Cars, Buses, and Suicide Bombing

Going without a car means giving up some control over the safety of yourself and your family, or the illusion of control.

Last year, when we lived just over a half mile from our elementary school, I walked my kids in the morning and my wife met them at the end of the day and walked them home. Maybe half the time, when the weather was bad or we had errands to run or we were running late, we drove them to school and back. With door-to-door parental supervision, we could make sure that nothing happened to them. On Sundays, we arrived at church minutes before (or, occasionally, after) sacrament meeting started, and we collected our kids and left minutes after primary was done.

Things are different this year without a car. When church is done, once we exchange a few words with the other members, our bus has usually come and gone, so we get to stay and talk for another half hour while our kids play outside. Driving our children to school is not an option, no matter how often the kids ask us to buy a car. I still walk the boys to school (because our first grader would otherwise take 50 minutes to walk just over a half mile to school, inspecting every interesting stick and rock on the way), but they get out at different times and walk home by themselves. This is how the school prefers it. It actively discourages parents from driving kids to school, and its advice for bad weather is to dress the children warmly, as exercise and fresh air are good for children. German schools tend to put greater store in fostering independence, sometimes in ways Americans would find alarming. Our first grader was asked to bring a knife to school to practice apple peeling, for example. We sent him with a butter knife to be on the safe side, but the rest of the kids brought the kind of sharp paring knife that would send an American school into code-blue lockdown and get the kid expelled. German schools also tend to be broadly tolerant of violence between children, a policy I find horribly misguided.

Bad things could happen, on the way to school or at school or on the way home. There are streets to cross and all kinds of people on the way. When I was around sixteen, my father mentioned that he would check the clock at work every morning and afternoon. If no one called him by 9:30 or so, it meant that nothing too terrible had happened to me or my brothers and sisters on the way to school; if no one called him by 4:30 or so, it meant that nothing too terrible had happened on the way home. Now I find myself checking my watch the same way, but for a six year old.

I like riding buses and trains, but the the only reason the German train system hasn’t experienced a massive terrorist attack is the poor soldering skills of the disgruntled Lebanese gentlemen who targeted the same kind of regional express commuter trains that my family frequently rides. Something bad could happen sometime. There’s a reason that suicide bombers target trains and buses at rush hour and not minivans.

I rarely miss our car, which required regular maintenance and a bank loan each time we pumped it full of gas. I especially don’t miss knowing that the most dangerous daily activity for my children is riding in a car. Children are many times more likely to be killed or maimed in car accidents than in the nightmarish scenarios that inhabit parents’ imaginations. Looking at the numbers helps keep the various dangers in perspective. But it does not make the nightmares go away.

14 comments for “Cars, Buses, and Suicide Bombing

  1. January 25, 2007 at 10:53 am

    In 2002, 3,018 5-to-9-year-old children died in the United States; 19.8 million didn’t. Top five causes of death for this age group were: accidents (unintentional injuries), 39.0%; malignant neoplasms, 17.8%; congenital malformations, deformations and chromosomal abnormalities, 6.6%; assault (homicide), 4.6%; diseases of the heart, 3.0%. The rate of death due to accidental injury was lower for this age group than for any other: 5.9 per 100,000. The age group with the highest rate of accidental injury death was 20-to-24-year-olds at 40.9 per 100,000. (For 45-to-54-year-olds the rate was 36.6 per 100,000, lest you assume that those 22-year-olds are out of control.)

    Of the 1,176 unintentional injury deaths to 5-to-9-year-olds, 621 were motor vehicle traffic fatalities. Of those children who died, 281 were vehicle occupants and 149 were pedestrians. Interestingly, the number of cyclists in this age group who were killed by motor vehicle traffic (33) is almost matched by the number of pedestrian children (27) who died in accidents that did not involve motor vehicles. Other major causes of fatal unintentional injuries for this age group were: fire/hot object, 174 deaths; drowning, 159 deaths; firearms, 71 deaths. So, accidents were the leading cause of death among 5-to-9-year-olds, and motor vehicle traffic fatalities were the leading cause of unintentional injury death. Put together, however, motor traffic fatalities accounted for 20.6% of deaths in this age group. Take away all the cars, and four-fifths of the heartbreak remains.

