an accident involves a car, however, the damages to people and property are often devastating.

Most insidious are the social costs of our dependence on cars. These range from the financial costs of construction and maintenance of our nation's roads to the aesthetic injury from the constant noise of traffic. Cars separate us, enabling people to live far away from work, expanding the suburban sprawl further and further into the countryside. As we use our cars more often, our neighborhoods fall apart, turning into bedroom communities where people drive past each other instead of stopping to talk on the sidewalk. Many housing developers don't even bother installing sidewalks anymore.

Given the state of our society today, it would be unrealistic to ask people to give up their cars and walk or run everywhere instead. Nonetheless, given the high costs of automobile dependence, it may make sense for us to wean ourselves from the driver's seat. In any case, when we critically examine the comparative personal and societal costs of walking and driving, we should not be surprised to find out that the advertisers from the automotive industry have cooked the books.

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