It’s been a terrible week for pedestrians around here. On Tuesday alone, a woman was killed in an Oakland crosswalk by a hit and run driver, a woman crossing the street in San Francisco was killed by a city utility truck (she appears to have been in a crosswalk too), and yet another woman was critically injured by an SF Muni bus as she walked across a crosswalk. Then yesterday, two teenagers were hit by an SUV in Santa Rosa as they walked across a crosswalk, and one of them is critically injured.
Seriously, enough is enough! If it were swine flu or a defective Toyota part or al Qaeda which was causing this level of ongoing slaughter in the United States, then it would be considered a national crisis. When it’s stupid or reckless or inattentive drivers who are causing this mayhem, however, the problem is mostly dismissed with a shrug and the explanation that these are just “tragic accidents.”
I understand why these individual incidents don’t make big headlines. (The Oakland hit and run death was relegated to the “News Briefs” on page 6 of yesterday’s Oakland Tribune; homicides sometimes get the same treatment—when these tragedies become routine, then they no longer qualify as big news.) And I also understand, legally speaking, why drivers who hit pedestrians (or bicyclists) are rarely held responsible for their negligence—these are, after all, “just accidents,” as the police often say when they explain why no one is being charged in these cases. Despite what it may feel like when one is walking or biking around American cities these days, the overwhelming majority of automobile drivers do not actually want to hit anyone. And the fact that responsibility for all these pedestrian deaths and injuries is borne by a diffuse array of individual drivers, rather than a single entity like a car company or a terrorist group, makes it seem less like a systematic problem and more like a random set of unavoidable tragedies.
It is a systematic problem, however. I don’t know precisely what perverse set of historical developments got us where we are today, but the fact is that we as a society have taken most of our public space and turned it over to millions of absent-minded or distracted or careless people who are each controlling about a ton of fast-moving metal. In my opinion, this is completely insane. It’s no wonder that so few people walk anywhere in most parts of the country!
And not only have we turned over most of our urban public space to people in cars, but we then do a lousy job of ensuring that they drive responsibly. Any 16-year-old who can do a three point turn can get a license to kill—excuse me, I mean a license to drive. Drunk drivers, who are essentially broadcasting to the world the message that they do not really care if they take the life of another human being, are usually allowed to get behind the wheel a few months after getting a DUI—and we usually don’t even take their cars away, so these people who have already displayed a lack of concern for obeying the law and for other people’s safety can easily get behind the wheel and drive to their favorite bar again, suspended license be damned.
It’s not just pedestrians and bicyclists who are in danger from this absurd set of circumstances—we just happen to be the most vulnerable, since we aren’t ensconced in protective metal cages ourselves. Roughly 40,000 Americans die in car crashes every year, and many, perhaps most, of those crashes would not occur if drivers simply slowed down a little bit and watched where they were going. I don’t believe that most automobile drivers are more indifferent to human life than other people, but they just happen to be piloting very dangerous, fast-moving objects with minimal training. (Auden wrote that “indifference is the least/We have to dread from man or beast,” but if he had spent a few hours riding a bike around a modern American city, he might have changed his mind about that.)
It’s about time that politicians (aided by the police, prosecutors, etc.) undertook a serious effort to make people realize that recklessly endangering the lives of other people will not be tolerated anymore. Even baby steps would be a nice start, such as aggressively ticketing all the oblivious drivers who blithely cruise through intersections while people are in crosswalks, forcing the walkers to jump back to the curb—if the risk of killing pedestrians isn’t enough to make drivers pay attention, then maybe a few moving violations will start to do the trick.