Saturday, June 12, 2010

Suicide by Automobile: the Overlooked Connection between Suicides and Motor Vehicle Fatalities

A car sits smashed outside Marina Towers after an apparent suicide jumper landed on it. (Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune)

Suicide by Automobile: the Overlooked Connection between Suicides and Motor Vehicle Fatalities

Hi folks, while suicide by carbon monoxide in a garage is a well known action, the use of automobile as a weapon upon self was not understood for quite a long time. Of course the news is filled with stories of suicide bombers, but this is a very different kind of act, not directed intentionally towards others. Here is the beginning of a study on the history of the subject.

Draft copyrighted 2010

John Heitmann

Department of History

University of Dayton

Dayton, Ohio 45469

While research on suicide has a long history, the motor vehicle’s complicity in suicides was not studied until the second half of the 20th century. It remained until the 1980s before this specific area was closely examined, theories proposed, and controversy followed.

During the late 19th century Emile Durkheim emerged as the first significant scholar in studying when, where, and why suicides took place and his work along with those who immediately followed pointed to some important “truths.” Contrary to conventional wisdom, it was found that more suicides happened in the spring than in winter, although more suicides did occur around the coming of the New Year and were more prevalent at the beginning of a month rather than the end. Yet, this body of work was totally divorced from any considerations about how the automobile might serve as a tool in a suicide attempt. It remained until the 1960s before researchers began to tie in automobile use or misuse with the self-termination of life. Until then fatal accidents were normally attributed to three main causes: speed, incompetence, or alcohol.

In 1960, Austin L. Porterfield published a seminal study "Traffic Fatalities, Suicide, and Homicide" in the American Sociological Review. Porterfield argued that there was a direct correlation between the rate of suicides and homicides in a given geographical area and motor vehicle deaths. Consequently, drivers living in a specific locus shared a mentality similar to those associated with suicidal and homicidal elements in the population. Porterfield concluded that "it may be predicted that drivers who have little regard for their own lives or the lives o others…will have higher rates of accidents than drivers who place a high value on human life." Basing his work on some sixty metropolitan areas within the U.S., Porterfield drew on previous studies on comparative mortality and uniform crime reports. Yet, self admittedly his work marked only a beginning, as he concluded that "further research…will need to incorporate case studies in accident prone drivers…class, educational, and vocational backgrounds." Put another way, the author ended by says that "if this comparison of suicide-homicide rates of death from traffic accidents stimulated further research, it will have served its purpose."

Austin L. Porterfield, "Traffic Fatalities, Suicide, and Homicide." American Sociological Review (1960): 897.

To be continued….

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