  2. January 25, 2007 at 11:41 am

    While living in Jerusalem, there were a few times I had that “there but by the grace of God go I” experiences. Once I was down on Ben Yehuda Street at a specific store where a lot of LDS students would go. The next day (September 4, 1997 according to the linked article) on that same street, three suicide bombers self-detonated simultaneously. I remember looking in the paper at grisly pictures of at least two heads of the bombers (which oddly, often survive the aftermath). At least one of them was actually smiling (even in death).

    Another morning I was out jogging and came upon a scene where a bomb had gone off near a prominent Hebrew U. building for international students. The bomber hid the device in some bushes/foliage that were behind a bus stop. This was a place where I could easily have been, as I went right by there at least a few times a day. I should add that in this attack attempt there were no casualties/injures, as far as I know.

    The year after I left Jerusalem, a cafeteria at Hebrew University (a cafeteria named for Frank Sinatra), where I used to eat regularly, was bombed. Nine people were killed. I ended up making some phone calls that day, wondering if I knew any of the victims.

    I don’t think about it too much, but when I get onto any public transportation or go into any crowded (with people) places, I tend to think about the possibility of someone carrying out a suicide bombing. It’s a very real possibility.

    I’ve sometimes thought that someone ought to create a comprehensive online list of all the suicide bombing attacks that have taken place in the world. As I was looking up information I came across this wikipedia page for Hamas bombings.

    One of the ironies I ponder these days is that it seems many (possibly most) suicide bombings taking place today are attacks by Muslim extremists on other Muslims in predominantly Muslim cities. This is a terrible problem that has emerged in so many parts of the world and there isn’t any specific single clear path to eliminating the problem, since the cells that perpetrate these attacks often seem to act independently of one another.

  3. Peter
    January 25, 2007 at 1:05 pm

    Apparently you’re not the only one changing driving habits.

    Today the LA Times reported that “U.S. motorists changed their ways enough to cut the nation’s per-driver mileage by 0.4% in 2005, ending a string of increases dating back to 1980, government data show…. In car-centric Los Angeles, ridership rose more than 6% on Metrolink trains and 5.7% on the buses and trains run by the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority through the first nine months of the year.”

    Still, I wouldn’t underestimate the damage an exploding minivan on the 405 during rush hour could cause.

    Where in Germany are you? I’m in Vienna and also adjusting to a car-less lifestyle.

  4. Frank McIntyre
    January 25, 2007 at 2:10 pm

    John Mansfield, Interesting numbers.

  5. MikeInWeHo
    January 25, 2007 at 2:40 pm

    I’m more inclined to worry about road-rage killings, snipers, and bricks dropped from overpasses when I’m on the 405, although there are times when a trip thereon does make me feel like my skulls is going to explode and that would be messy.

  6. TMD
    January 25, 2007 at 4:01 pm

    Danithew: Robert Pape, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, has done just this. Poke around his website and his publications and you’ll probably find it.

  7. January 25, 2007 at 5:19 pm

    TMD, I’m looking. I’m finding that he heads something called “The Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism” but I’m not finding any actual links to a website or list.

  8. January 25, 2007 at 5:55 pm

    My kids walk across a 7-lane street to get to their high school. One of my son’s classmates jaywalked last year, got hit by a car and was in a coma for months.

    I spend at least 10 hours a week on the 405. My husband rides his bike to work.

  9. Seth R.
    January 25, 2007 at 8:13 pm

    You are infinitely more likely to die crashing your minivan into another car, than being blown up by terrorists on a public bus.

    Pure paranoia with no connection to reality (not Jonathan Green personally, just people generally).

