Auto's impact on society

November 02, 2006, volume 37, no.5
By Diane Luckow

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Major morning traffic accidents are so commonplace that motorists and the media alike are usually more concerned about avoiding the carnage than contemplating the horrors and after-effects of the actual collisions.

"Culturally, we don't attend to road traffic injuries in a way that highlights their significance in our lives," says SFU sociology professor Arlene McLaren. "And as a discipline, sociology hasn't really grappled with this."

In fact, she notes, the World Health Organization estimates that 1.2 million people are killed each year on the roads - more than in wars - and beyond that, there are the terrible injuries that don't result in death.

That's why McLaren began studying the issue of automobility and traffic safety. "It's very much an under-theorized, under-researched area," she notes. "We need to address the way mobility shapes our lives."

Over the past two years, she has used funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to establish the Traffic Safety Project, a network of scholars, students, policy makers and community members interested in exploring this neglected public issue.

This year, McLaren organized an October symposium, AutoConsequences, that involved more than 40 participants interested in discussing the automobile and its social implications.

While several disciplines recognize the problem of traffic safety, she notes, they take a narrow approach that focuses on engineering, enforcement and education.

The traffic safety project, she says, "hopes to open up the lens to consider how the automobile has organized society - the streetscape and urban space - mobility, culture, politics and economics - and how it has an impact on peoples' lives, including their health and safety."

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