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Fear and traffic in the suburbs

Voice From Goleta; Robert Bernstein


The movie "Bowling for Columbine" is nominally about guns and violence in America. But it is really about how Americans live in fear of the wrong things.

Worrying about the wrong things does not just make us tense and crazy. It is a major driving force behind destroying our environment, both natural and human.

If you base your fears on news coverage, the biggest risks to children are abductions, school shootings and drugs. Parents respond to these fears by driving their children to school. In reality, the biggest danger to children going to school is being hit by some parent driving a child to school. That danger is far bigger than abductions, school shootings and drugs combined.

Every day we hear another report about the mysterious rise of obesity among Americans, especially among children. The Centers for Disease Control has singled out parents driving children to school as a prime reason for this epidemic -- one that that is making "adult onset" diabetes and heart disease a serious problem among children for the first time ever.

Misplaced fear for children puts them at higher risk of danger and takes away their sense of self-confidence and natural sense of exploration and curiosity. But so much driving out of fear is also helping to damage the environment, globally and locally.

We are poised on the brink of a war that many believe is an oil war. It's said "War is not healthy for children and other living things."

Neither is too much driving and burning oil.

And what are people driving?

People fear their vehicle is not as big as the other vehicles on the road. So, they buy a bigger vehicle to reduce their fear.

During the Cold War, we called this kind of thinking "The Arms Race."

Mine needs to be bigger than yours. We came close to blowing up the planet with that type of thinking.

Driving an SUV is an act of aggression that comes from the fight-or-flight reaction to fear. "I am going to make myself safer by making you less safe."

Not exactly win-win thinking.

The result is more environmental damage, more pressure for oil wars, and more deaths on the roads. Ironically, it even increases the risk of death for the ones inside these mechanized rams since they are not in fact safer after all. Another case of misplaced fear backfiring.

The arms race on the roads did not start with the SUVs, though. If you ask people why they don't ride a bike to work, the most common reason is fear of all those cars on the road. But, if you were on a bike instead of in a car, you would be one less menace to your neighbors who are not in a car. The arms race begins or ends with your choice.

Even under current conditions, riding a bike has a net gain for your health and safety. While cars kill tens of thousands of Americans each year, heart disease from inactivity kills hundreds of thousands. Every heart-healthy minute you ride a bike extends your net life expectancy.

Why do so many people seek out the suburban life? Fear of the imagined dangers of urban living is a big factor.

We hear all the time about school shootings and the other dangers of city life. But, the case of Columbine showed that suburbia is no refuge and may even be a more likely place to find alienated young people shooting up their classmates.

But how real is the problem anyway? It turns out the rate of children shooting and killing each other today is less than it was in the "Leave It to Beaver" days of 1960.

What is the result of all of this suburban living? Suburbs force lots more driving, and more driving means more human carnage. We fear the risk of criminal behavior in urban areas and that results in far greater real risks of suburban life.

And what is suburban living's effect on the local and global environment? Suburban sprawl. City living gives people a small footprint on the planet. Suburban living gives a huge footprint. Land paved over for big suburban houses and driveways. Land paved over for broad streets, collectors, arterials and freeways that take up far more land than the efficient grid patterns of cities.

And, almost as bad, land covered in a crop which cannot be eaten or worn and on which we pour millions of pounds of toxic chemicals per year. Those suburban lawns receive more of these chemicals and result in more toxic runoff than all of our cropland combined.

When Gen. Jack D. Ripper spoke of his "precious bodily fluids" in "Dr. Strangelove", people laughed. Now, truckloads of bottled water go to suburbia and the environmental impact is not funny.

And it's all because of misplaced fear.

We live in a time where so much information is available. Yet so much of what believe is exactly wrong.

It's easy to blame others for what is wrong in the world. It's far more challenging and productive to see how we can make things better. Every day we choose what to buy, where to live and who to elect. And we make rules for our children. The next time you are about to make a decision, especially a major one, ask yourself: "Am I deciding this based on a fear?"

If the decision is based on a fear, ask yourself if you really know the facts about how real that fear is. Ask yourself if your decision may create a greater harm than the fear you are avoiding. Fear has its place. Misplaced fear has no proper place.

We are very fortunate to live in a time of so many resources, both material and informational. We can make a better planet and a better life for ourselves and those we love. If only we refuse to act out of fear and instead act on facts and on a positive vision.

Robert Bernstein was hit by a car early this year while biking home from his nanotechnology engineering job. After a month in the hospital and 10 months so far of physical therapy, he is back to biking to work every day. Robert Bernstein is a design engineer in Goleta.