  10. TMD
    January 26, 2007 at 12:24 am

    Danithew: try his book, Dying to Win, or try contacting his “center” to see if you can get the list.


  11. Sarah
    January 26, 2007 at 2:48 am

    I always thought the scary thing about terrorism is the thought that it’s deliberate. Most car accidents are at worst a matter of stupidity, rather than malice. Peoples’ driving habits changed with remarkable speed when that pair of guys were using the DC highways for target practice, and cities everywhere added expensive fencing on overpasses in just the last fifteen years in, as far as I can tell, a direct response to publicized brick-throwing incidents.

    We feel like we can and ought to be extremely careful and make plans around malice, but we’re conditioned to simply endure stupidity (even our own.) I mean, I haven’t done any studies, but I’d bet people are more concerned about road rage than, say, cell phone driving. And it took a majority of people deciding that drunk driving is malicious, before the penalties for it got severe (even today, there are people driving around who’ve driven drunk and been caught multiple times: they’re easy to spot in Ohio, since they have to use orange license plates.)

    Anyway, I bet more people die in horrific bus (and plane) crashes, caused by mechanical or pilot failure, than terrorist incidents on buses and planes — but it’s passenger shoes and IDs and salad forks that get the public scrutiny and worry-mongering. Same deal with feeling unsafe on trains as compared with your rusty-but-driven-by-me car. There might be some “loss of control” factor, but it’s mostly down to “I know none of my passengers WANT to blow me up, and it’s not like someone’s turned my engine against me during secret meetings in a dark alley.”

    (Though I love cars and driving and freedom and by the way, if I didn’t have them, I’d have gone mad some time ago, and also gotten ill and gone broke on the food available at the only gas station-style grocery store within walking distance of our house. Yay cars!)

  12. Jay S.
    January 26, 2007 at 12:05 pm

    “Most car accidents are at worst a matter of stupidity, rather than malice.” I sort of agree, but is this supposed to make me feel better about driving? Stupidity (through carelessness, riskiness, etc,) is way more common and much harder to detect than malice.

    and without cars, we would all likely live much closer to stores, plus our understanding of walking distance would likely be more than 1/4 mile.

  13. January 26, 2007 at 2:11 pm

    I guess my point is that I’m pretty much over this whole terrorism thing.

    The technology to cause a World Trade Center, Oklahoma City, or standard-issue bus bombing has been around ever since… well… high rise buildings and buses. But it obviously didn’t happen much. And I don’t see that trend changing just because something horrible caught the national imagination in 2001. Fearful people are easy to manipulate and control. Even worse, their fear often causes them to misdirect their attentions to the wrong solutions and wrong culprits, all the while causing themselves ulcers.

    If you’re going to die, your going to die. If someone is hell-bent on suicide bombing you, no amount of law enforcement, military power, and state surveillance will make one iota of difference. The fact is, we are all squishy, killable homo sapiens. If someone wants to kill people, it really isn’t hard to do.

    So what are you going to do?

    Live in a concrete bunker in Wyoming?

  14. January 26, 2007 at 3:15 pm


    Nice post. My family and I are also getting used to being a carless family. As parents, our greatest fear is that my wife will be alone with all three kids on a bus or the tube and my wife will go to get out at a stop and step out first to set up the stroller (pushchair) for the six month old and the other two, ever in their own world and moving much too slowly, will get stuck inside as the doors close and the vehicle takes off. But it had been very fulfilling to take public transportation to work again for the first time in years and to ride the bus to and from church. It really gets you out into the community and exposed to the area in an intimate way. I’ve also enjoyed stopping each evening at the store on my way home from the Underground station to pick up small batches of fresh groceries for the next day’s consumption, although it has made for a number of very cold evenings lately. As for school, our oldest is just starting the adventure of attending the local public school and we will see what her experience is like. I must say that I was dismayed to read what you wrote of the German school’s tolerance of bullying among the children. I seriously hope that will not be the case here.

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