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Our ‘accidental’ car culture

Posted by on June 15th, 2007 at 1:03 pm

What does the word accident mean?

A mistake, but not just any mistake — not an action, but an outcome both unintended and unavoidable, something no reasonable person could have predicted or prepared for. The word is commonly used to describe bad things happening to good people from natural causes — the proverbial banana peel, a sudden strike of lightning, a verbal misunderstanding, a small child’s lack of control — and car crashes.

One of these things is not like the others.

It’s no secret that an automobile is a dangerous plaything, and an even more dangerous weapon.

News headlines hit us with a daily barrage of death and destruction wrought by car crashes. The New York City-based Streetsblog has a “Weekly Carnage” feature that keeps an unofficial running tally of the devastating impact of cars (so far in NYC, car crashes have claimed 289 lives this year). Everyone knows someone who has been in a serious crash.

It is inaccurate to the point of delusion to speak of these constant life-changing and life-ending events as unavoidable, unpredictable acts of God, or worse yet, “accidents”.

“It is inaccurate to the point of delusion to speak of these constant life-changing and life-ending events as unavoidable, unpredictable acts of God, or worse yet, “accidents”.
– Elly Blue

But the word is automatic. As this astonishing snippet from a story in the New York Times shows, automobile violence is seen as such a natural part of life, that even the most malevolent, purposeful acts can be classed as accidents.

It is extremely clear that the recent death of Timothy O’Donnell was no accident — it was caused by the negligence (if not recklessness) of the speeding driver who failed to yield to his group. Yet the Beaverton Valley Times, in an otherwise sympathetic piece, repeatedly described the crash as an accident.

Even in cases when individual blame is less clear, it is neither accurate nor productive to class car crashes as accidents. All the conditions leading to a crash — the social acceptability of driving while drunk or on the phone, the normalcy of speeding and road rage, the design of cars that limits drivers’ ability to see pedestrians, cyclists, and smaller cars, the fact that you simply don’t need to be a very good driver to get or keep a license — all are causative.

“We can reinvent our relationships with each other in the streets and other public spaces, but only through vision, intention, and commitment.”
– Elly Blue

We have a culture of car use which has been predominant for hardly more than 50 years — yet we see automobile transportation as such a natural part of our social landscape that we don’t see — or worse, that we see and don’t give weight to — the dangers inherent to our reliance on it.

We need to take a long, hard look at our culture of driving. Why is it so easy to get — and keep — a driver license? Why is learning to drive the most important rite of passage for our teens? Why is it a cultural imperative to go as fast and as far as we can, as often as we can? Why have we built our communities around driving, stranding those who cannot, should not, or just don’t want to drive a car? Why are our laws and cities built around promoting and supporting this culture of driving, to the detriment of all other options?

Passing the Vulnerable Roadway Users bill will be a start towards shifting our thinking. But it’s only a start. We can reinvent our relationships with each other in the streets and other public spaces, but only through vision, intention, and commitment.

What are you going to do?


More editorials from Elly Blue can be found here.

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33 Comments
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    Fred June 15, 2007 at 1:25 pm

    I agree 100% with Elly, in the majority of the cases car drivers are reckless and in many cases they\’re actually trying to hurt someone. Unfortunately the police have an agenda, they\’re going to protect auto drivers and look the other way while we get slaughtered. The only thing we can do is stand up to the cops and the car drivers and let them know we\’re not going to be victims any more.

    The Vulnerable Roadway Users bill is a start, but what we really need to do is change the law so that we can call these \”accidents\” what they really are, MURDER. Anybody who kills a biker while driving should get the minimum sentence someone convicted of murder would get. THAT would make the streets safer for us, and maybe get some of those idiots in cars off of the road!

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    wsbob June 15, 2007 at 1:34 pm

    \”it was caused by the negligence (if not recklessness) of the speeding driver who failed to yield to his group.\” Elly Blue

    Or, possibly callous indifference. Callously indifferent is even worse than negligence or recklessness. How much of the irresponsible behavior people demonstrate on streets and roads might we attribute to this state of mind?

