Published: Sunday, January 17, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 15, 2010 at 5:41 p.m.

Periodically, I get e-mails from an outfit called HCD Research that are essentially public opinion snapshots.

In a survey of 300 Americans, HCD Research recently found that an overwhelming number, 74 percent, think the government should spend more money on airport security.

And after watching an interview with a former federal inspector about security issues, 25 percent said they would feel “not at all safe” about flying, while only 8 percent said they would feel “very safe” on a plane.

None of this is especially surprising given the news of the bumbled Christmas Day bombing attempt and subsequent disclosures about holes in our Homeland Security system.

We're at war with terrorism, you know. Everybody says so. Dick Cheney. Even President Barack Obama.

Why would anybody want to fly when terrorists with explosive underwear are slipping past the screeners?

Better to drive, instead.

Or maybe not.

Most of us don't think twice about driving. It's what we auto-Americans do.

It's not as scary to most of us as flying, and we almost never see fanatics trying to set fire to their underwear while sitting in a traffic jam (although some of us have seen far stranger things in traffic).

But our perception of what's safe and what isn't can be a bit warped.

Last year, I read Tom Vanderbilt's terrific book “Traffic: Why we drive the way we do (and what it says about us).” And one of the things Vanderbilt's book says about us is that we are pretty lousy when it comes to the whole business of risk assessment.

For instance: Vanderbilt points out that since the 1960s, fewer than 5,000 people have died in the United States as a result of terrorism.

On the other hand, something like 40,000 Americans are killed every year, year in and year out, in auto accidents.

In a typical month, more of us are killed in traffic than perished in the attacks of 9-11.

“In the wake of those attacks, polls found that many citizens thought it was acceptable to curtail civil liberties to help counter the threat of terrorism, to help preserve our ‘way of life,'” Vanderbilt wrote.

“Those same citizens, meanwhile, in polls and in personal behavior, have routinely resisted traffic measures designed to reduce the annual death toll (e.g. lowering speed limits, introducing more red light cameras, stiffer blood alcohol limits, stricter cell phone laws).”

Sure enough, this week came yet another poll, this from McClatchy-Ipsos, in which a majority agreed that “it is necessary to give up some civil liberties in order to make the country safe from terrorism.”

To wage a “war” that has claimed fewer than 5,000 American lives in half a century, we have put occupying armies into two countries on the other side of the world, created a Homeland Security bureaucracy on steroids and turned our airports into miniature police states.

And we've done it all on enough borrowed money to practically guarantee our eventual devolution into an economic colony of the People's Republic of China.

Everybody feel safer now?

But what about that other form of terrorism?

You know, the one that claims 40,000 American lives year in and year out?

Well, we know how to fight terrorism on the highway. It's not rocket science, and it's not nearly as expensive as rooting out bin Laden's disciples.

We could post cameras to catch red-light runners. We could ban texting while driving and cell phone use in cars. We could reinstate the helmet law for motorcyclists.

We could narrow urban streets, lower the speed limit and adopt other “traffic calming” measures that would force motorists to slow down and behave themselves.

Speed is the auto-terrorist's weapon of choice. Slowing down traffic would not only save lives at home but retard the threat of terrorism abroad. Driving slower means using less gas, which means fewer oil profits for the petro-states that finance terrorism.

Hey, here's a radical idea: We could stop manufacturing automobiles that are capable of driving twice as fast as our highest posted speed limits.

Nah. That would be Big Brother style meddling into our personal lives.

So Americans are willing to gut the Bill of Rights in order to feel a little safer against the rather amorphous threat of international terrorism.

But when it comes to defending that most sacred of all American rights — the right to drive as fast and as much as we care to — we are resolute.

Even if that means sacrificing tens of thousands of lives every year right here at home.

“Driving, with its exhilarating speed and the boundless personal mobility it grants us is strangely life-affirming,” Vanderbilt writes, “but also, for most of us, the most deadly presence in our lives.”

Go figure.

Ron Cunningham is editorial page editor for The Sun. He can be reached at voice@gvillesun.com or at 352-374-5075. Read his blog, Under The Sun, at www.gainesville.com/opinion.

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