A modest proposal: Towards a eugenic theory of traffic safety
Let's be honest about our society's unwritten moral calculus on traffic safety.
I used to drive a car regularly, but I sold my car about seven years ago, and now only drive on very rare occasions. I wish I could say that it was due to some kind of self-improvement or "moral awakening," but alas, the truth is that it was just a loss of nerve. Call me too easily excitable, but for me it's stressful enough worrying about getting killed myself, without adding to that the constant stress of worrying about killing someone else. And based on everything I read about accident statistics for experienced cyclists, the way I figured it, I was really not more than marginally increasing the former worry, while almost totally eliminating the latter. So the truth is, it was a totally selfish decision on my part, and I've largely not regretted it.
In the United States, we seem to specialize in "traffic accidents." Forty thousand deaths a year. I've long since lost count of how many accounts I've read about in my lifetime. We are all inured to the daily carnage. Once in a while, though, something shocks us out of our general state of numbness: the death of someone we knew personally, a close brush with death ourselves, etc. Or even suddenly waking up to this moral callousness all around us -- and in ourselves, which is the kind we are least likely of all to ever see.
One thing I've marvelled at: how very rarely does a news account ever fail to seek some "explanation" for the "accident" as if to make sense of it, usually chalking it up to some mistake or other by someone! There is almost always a search for a party "at fault" to whom we can assign the blame, and if the victim was not themselves encased in steel, the search becomes still more urgent and all the more likely, curiously, to look for ways to assign the fault to them. Unless of course it was an act of God, like a highway bridge collapsing in Minnesota. I think this serves some morale boosting purpose, but at the same time, there is something very very sick about it. There is a moral calculus at work that seems to say: "You see, so-and-so was foolish. It's a pity. But what can one do?" So long as someone is always "at fault," we can all each and everyone absolve ourselves of our collective moral responsibility for participating in a system of transportation that so casually imposes the death penalty on a moment's inattention or foolishness on someone's part.
I know firsthand the operations of this moral calculus, because I once came very close to playing the unplanned role of casual, summary executioner of the "foolish." It was just three or four years before I sold my car, and I was still driving it regularly. It was a cold, dark night in San Diego. I was driving down a little hill and out of nowhere a figure stumbled out of the shadows and straight into my path. Despite putting on the brakes as fast as I could, I still could not avoid the sickening thud of human flesh against metal. It was one of the most shocking and horrifying moments of my entire life.
Upon jumping out of the car and approaching the man I hit, I quickly discovered that, aside from a limp, he seemed ok, but I was very worried that he might have broken bones or internal bleeding, or some other not immediately obvious injuries. I offered to call him an ambulance or take him to the hospital myself but he said he wasn't interested. It quickly became obvious that the man was exceedingly drunk, and probably homeless, and I became...relieved. Not because I knew he was ok, not because he didn't seem especially upset with me, but because I knew the moral calculus, the one that discounts the pain and suffering and taking of another's life, provided "they were foolish." Undoubtedly, he was a drunken fool who had stumbled right out in front of my car. No cops would ever arrest me for it no matter what I had done to him.
Again, though, once in a while we are shocked out of this little moral calculus, and discover within ourselves a certain outrage, perhaps. Such as when, in the wake of the deaths of several cyclists here in Portland, some of the more extreme types posted very unwitty jokes to online discussion forums in places like craigslist as to how the "fools" had it coming -- and some more darkly even welcoming and relishing the opportunity to be that "summary executioner" of the foolish to which I referred, and that I almost was.
Which brings me to my modest proposal. Perhaps these people are on to something. Perhaps it would serve our own moral regeneration and healing better to be really honest and upfront about our little moral calculus. By what rights, after all, do we go about feeling morally superior to people who carry our usually unspoken but always tacit reasoning about "fault" to it's logical extreme? Therefore, in the interest of honesty, we should simply make explicit our logic. We could call it a "eugenic theory of traffic safety." It would work like this: anytime you see anyone make a "mistake," break the law, or do anything that somehow foolishly makes them vulnerable to death on our roadways, you are immediately conferred momentary legal impunity for killing them, an instantaneous "license to kill," at least for that moment and with that individual. It would be a remarkably refreshing honesty on the part of our society to simply codify this bloodlust for all to see. There was an expression for this in another country once where such a concept was actually officially implemented once upon a time: "unworthy life."
Then, and only then, once we've sunk down fully and honestly into the depths of our moral depravity, will we have the opportunity to see it for what it is, and to come to the realization that the "right to life" applies not just to the "unborn," as some think, but even to the living! Yes, even that foolish old drunk I ran into had a right to live! He had a right to expect and demand that I take every last effort in my power to protect him, and not to kill him, despite his foolishness! And it is but a very small step then to understand that he had a right to live in a society where people like me do not casually adopt modes of transportation that so lightly assign a de facto death penalty to a moment's inattention or foolishness. From my personal responsibility it is but a small step to understand our collective moral responsibility, to ourselves and each and every one of us. Tomorrow, I could be that person who stumbles. What madness have we wrought here!!
Which brings me to my new mantra I want to share with everyone: When a motorist kills or injures, the motorist is always wrong. Always. They were wrong the moment they stepped into the car, or even before they stepped into the car. They were wrong when they spent their tax dollars and disposable income on a mode of transportation that assigns such a cheap value to human life. I was wrong the moment I failed to do every last thing in my power to create a society where that drunk man would not have to potentially suffer the death penalty for his foolishness just so that I could enjoy a quiet ride in the car.
So I suggest to motorists, consider yourselves "always wrong." That would be a salutary step in the right direction. And be goddamned careful not to compound your wrong. Because remember how I said that I was not morally superior to you, how I chose not to drive for purely selfish reasons? Well, it remains true. And the truth is, I'm not a more careful driver than you, really (other than the fact that I drive so very rarely now that I'm hypervigilant about it when I do, but that would quickly wear off if I drove regularly, like you do).
So I would like to suggest to the lady Friday night on SW 10th near Burnside who ran me out of my lane "not seeing" me, despite my being lit up like a Christmas tree, and to the man who nearly t-boned me on NW Broadway a little north of Burnside, a few hours later around midnight: Watch it! Because if you don't start getting a lot more careful, my own little risk calculation I mentioned in the beginning could change. And then I might just start driving again. Please don't run me off the roads on my bike, because I will be back in my car. And that really wouldn't be good for your safety or your friends or loved ones, even if I were the best, most careful driver around, which unfortunately, I'm not.
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