Strangled by the automobile


LIKE a woolly mammoth caught in a prehistoric tar pit, America is being slowly, almost imperceptibly strangled by its 130 million autos and trucks. While traffic chaos and smog is so endemic as to have become a cliche in cities and suburbs, it is the regional impact of pollution from motor vehicles, as well as their destructive effect on other facets of American society, that is coming more clearly into focus.

Consider the following:

* Recently in northern California, a coalition of environmental groups has charged that lead from gasoline, cadmium and other heavy metals from tire wear and leaking oil and grease from hundreds of thousands of autos and trucks pose a pollution hazard to San Francisco Bay comparable in scope to industrial discharges into the region's sewer systems. Yet unlike industrial poisons, contaminants from motor vehicles are washed by rains into storm drains, most of which bypass sewage plants. They are thus discharged directly into San Francisco Bay.

Though California grabs the headlines, similar things are happening to the Chesapeake Bay and other precious estuaries throughout the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. As auto and truck use increases, fueled by $4 billion worth of frenzied car-and-truck advertising per year and the world's cheapest fuels, the long-term impact on the nation's waters can only be expected to worsen.

Indeed, the problem of storm-water discharge of pollutants is the subject of one of the most comprehensive regulations ever issued by the Environmental Protection Agency. Under 1987 amendments to the Clean Water Act, the EPA is now requiring municipalities and industries to file reports listing all storm-water outlets by May 1992, and will require plans for storm-water management and contaminant removal by the following year. Critics charge that it may prove to be one of the most costly regulations in the short history of environmental protection in the United States. These regulations could have far-reaching implications for auto use in this country.

* While tens of billions of dollars are spent on road maintenance yearly, the state of the nation's highways continues to worsen. The repair bill grows as ever more roads are added, and traffic, including blood-chilling triple tractor-trailers, increases yearly. To cite one example, Kansas is furiously building a new interchange to connect I-70 with Topeka, even as I-70 in Kansas is barely negotiable for hundreds of miles, filled with potholes and bone-jarring furrows.

* The Grand Canyon, one of the West's greatest tourist attractions, is so polluted at times that the canyon itself disappears into a smoggy haze. The U.S. Park Service continues to blame the nearby Navajo coal-fired electric generating plant (a very likely suspect since it was built in 1974 without scrubbers and thus constitutes one of the nation's largest single sources of sulfur dioxide pollution). Recently, however, researchers have identified the Los Angeles basin and its auto-generated smog as sharing responsibility, noting immense plumes of pollution swept eastward hundreds of miles by prevailing westerly winds.

* The steady decline in SAT scores is commonly linked to television viewing and deteriorating home life, but at least as important may be the continuing increase in car ownership (and miles driven) by teen-agers. Time spent hanging out at the mall, cruising the beltway or flipping burgers cannot be spent studying (or even watching television).

Action to reduce the environmental and social destructiveness of the auto must include major increases in fuel taxes (to perhaps $2.50 per gallon, adjusted annually for inflation by the end of the decade). In addition, a national 18-year-old minimum age for obtaining a driver's license coupled with stricter standards, a sizable increase in the gas-guzzler tax applied to fuel-gulping cars, higher mileage standards for new vehicles and banning of car and truck advertising from television are all worthy of debate.

Most important, however, is a national commitment to providing Americans realistic alternatives to the auto in the form of affordable and reliable mass-transit, both within and between cities.

Only then will we begin to free America from its destructive drug-like "auto fix."

Robert McConnell is associate professor of geology at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Va.

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