The Coastal Post - June, 1996

Marin County More Dangerous Than San Francisco

BY STEPHEN SIMAC

Marin County, with its suburban lifestyle from the fringes to the core, appears to be a safe haven nestled around Mt. Tamalpais, isolated from the crime and gritty danger of the cities nearby. We feel safer. Of course, this is all an illusion, easily swept away with a waft of peacock feather statistics from Federal Highway Administration studies.

In reality, driving on suburban roads and highways is more dangerous to life and limb than walking down sidewalks and alleys or running red lights in the inner city. Three times more, in fact.

Even when you add in crime injuries and deaths, the cities are still safer per capita than the suburbs. The crime rate in cities is higher, so most suburban dwellers gladly trade the increased risk of highway mayhem for the reduced crime rate.

Our skewed perception of risk has a lot to do with the psychological principal of denial of the Shadow. Since America is shaped by suburbs in our fantasies and reality, questioning the very mode of their creation, the automobile, our womb with a view, is too threatening.

The fears of Americans are focused by the media from their pulpits. They prefer dark figures with guns in the cities, black men wearing masks with huge hard-ons. It's psychologically healthier for those who live in the suburbs to imprison their fears in a shadowy criminal, unless, of course, you get reamed by a Land Rover in your vulva.

The devil with the foot-long phallus cavorting in the wilderness was a favorite theme of Cotton Mather when he preached at the executions of witches in Salem, and Live at Five coverage of cops beating wetbacks or masked black rapists, undeniably attract our attention.

The daily grisly highway accidents are merely roadkill on TV, a quick glimpse at what's tying up traffic, unless there's a beating going on. Most of us have lost friends and family in the War of America's highways. We have a Memorial Day for soldiers killed in our wars, yet more Americans have died on our highways than in all our foreign wars.

Little Jessica, the child pilot, was statistically safer in the air with a copilot, than being sent out for a bicycle ride by herself. Most bicyclists killed are between the ages of 5-15. More Americans age 10-24 are killed in highway accidents than by any other cause. It's one of the leading causes of death until the age of 35, when heart disease leads, but Death rides in a car for Americans of all ages.

It's a huge blind spot in America's psyche, yet we keep passing semis on the right, cigarette in one hand, cell phone in the other, worrying about flesh-eating viruses and unsightly wrinkles while our arteries are clogged.

The good news is our highways have become significantly less dangerous in the last 20 years even as they have become more crowded and dilapidated. The bad news is gun deaths have risen, mostly because of the War on Drugs. News flash! We're all going to die, unless immortality is imminent and yet few want to die young.

We'd like to do it in bed at a ripe old age. For most of us, according to statistics, that is going to be the case. In the last 25 years, Americans' health has improved steadily and no one can figure out why. Heart disease and strokes have dramatically declined, mental illness and infectious disease decreased, even AIDS cases in the last few years are down. Traffic accidents have gone steadily down until they equal rates from gun deaths for the first time since Prohibition days.

Only cancer rates have risen, with over $20 billion spent on the War on Cancer since 1971 and virtually no improvement in survival rates. Even with oncologists holding steady, hospitals are emptying out, while health care costs continue to spiral upwards, except in the managed care industry.

It's one of the great mysteries, accidents and illness. Why do bad things happen to good people and all that, but we don't need a devil to help explain why certain people are more likely to get sick or injured. The emerging medical field of psychoneuroimmunology has new explanations about why people get sick.

Several long-term studies of lawyers, air traffic controllers, prison camp survivors, students, immigrants, telephone operators and families, after isolating out other risk factors, showed that people who feel hopeless, discontent and without control of their lives are more likely to become sick or injured than people who feel optimistic about their ability to handle change, view challenges as interesting rather than threatening, and have a "good attitude and ability to get along with other people." Studies consistently showed that the 25 percent of the various groups with the most hopelessness had over half the illnesses and injuries, while the one-fourth with the most optimism has less than 10 percent of the downtime.

This doesn't explain why the Unabomber never had a cold, but when we come down to it, life is a mystery. Many will want to blame the victim, while insurance companies will definitely screen for personality traits just as they discriminate against genetic traits now. Yet it is also an opportunity for individuals to choose more responsibility for our own lives without worrying about shadowy fears.

There are many identified risk factors in lifestyle, environment and genetic factors for illness and injury, but these are not fated nor immutable. Our resistance to them begins within ourselves, with our perceptions, our cognitive abilities and our innate harmony. We may not be able to control reality, but we can have more control over our reaction to it.

Fear is not healthy, nor is the need to control others. Intimacy is healthy, taking risks is inevitable and beneficial. Stress is not necessarily destructive; our belief systems are powerful transformers. Our minds are the most powerful healing ally our bodies have; they can also be our biggest enemy.

A nutritional diet and moderate exercise is important for health, but if you enjoy what you eat and how you play, your immune system will benefit more than by disciplined regimens of things you dislike. Even lawyers who believed in the importance of what they were doing and had a sense of purpose were the healthiest. And self-delusion might just explain the Unabomber's robust health.