Dec 122013

This Freakonomics Radio podcast is all about our long, risky, and mostly unrequited love affair … with the automobile.
Every year, more than a million people die worldwide from traffic accidents. Last year, there were roughly 33,000 such deaths in the U.S. And while it’s widely believed that modern distractions — our mobile devices, our lattes, our podcasts — make driving ever more dangerous, here’s the surprising thing: in most places, the death rate has fallen, by a lot. Ian Savage, a Northwestern economist who studies transportation safety, tells us that this number has declined by two-thirds since 1975. And self-identified terrible driver Steve Levitt says that the data show “an amazing success story.”


Stephen J. DUBNER: Steve Levitt is my Freakonomics friend and co-author. He teaches economics at the University of Chicago.
DUBNER: So Levitt, how good or bad a driver are you, scale of one to ten?
Steven LEVITT: I am one of the worst drivers on the planet. I’m a terrible driver, awful.
DUBNER: Give me a number, one to ten. Two?
LEVITT: One, one.
DUBNER: So what does that say about driving in the United States in the year 2013, however, that you’re one of the worst drivers who ever lived and yet you’re still alive?
LEVITT: Well, we have great technology. So when I bang into things neither I nor the things I hit get hurt, very badly. And we have great developments — like people have very loud horns that they blow at me. And they have really very vivid brake lights and other things that flash in front of me telling me I have to stop. And um they have built technology on the sides of roads so that when I’m veering off my lane in towards the grass it goes du-doomp-du-doomp du-doomp-du-doomp-du-doomp. And reminds me to to back on. So I think there are a lot of safeguards in there to keep me from killing myself in a car.
DUBNER: Why do you think you are such a bad driver, Levitt? You’re relatively good at some other things.
LEVITT: I’m very distracted as a driver. I don’t pay very much attention.
DUBNER: What distracts you? Is it stuff in your head? Are you reaching for the hamburger or the music? What is it?
LEVITT: Partly it’s in my head. And I just am thinking about other things. But I am an incessant channel changer on the radio. I am always in search of a better a better song than the one that’s currently playing.
DUBNER: Is there any song you’ll stay ‘till the end? Like a Kelly Clarkson? I know you like the girl pop.
LEVITT: Yeah, lately, lately we’ve be en staying to the end of um, when I am with the kids, to the end of “Wrecking Ball,” with Miley Cyrus. They are a big fan of that.
[CLIP: Miley Cyrus, “Wrecking Ball”]
LEVITT: …And I talk on the phone and I text. I do all the things you’re not supposed to do. I’m pretty much a walking time bomb when it comes to driving.


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