The Highway Disease of 2018


In 1966 Lyndon B. Johnson delivered a speech during the passage of the HIghway Safety Act that included this:

Over the Labor Day weekend, 29 American servicemen died in Vietnam. During the same Labor Day weekend, 614 Americans died on our highways in automobile accidents.
Twenty-nine on the battlefield.

Six hundred and fourteen on the highways.

In this century, more than 1,500,000 of our fellow citizens have died on our streets and highways: nearly three times as many Americans as we have lost in all our wars.

Every 11 minutes a citizen is killed on the road. Every day 9,000 are killed or injured–9,000! Last year 50,000 were killed.

And the tragic totals have mounted every year.

Wikipedia describes the outcomes of the Highway Safety Act this way:

Many changes in both vehicle and highway design followed this mandate. Vehicles (agent of injury) were built with new safety features, including head rests, energy-absorbing steering wheels, shatter-resistant windshields, and safety belts[1][2] Roads (environment) were improved by better delineation of curves (edge and center line stripes and reflectors), use of breakaway sign and utility poles, improved illumination, addition of barriers separating oncoming traffic lanes, and guardrails.[2][3] The results were rapid. By 1970, motor-vehicle-related death rates were decreasing by both the public health measure (deaths per 100,000 population) and the traffic safety indicator (deaths per VMT).[4]

Changes in driver and passenger (host) behavior also have reduced motor-vehicle crashes and injuries. Enactment and enforcement of traffic safety laws, reinforced by public education, have led to safer behavior choices. Examples include enforcement of laws against driving while intoxicated (DWI) and underage drinking, and enforcement of seat beltchild safety seat, and motorcycle helmet use laws.

LBJ referred to the deaths as a public safety issue and called the deaths a result of “highway disease”.

LBJ at the signing of the Highway Safety Act in 1966

When after (yet another) mass shooting, even those of children in school, is met with with the wall of protection of the right to bear arms rather than grief, mourning and gun safety legislation, I have wondered what it is that is going on in our country.

Victims of the San Bernadino mass shooting in California

When parents of children respond to the deaths of children and teachers in schools with buckling down on their right to own guns, has something gone wrong with our collective values?  It is added grief that children must die to protect some individual’s insistence on owning high-powered weaponry.

NRA’s Wayne LaPierre

The leader of the NRA, Wayne LaPierre persisted in the poor logic of fear mongering that the government will be able to do something bad to its citizens (because that is much more likely than mass shootings in schools), blaming the FBI, gun control advocates and the media for the death of 22 children in Florida. When even research on how to make guns safer somehow is threatening, has something gone wrong with our values?  When we pay for our freedom with the blood of children, has something gone wrong with our values?

The children and teachers taken in Newtown, CT shooting

After hearing LBJ referring to the need for the public health issue of traffic fatalities as “Highway disease” and in the messages that surround the mass shootings and the hysteria even the notion of “gun control” seems to bring, it’s clear America is suffering from Gun disease.

The students and teachers taken in the Parkland, FL shooting

Gun disease causes defensiveness about gun ownership when children are being mowed down in school.

Gun disease causes black/white thinking that somehow turns commonsense research about gun fatalities into certainty that we are setting ourselves up for a Tiananmen Square in the US.

Gun disease causes paranoia, fear, anger and blaming rather than grief over wave after wave of mass shooting in schools.

Gun disease causes thinking there is a need for more guns in order to solve the problems we are currently having with guns.

The students and instructors taken in the Umpqua Community College shooting in Roseburg Oregon

This metaphor struck me as appropriate because despite the huge number of deaths that LBJ was rectifying with this legislation, he was not suggesting that all highways be eliminated.

The solution to both highway disease and gun disease is not doing away with the offending object, rather it is using the brain we were given to do amazing things like map the human genome and put people in space and on other planets to apply that capacity to solving the problem of the needless fatalities that are amassing.


The answer to eliminating mass shootings doesn’t have to be getting rid of all guns, heck, even starting small by enforcing the current legislation would be a step in the right direction.  Evaluating the “low hanging fruit” of munitions, availability, permitting, safety features, states rights to see what small things could make big changes.  LBJ didn’t get rid of cars and highways when recognizing highway disease, he formalized the need to make things better with research, legislation requiring increased safety features from car manufacturers, traffic safety laws to discourage drunk driving–and it lead to a huge difference.

This conversation about how to eliminate mass shootings doesn’t have to be shut down by polemic thinking, fear and paranoia.  Gun disease, like highway disease is a complex problem and we as humans are capable of navigating a solution that goes beyond “more guns!”.


One Comment Add yours

  1. MOM says:

    great article — thanks for posting

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