Cars stuck in traffic, US flag, Arctic drill platform, and a plane advertising cheap car insurance.
Cars stuck in traffic, a US flag in the blurry distance, an Arctic drilling platform, and a plane advertising cheap car insurance. Charles Mudede

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If you are wondering about the how and the why of banner-towing planes, as I did while walking on Beacon Hill a few days ago, they are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration. "The FAA has jurisdiction over all US, even airspace over municipalities," said FAA spokesperson Allen Kenitzer when I asked him if Seattle had the power to ban planes flying banners from its skies. We do not. As long as a person meets FAA requirements, he or she is free to advertise over our downtown, our stadiums, our neighborhoods, our bay.

"A pilot with a commercial operating certificate gets special training and then becomes certified to fly or 'tow' banners," Kenitzer also explained. This training "can come from the company who holds the banner towing waiver, granted by the FAA, or a Certified Flight Instructor who is a banner tower. To clarify, a general private pilot may tow a banner if they have at least 200 hours of flight time." In short, the people of Seattle do not have direct power of the space above their heads.

Seeing the Geico ad above the controversial Polar Pioneer, however, reminded me that not only do petroleum corporations receive huge subsidies from the US government, but also car insurance companies.

Here is how it works: Basic auto insurance premiums turn out to be too low for the real costs of many serious car accidents. And what is not paid for by insurance companies is settled by the public. And the bill the public is left with is often huge. For example, Washington state requires a basic insurance policy that pays $25,000 for injury or death to one person, $50,000 for injury to more than one person, and $10,000 for damage to property. But an AAA study found in 2009 that the average cost of a fatal accident in American cities is around $6 million. (An injury-only crash is estimated to be $126,000.) And then there is this:

Jikaiah Stevens was left with more than just massive injuries — which include permanent brain damage — after being struck by a car at a crosswalk. A $141,760.24 medical bill now follows around the San Francisco hairstylist and photographer.
The driver at fault had little to no assets, so all Stevens can receive is $15,000 — the state minimum liability to cover bodily injury or death.

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The article in the San Francisco Examiner points out that "the total cost of pedestrian injuries in San Francisco was $75.8 million from 2004-08," and a staggering 76 percent of that was paid for by the public and the victim. In Washington, whose minimum for death or injury is $25,000, there were 436 fatalities from car collisions in 2013; 61 of those killed were cyclists and pedestrians.

The Seattle-based Transportation Choices estimated that between 1994 and 2003, car crashes cost King County $8 billion (PDF). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have the yearly cost of traffic accidents in Washington state at $665 million. Even more staggering are the numbers in a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It found, among other things, that the annual cost of car crashes in 2010 was $871 billion. And who pays for a lot of this? The public, of course. It also is telling that the solution AAA recommends is increasing safety on roads rather than increasing access to safer modes of transportation. (One study found that "transit travel has about a tenth the traffic casualty (death or injury) rate as automobile travel."[PDF].)

As if subsides for car insurance and oil companies were not enough, the brilliant "parking professor" Donald Shoup estimated just over a decade ago that parking spaces in the US yearly receive somewhere between $127 billion and $374 billion in subsidies. My point: Socialism has got nothing on American cars.

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