    Yes, I believe that because of the specific dynamics surrounding motor vehicles, it has become reflexive to associate all motor vehicle collisions as accidents. There\’s lots of benefit of the doubt given to any question of a MV operator\’s competence to be behind the wheel, as long as they can pass the drivers test.

    I feel like much greater scrutiny must be placed on a potential MV operators ability to function, beyond basic observance of traffic laws and the operation of a vehicle, in a reliably safe manner behind the wheel.

    Anybody intending to qualify for a driver\’s license should be obliged to demonstrate appropriately related mental, psychological competence and also dispostion as a condition of receiving the license.

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    Mark C June 15, 2007 at 1:41 pm

    Lots to think about. I agree that \”accident\” is a misleading term. Maybe we should use \”collision\” instead. Whether talking about bikes, cars, or heck, event airplanes, most collisions or crashes aren\’t strictly accidents at all, but the result of some operator error somewhere.

    The Tim O\’Donnell incedent has been on my mind all week and the more I think about it the more upset I get. I did not know Tim personally, but I was also out riding with Portland Velo last Saturday (in a different group) and this hits a little close to home. I regret that I won\’t be able to show up at the service this afternoon as we are heading out of town, but my thoughts are with his family and friends.

    Personally, I can\’t wait until we move beyond the \”car culture\” and all of the negative environmental and social impacts that go with it. Don\’t get me wrong, I feel single-occupancy vehicles have their place, just not the dominant place they occupy today. I think when our current car dies we\’ll try and not replace it, and instead rent one when we really need it.

    Have a safe weekend everyone.

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    David Dean June 15, 2007 at 1:49 pm

    I don\’t understand how breaking the laws of the road and killing someone isn\’t considered \”reckless.\” I don\’t understand why negligence and recklessness are considered mutually exclusive and why prosecutors feel their hands are tied with existing laws:

    http://www.oregonlive.com/news/argus/index.ssf?/base/news/1181937290248320.xml&coll=6

    Here is what the law says:

    811.060 Vehicular assault of bicyclist or pedestrian; penalty. (1) For the purposes of this section, “recklessly” has the meaning given that term in ORS 161.085.

    (2) A person commits the offense of vehicular assault of a bicyclist or pedestrian if:

    (a) The person recklessly operates a vehicle upon a highway in a manner that results in contact between the person’s vehicle and a bicycle operated by a person, a person operating a bicycle or a pedestrian; and

    (b) The contact causes physical injury to the person operating a bicycle or the pedestrian.

    (3) The offense described in this section, vehicular assault of a bicyclist or pedestrian, is a Class A misdemeanor. [2001 c.635 §5]

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    David Dean June 15, 2007 at 1:56 pm

    Fatal Accident Suspension

    (1) DMV will use the following definitions when determining whether to issue a suspension order under ORS 809.417(3):

    (a) \”Criminal negligence\” is as defined in ORS 161.085(10) which states \”that a person fails to be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the result will occur or that the circumstance exists. The risk must be of such nature and degree that the failure to be aware of it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the situation.\”

    (b) \”Incompetence\” means driving in a manner that indicates lack of ability or fitness to safely operate a motor vehicle.

    (c) \”Recklessness\” is as defined in ORS 161.085(9), which states \”that a person is aware of and consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the result will occur or that the circumstance exists. The risk must be of such nature and degree that disregard thereof constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the situation.\”

    (d) \”Unlawful operation\” means driving in a manner that would constitute commission of a traffic offense as defined by ORS 801.555 and includes any traffic offense under any federal law or any law of another state, including subdivisions thereof, that substantially conforms to a traffic offense as defined by Oregon statute.

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    Andrew June 15, 2007 at 2:06 pm

    More than a decade ago, the CDC injury prevention center \’banned\’ the word \’accident.\’ Anyone there who used the word was supposed to fork over a quarter. Reports on vehicle injuries all began saying \’crash.\’ The steady decline in vehicle deaths over the years is evidence that crashes are not accidents: they are the result of circumstances which are often preventable.

    Through enforcement and education, the Vulnderable Users act would help change attitudes about what \’everybody does\’ on the road.

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    David Dean June 15, 2007 at 2:25 pm

    Except accidental also means unintentional Focusing on the definition of accident will simply lead to a debate on semantics.

