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.