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The Author Speaks: Why Cars Are Costing You Too Much

The title Carjacked is the first hint that the book is not another cheerful recounting of America’s love affair with the automobile. Far from it.

The authors, sisters Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez, were inspired to write about America’s “car culture” after their 46-year-old cousin was killed in an automobile accident. They were intrigued by the contradictions inherent in our society’s reliance on, and infatuation with, the cars in our lives–the same cars, they say, that kill almost 40,000 people a year, cost us dearly in time and money, and contribute to urban sprawl, pollution and economic inequity.

Anne’s research approach as an anthropology professor at Brown University shows through in the authors’ meticulously documented manifesto. They spent a good deal of time talking with drivers across the country, car dealers and automotive executives, mechanics, cab drivers, toll booth operators, auto museum directors, crash victims, doctors, environmentalists, and EMTs and other health professionals, among many others. They also traveled to traffic court, Detroit proving grounds, DMVs, seedy used-car lots, exurban housing developments and junkyards, among other places.

Among the many surprises Lutz and Fernandez come up with is that the average two-car family spends $14,000 a year on their automobiles, more than 25 percent of the median family income. Yet, says Cathy, an English teacher with a marketing background, “people are not focused on that total.”

The authors talked to the AARP Bulletin about some other surprising findings and about what Americans can do to put the brakes on a runaway car culture. (Read an excerpt of Carjacking.)

Q. Automobiles haven’t looked this bad in print since Stephen King wrote Christine . What do you have against cars, anyway?

Anne Well, more than we did when we started our research! Like most Americans, we grew up loving cars. And in fact, we still love our cars. That love is no longer unconditional, though. America’s obsession with cars has led us to glorify their benefits and ignore many of their costs. But they take too much of our time, too much of our money, put us in daily danger and damage our health.

Q. How do they damage our health?

Cathy As a nation, we have lost more people on the roadways since the invention of the car than in all the wars we have fought in that time. And for every person killed in a car, about 70 more are injured, and many of them are severely and permanently disabled.

Americans are even less aware of some of cars’ more insidious health effects. While the risks associated with obesity—heart disease and diabetes among them—are becoming more widely recognized, the car’s contribution to our sedentary lifestyle is often glossed over. Our continued reliance on the gas engine means we add lung disease, heart disease, stroke, cancers and asthma to the list of health problems that are caused by the car. We’re most exposed when we are inside our cars.

Q. What did you learn from all of your interviews?

Anne We learned that cars appeal to core American values—like freedom, individualism, family and safety—that the automakers have exploited in their advertising for decades. The result is that many people come to value cars intensely, and treat them as much more than simply the means to get where they need to go.

Q. You put the blame solely on advertisers?

Anne No, some of the pleasures of the car are, of course, real, and our sprawling development is built for the car, so we have less choice in how much we drive than we might. But if were not for the relentless marketing—automakers spend consistently more than other industry, tens of billions each year—we would not be overspending on cars to the tremendous degree that we do.

Q. Describe an ad you have in mind.

Anne We are influenced by car ads in which a lone vehicle zips along an open, winding road through a vast and beautiful wilderness.

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