Thomas Toland Smart: Don’t ‘open up’ without seat belts and guardrails

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Teams test for COVID-19 and perform blood draws to test for coronavirus antibodies in Park City on Wednesday, May 6, 2020, as part of the Utah HERO (Health & Economic Recovery Outreach) program. The massive undertaking will begin with randomized testing of 10,000 Utahns across four counties. The data gathered will inform decision-makers in the state as they work to help keep residents safe and get people back to work.

I keep seeing the argument that driving is risky but we do it anyway; therefore we should reopen the economy. That’s a false-equivalence argument for several reasons. For one thing, car crashes aren’t contagious. For another, COVID-19 has already killed more than twice as many Americans in three months as die in car crashes over an entire year, even as we have been doing the infectious-disease equivalent of not driving.

That said, let's consider the argument seriously for a moment.

In 1921, you were 21 times more likely to die per mile driven than you are today, although there are vastly more cars on the road now, traveling at much higher speeds. 1966 marked a real turning point in automotive safety with the publication of "Unsafe at Any Speed," widespread adoption of mandatory seat belt laws, and legislation that would lead to the creation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Since then, there has been a massive regulatory and industry effort to continuously improve automobile safety and roadway design. Impaired driving laws have been passed, a nationwide drinking age enforced, and a nationwide blood-alcohol limit established and subsequently lowered by nearly half. All of this vastly improves your safety on the road, and no responsible person complains that it infringes on their "freedom."

Automobile manufacturers spend vast sums to design safer vehicles. Did you know, for example, that a single crash-test dummy can cost up to a million dollars? Innovations over the years include laminated safety-glass windshields, collapsible steering columns, engineered crumple zones, front ends designed not to overrun pedestrians, airbags, and on and on.

These safety improvements are the result of (1) extensive industry regulations, (2) a car-buying public that demands them and (3) manufacturers caring deeply about sparing lives and injuries as they enable personal mobility.

Now, let's make the analogy with the coronavirus and everyone's desire to get back to their normal jobs and leisure activities. I want back to normal, just like everyone. But do we want to speed back in an old jalopy, or do we want safety measures in place?

It’s universally recognized that isolation and distancing have saved lives. It’s universally recognized that we can’t keep isolating forever. And it’s universally recognized that the safest way back to normal is widespread testing and contact tracing, quarantine for those who are infected or who have recently been exposed, and scrupulous compliance with distancing, hand-washing, masking and other sensible guidelines for those deemed safe to be out and about.

The safe behaviors are up to us. The testing and contact tracing can only happen through the resources, logistics and power of the federal government. Traffic safety has been a huge success story for federal intervention. Coronavirus safety has, thus far, been an abject failure. To "open up" everything without the guardrails in place and seat belts fastened will only lead to more suffering and death.

And make no mistake, more suffering and death will not be good for the economy.

Thomas Toland Smart

Thomas Toland Smart, Salt Lake City, is an associate creative director at Symmetri Marketing Group. As the proud son of a tough, scrupulously honest journalist, he believes indiscriminate use of the term “fake news” is a hallmark of fake people.