Thursday, July 22, 2010

Some Thoughts On The Meaning Of Justice For Our Roads

Responding to recent incidents and court cases has had me thinking a lot about what justice means, and what punishments are most fitting for crimes on the road. It's clear from observing cases locally, cases around the country, and past cases written about in books like Bicycling And The Law, that our system of road justice is broken. It is especially broken for cyclists who are often treated to a double standard under the law.

Downtown Streets

Jail time is the typical deterrent we assign to crime in our society. There is problem however when someone who sprays some paint on a wall, or smokes some pot, can get more jail time than someone who clobbers a person to the brink of death with an automobile and flees the scene. It's clear how we assign jail time is not always equitable to the damage the crime has caused.  But is jail time really the best answer for dealing with reckless drivers?

There are the occasional cases of a sociopathic deliberate act of violence using a car, where jail should not be a question, such as the Mandeville case, or David Jassy mowing down a pedestrian after kicking him in the head. However most tragedies on the road are the product of extreme carelessness behind the wheel, and not the deliberate intention to harm. Though they may realize their carelessness can lead to such harm.  Unlike other criminal behaviors, the endangerment to society created by reckless drivers is really only when those drivers are behind the wheel. Some people who might otherwise in their life be generally nice people, never steal or cause harm to others, can also turn into something quite sinister behind the metal and glass confines of the automobile. I still think Disney best parodied this social phenomenon in the animated short "Motor Mania". Tom Vanderbilt's book Traffic, which I reference often, explores driving from a more psychological and sociological perspective, and is an enlightening read on the topic.

So it would seem clear to me, the best course of action to address the problem of dangerous drivers, is to stop them from driving. Driving is not a right in this country, and hasn't been for a very long time. As the death toll grew and grew during the dawn of the motoring age, it became clear that driving must be made a licensed privilege to protect society. Despite the much slower machines and smaller numbers of vehicles on the road, the 1920's alone saw over 200,000 American deaths from automobile collisions (58,169 Americans died fighting in the 9 years of Vietnam for comparison). 60% of those road fatalities were pedestrians during that era. Today approximately 40,000 Americans die a bloody death every year on our roads. [Stats From Fighting Traffic]

In many public discussions of driving, the so called right to drive is invoked, but really there is no such thing. We must remind people driving is a privliage, and we must have a legal system that is actually willing to revoke that privliage when nessisary to defend the right to life and safety of other citizens.

So in conclusion, what I want to see most in the punishment of criminal drivers, more so than jail sentences, is complete revocation of driving for life with vehicle impound, in the most extreme cases. Suspensions and substantial fines in any serious cases, varying in length to fit the crime, with consideration to bodily harm that was caused. And finally the fine structure for all road crimes should be reconsidered. In our current system, a rich man with a fast car can speed, get a ticket, and not think too much of it. To them that's like a lift ticket for someone snowboarding, or comparatively speaking, much cheaper. Sliding income fine structures ensure a fine is a serious blow for any driver, while not being overly punitive on the middle class and poor.

Additionally we need to strengthen the means by which we keep suspended or revoked drivers off the road. There are plenty of cases of fatal collisions caused by someone who's license was already suspended after developing a deep record of violations that never amounted to much punishment. For this I would propose steep fines and jail time for being caught unlicensed that multiplied for repeat offense. There also needs to be better data tracking across state lines to ensure a driver doesn't hop around from state to state racking up offenses in different jurisdictions, one of the ways drivers get around suspended licenses.

It's also essential that we stop tolerating people driving around with dealer plates. License plates are an essential part of the accountability for dangerous vehicles on the road, and it is illegal to drive without a license plate or a valid temporary license plate card.  The incident a while back with the SUV driver who plowed through a group of cyclists, they had no license plate. Which emboldened them to be so aggressive with their vehicle. One of the witnesses said they heard the occupants say "no plates" during the altercation.

I was shooting photography in Santa Monica recently and got a photo of an SUV stopped at a light completely blocking the entire crosswalk at Ocean Ave. and Colorado. One of the most populated crosswalks in Santa Monica because of it's connection to the famous pier. I later zoomed into some of the photos, and surprise surprise, dealer plates with no temp sticker. What is it with all the bad SUV drivers with dealer plates? Start scanning for plates in any big parking lot and you quickly realize just how many people are rolling without accountability. Pretty scary.

An important component to successfully revoking and suspending drivers licenses, that is less often discussed, is the need to combine any such enforcement with education on living car-free. Some of us already live car-free out of necessity, or by choice, or have learned to get by with much less driving thanks to cycling and our growing public transit network. For those who could never afford a car, it was never a choice to learn how to get around without one.  For those of us who made a conscious decision to get by without a car, it's usually a transitional process. To suddenly lose the ability to drive is a shock, and those without a solid grasp of alternatives will sometimes cling to the steering wheel even if they aren't allowed to.

For many people, driving is thought of as the only way to get around, and our society raises the status of owning a car to being a necessity of living. To not drive is to be a failure in this cultural narrative. Though of course all of us living sucessful lives without driving know this does not have to be the case. I didn't realize until seeing some relatives playing board games during my recent vacation, that even in "The Game Of Life", your playing piece is a car. No car, no life, it is presumed.

So amidst this culturally ingrained perception it is essential to the success of any attempt to ban someone from driving, that education comes with that mandate. They could have a lesson on using public transit, ride-shares, and taxi services, with a take-away pamphlet with all the essential resources to get started in their area. They could take a course in road cycling from a certified instructor.  I can almost guarantee that anyone who comes back to driving from an extended period of cycling, walking and taking the bus, they will drive with a very different perspective of the road. The safest drivers I know are also people who ride bikes as a regular part of their getting around.

So as we take in the injustice of the system around us, and rightfully get pissed off about it, let's also start thinking beyond just the calls for justice, and start framing what real justice should look like.


Festoonic said...

You're right, of course, about the injustice and inequality cyclists and pedestrians experience under the law (which is same thing as injustice, I guess, or one facet of it). But consider whether bicyclists and walkers and runners and dogs and cats will ever enjoy the kind of political clout enjoyed by the the auto and marketing and petroleum and insurance and road-building industries and and and and... What possible shift in the cultural landscape could produce that transfer of power? It's apparent to me that despite the obvious moral and public health and even long-term economic imperatives for such a shift, the system in designed to prevent such a shift from ever occurring. The injustice all cyclists experience, then, isn't a error. It's the way things are built to work. It may change when the cost of gas gets high enough again, but please, friend, stop holding your breath.

Skip said...

I think license revokation should be part of the penalty structions for "minor" infractions like speeding and talking on a cell phone as well as more major ones. Even for a little as a month would serve as a wake-up call to the driver.

Community policing uses this principle. If people see there is a broken window in a building, they are more likely to break another. And the community suffers as people think it's okay to vandalize property. To take the car analogy, if they see people speeding along a road or acting careless, they are more likely to do it themselves. To solve the problem, police found that fixing windows and prosecuting vandalism was effective at reducing property crime. Let's apply this principle to driving as well.