    We need to elevate what seems considered normal negligence to criminal negligence when there is a fatality involved.

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    Fred June 15, 2007 at 3:09 pm

    We need to put some real teeth into the punishment though, life in prison or maybe even the death penalty. We\’ve got to make these people hurt if we\’re going to be safe out there.

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    VR June 15, 2007 at 3:22 pm

    David, great point.

    I feel that we use \”accident\” to mean \”not intentional\”. Not to divert blame.

    No one doubts that woman who killed O\’Donnell was fully responsible, and negligent in her actions.

    But did she set out to murder someone? Did she see the cyclists and rev her engine and purposefully run them down?

    Not that I am aware of.

    She made a terrible mistake, a terrible error in judgement. One that she should have to take full responsibility for. And given that she had a suspended license, possibly she was prone to make mistakes.

    And we should absolutely keep those people off the roads.

    What I try to teach my children is that just because it was \”accidental\” does not make it OK. It simply means that you need to work on measures to prevent that from happening, and if you can\’t yoy might lose some privileges. You don\’t get away with just by saying \”it was an accident\”. But intent does play into how the situation should be handled.

    I want to see less car use, and I want to see more driver training and accountability. We should train and test car drivers like we do airplane pilots.

    But that doesn\’t mean that people who had accidents intended to hurt someone.

    But I agree that \”crash\” or \”collision\” is a better way to describe them.

    I also agree that who cares what we call it? We need to get them to stop happening.

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    VR June 15, 2007 at 3:28 pm

    Fred, I would prefer to focus on prevention rather than punishment.

    If there was no criminal intent, malice per say – then there is no justification for life imprisonment, death penalty or the like…

    Those people have families as well, and very often the remorse and knowledge that you killed someone is terrible to live with. What would putting them to death benefit? It would only ruin their families lives…

    Most events like this happen in a flash, a quick flash of one instant of poor judgement.

    I don\’t care what ANYONE on these forums say – we ALL have made errors in judgement, and most of us have done so while driving a car. Any one of us could be in either position, so I suggest we think long and hard before throwing out words like \”death penalty\”.

    But we seriously need higher bars for drivers… It should not be a \”right\” but I fear that is what it has become…

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    Fred June 15, 2007 at 3:32 pm

    VR: You don\’t know that there was no malice, in fact she probably saw them taking up \”her\” road and decided to put a little scare into them. Most drivers truly are out to get us, putting a few in the electric chair for murdering a cyclist is something I support. If it\’s not an accident then there should be REAL consequences. I think Elly would agree.

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    Greg Raisman June 15, 2007 at 3:47 pm

    The intent question is intersting. Would you call it an \”accident\” if someone got lung cancer after smoking for 20 years? Certainly, they did not intend to get lung cancer.

    Just as their behavior increased the chances of getting lung cancer, the manner in which we operate on the roads increases or decreases the chances of having a crash. We have ownership over these events. It\’s not out of our hands as \”accidents\” tend to be.

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    Elly June 15, 2007 at 3:54 pm

    If what you mean by REAL consequences is the electric chair, then no hell no, don\’t put my name on that.

    If you mean real accountability among the living, we can talk. The Vulnerable Roadway Users bill takes a stab at that with its intensive education and community service, and the requirement to go to court and face the family of the person you\’ve killed.

    The next bill the bicycle lobby backs in Salem ought to instill the same sense of responsibility and awareness among people who haven\’t had a chance to cause a tragedy yet. More intensive license testing, testing again each time you renew your driver license, comprehensive ban on cell phone use while driving, lower speed limits, and I could go on…

    Oh yeah, and laws aside, let\’s make it so people don\’t HAVE to drive. We should be even more concerned with the conditions leading to 40,000 roadway deaths a year as with establishing blame and intent in tragedies that do occur. I wish I\’d done another draft of this column to make that point clear.

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    Martha S. June 15, 2007 at 3:56 pm

    That was a truely excellent piece of work. I am seriously tempted to print it out about a thousand times and put them under windshield wipers, in varrious papers, and just spontaniously hand them to people. …Would that make me an evangelical cyclist? 😛

    But truly, that was wonderful. I\’m going to show it to some friends and family. Thank you Elly!

