Comparing the coronavirus to car accidents is a misguided idea

Anthony Fauci rejected the analogy between car crashes and the coronavirus as a "false equivalency." Evidently, Donald Trump wasn't listening.
Image: Evening rush hour traffic fills Highway 50 in Sacramento
Evening rush hour traffic fills Highway 50 in Sacramento, California, on Jan. 26, 2017.Rich Pedroncelli / AP file

About a week ago, Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) went further than most in arguing that the coronavirus crisis should not shut down the economy, even temporarily. As part of his case, the Wisconsin Republican told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "[W]e don't shut down our economy because tens of thousands of people die on the highways. It's a risk we accept so we can move about."

A few days later, Johnson's argument came up during a White House press briefing. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, rejected it categorically, telling reporters, "I think that's a false equivalency to compare traffic accidents.... I mean, that's totally way out. That's really a false equivalency."

At the same briefing, Donald Trump was asked about Johnson's highway analogy, and the president also defended existing mitigation efforts. "You could be talking about millions of lives," the president said adding, "[W]e can bring our finances back very quickly. We can't bring the people back."

That was Friday. Yesterday, Trump decided to echo the GOP senator's argument.

"[Y]ou look at automobile accidents, which are far greater than any numbers we're talking about. That doesn't mean we're going to tell everybody, 'No more driving of cars.' So we have to do things to get our country open."

I guess Trump wasn't listening to Fauci's "false equivalency" comments from a few days ago.

There are all kinds of problems with the analogy, but for now, I find myself stuck on a specific part of the president's pitch: Trump seems to believe the number of people who die in car crashes is "far greater than any numbers we're talking about" with COVID-19.

Estimates vary, but roughly 40,000 Americans die every year in auto accidents. We take all kinds of measures to prevent these deaths -- seatbelts, airbags, speeding laws, federal safety regulations imposed on auto manufacturers -- but accidents still happen, and many of them are deadly. It's true that many Americans nevertheless drive every day and there's little public demand to shut down the nation's highways.

But to assume there will be "far" fewer American deaths from the coronavirus pandemic is wishful thinking based on nothing. In fact, it's hardly outrageous to think this is dangerously backwards: the number of fatalities could be vastly higher, especially if Trump retreats from the current course, and unlike deaths from car crashes, the deaths would likely come quite quickly.

Do we shut down highways to prevent 40,000 deaths per year? No, we don't. Would we temporarily shut down the highways if there 400,000 deaths in less than a year? I sure as hell hope so.

The Washington Post's Philip Bump added this morning, "The scenario we're in now is that there have been 1,000 serious car accidents on an interstate in a medium-sized city and now the drivers and their passengers are being rushed to several nearby hospitals. The hospitals are triaging patients and figuring out who needs what care, but they are very quickly out of beds in the emergency department and out of doctors to care for the patients. The sheer scale of the problem means that people will die waiting for a bed or waiting to be triaged. People sitting in the waiting room with other ailments might die, too, unable to secure any of the limited resources. Even this analogy doesn't go far enough, though, because it doesn't account for the risk of doctors and health-care staff catching the coronavirus themselves, putting them at risk and reducing the available resources at the hospital."

The fact that the president and some of his allies find this difficult to understand is frightening in the extreme.