As popular outrage at pedestrian deaths faded, the media’s attention waned, too. The national auto safety debate prompted by the 1965 publication of Ralph Nader’s book Unsafe at Any Speed focused, like the book itself, primarily on hazards to car occupants, not pedestrians or cyclists. By 2020, the toll from automobile crashes was seen as so unremarkable that Republican leaders, including then-President Donald Trump and Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, cited the supposed inevitability of tens of thousands of annual traffic deaths as justification for rejecting pandemic restrictions. Like many Americans, such leaders treat traffic deaths as unavoidable collateral damage from the pursuit of a car-centric American dream.
“We’re totally immune to this idea that 40,000 people die every year on U.S. roads,” says Kelcie Ralph, a professor of urban planning at Rutgers University. “We shrug it off.”