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    Fred June 15, 2007 at 4:07 pm

    Elly,

    It just doesn\’t make sense to recognize that these people are WILLFULLY murdering cyclists and at the same time let them off with a comparative slap on the wrist. For these people facing the family of the victim doesn\’t mean much. They should be treated the way other murderers are treated, 20 years, life, death penalty. These people are guilty of real crimes and they\’re NOT accidents. It\’s about time we treat them like real criminals and throw the book at them.

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    bicycledave June 15, 2007 at 4:09 pm

    Semantics do matter. The words we use to describe things influence the way we think about them. If we want to influence other people it is important that we choose our words carefully.

    There\’s no need for us to insist others use our words, but when we call it a crash or a collision consistently it will help change the way others think about it.

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    VR June 15, 2007 at 4:12 pm

    You don\’t know that there was no malice, in fact she probably saw them taking up \”her\” road and decided to put a little scare into them. Most drivers truly are out to get us, putting a few in the electric chair for murdering a cyclist is something I support. If it\’s not an accident then there should be REAL consequences.

    Whoah!

    I am not sure this would help earn the love or respect of any motorists.

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    Phil Hanson (a.k.a. Pedalphile) June 15, 2007 at 4:23 pm

    In fact, most automobile \”accidents\” are unintended consequences resulting from extreme inattention, incompetence, carelessness, or indifference–there\’s nothing accidental about them.

    Raising driver skill–and awareness–levels is paramount to avoiding loss of vehicle control and the collisions that often follow. An intensive 2-year training period (conducted by qualified certified driving instructors) for beginning drivers, and rigorous testing/retraining of already licensed drivers would mark the beginning of a steep decline in automobile-related fatalities.

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    Fred June 15, 2007 at 4:23 pm

    VR:

    Who says we need to earn the love and respect of motorists? They\’re the PROBLEM, they\’re killing us! Do we try to earn the love and respect of rapists? No! We send them to jail to rot. These are not accidents! The last thing we need to do is kneel before motorists and beg them to stop killing us.

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    Elly June 15, 2007 at 4:37 pm

    Fred, I\’ve used a car before and suspect you have too. Let\’s keep the conversation on a productive and civil level. If you want to get more off your chest, feel free to email me. Thanks, Elly

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    felix June 15, 2007 at 4:42 pm

    I am in too good of a mood to let Fred\’s angry rants get me down. I had this big huge thing typed up then thought, wait, why just add to being on of the assholes out there and add to people disliking bikers.

    If anyone was to read this site who was thinking about getting into biking they would most likely be turned off by all the Jerks posting these rants.

    \”Most drivers truly are out to get us\”

    Give me a break!

    Have a good weekend everyone, now get off the internet and on your bikes!

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    Jonathan Maus / BikePortland June 15, 2007 at 5:16 pm

    Felix,

    Please don\’t refer to other commenters as jerks and/or assholes. let\’s focus on the issue at hand and not let this devolve into personal attacks.

    thanks.

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    SKiDmark June 15, 2007 at 5:33 pm

    It\’s not just \”her\” road VR, it\’s ours too. You really need to read the Oregon Revised Statutes.

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    SKiDmark June 15, 2007 at 5:36 pm

    Sorry VR, you didn\’t say that. My apologies.

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    wsbob June 15, 2007 at 6:19 pm

    I agree with Greg Raisman (12) that the intent question is an interesting one, but also one that can be very difficult to know even presented with many facts. So for the moment, we\’re inclined to speculate. Did she set out to kill the cyclist? Who knows for sure, but probably not. More likely is that she just didn\’t particularly care what happened to him as long as it couldn\’t be directly connected to obvious irresponsibility in her operation of the MV.

    I disagree with VR on the following point:

    \” I don\’t care what ANYONE on these forums say – we ALL have made errors in judgement, and most of us have done so while driving a car. Any one of us could be in either position,…\” Elly

    While it\’s important to keep matters in perspective, and yes we\’ve all made errors in judgement, etc, etc, it\’s a gross exageration to unconditionally claim that any one of us could be in the position of the driver of the killing car. I\’ve said in past that there are some homicidal maniacs behind the wheel, but most people, despite periods of frustration and anger while driving, have at least some regard for the welfare other people sharing the road. Most people would not be the operator of a vehicle in a situation that led to the particular kind of incident that this one was.

    I do agree with VR though, that prevention rather than punishment should be the focus, for the reason that after the fact…death, it\’s all a little too late. Forget the electric chair. Just take these people out of their car and make them walk to where they need to go. Then after a few years of that, let them start riding a bicycle.

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    crallspace June 16, 2007 at 10:19 am

    I have been getting more vocal with those who almost hit me.

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    Disco D June 16, 2007 at 2:16 pm

    Some disturbing stuff in this thread. I think most of us agree that if you wanted to commit murder and do little/no time in prison mowing them down in your car would be a good way to go. However, that is a far cry from everyone driving a car who is involved in a collision with a cyclist being a stone cold murderer. You know sometimes it is actually the cyclists fault too right? Be careful when casting such wide nets…

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    Greg Raisman June 16, 2007 at 3:26 pm

    I certainly did not mean to insinuate that the driver was somehow out to kill a cyclist. That kind of banter lacks credibility for me. What I was saying is that she elevated the risk of a crash by engaging in unsafe driving. Speed, unsafe passing, etc. When you engage in these types of behaviors, you increase your chance of a crash. Crashes are predictable and preventable — often a result of behavioral decisions. Accidents are more or less \”acts of God\” that we have no control over.

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    Anonymous June 18, 2007 at 3:53 pm

    Elly, thank you for writing this article. It inspires so many responses, but I think I will focus just on one short one: the drivers license issue.
    I grew up in Germany, and it is not half as easy to get your drivers license there as it is here. You have to go through driving school (which usually costs about a couple thousand $$) and then you have to do an extensive written and driving test (not the 10 minute around the block that you do here). My family and friends always jokingly said that I got my DL out of a cereal box, because it was so easy & cheap (when I moved here.)
    I think that if people want to be able to drive, they should have to spend a good chunk of $, and get educated about safe driving.
    Another thing: in 4th grade, the police comes around for a two week session of bike riding and traffic laws and no kid is allowed to ride on the road, unless they have passed the test for bike riding in public.

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    Jessica Roberts June 19, 2007 at 6:14 pm

    Just stumbled on this \”Traffic Justice Initiative\” from the National Center for Bicycling and Walking. I think we\’re reaching a tipping point of demanding safer streets for all. If safety is a fundamental metric for if a street is broken or fixed, then bicycles and pedestrians win, but it\’s framing the question in a way that may reach many more people than self-identified cyclists and walkers.

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  • […] history. It refers to the annual 1.2 million dead and 50 million injured as “victims of accidents,” hedging “the number of accidents in which pedestrians bear a grave responsibility is […]

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    alta j July 2, 2007 at 10:24 am

    why do we say a pedestrian or bicyclist was hit by a car??? the truth is that they were hit by a motorist who was driving a vehicle. we need to change that bit of language, too.

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    Randy December 22, 2010 at 7:19 pm

    The driver who caused this accident was already suspended, proving herself unworthy of being a driver. Should she have been thrown in jail at the same time? Let’s institute laws that penalize people before they commite a crime, like in the film Minority Report. I also see several calls for death sentences of the driver for causing a cyclist’s death. I hope you folks are as equally passionate for the death penalty for other offenders in society, such as murderers, rapists and child molesters. Otherwise, you’re just another special group calling for special laws for their special selves.

    I am not against cycling, as I also ride when I am not driving, but I do not feel that I belong to a special group of people and call for laws to persecute other road users, who, by the way, pay for those roads in the first place with all of their various taxes. You people are calling for such things as “two years of intensive training” and harsh/stringent requirements for car drivers, when any idiot can hop onto a bicycle and claim a share of the road. Fine, I simply expect them to be courteous as well and share the road and obey traffic laws, such as stopping at red lights and stop signs and not hogging a lane by riding abreast. Selfish jerks are already selfish jerks before they get behind the wheel or climb onto a bike, and it shows in they way they operate their car or bike.

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