Autonomous vehicles will almost certainly precipitate an unparalleled reduction in traffic fatalities. And as someone who is deeply disturbed by the sheer magnitude of carnage our society is willing to tolerate for the sake of motorists’ convenience, I absolutely welcome this change. However, while Voltaire cautions us to not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good, we are at the precipice of an incredibly troubling convention to be embedded into the state of our transportation system. I am of course referring to Mercedes-Benz’s announcement that they will be prioritizing the lives of vehicle occupants over all other people using the street. I wish to explore the disconcerting implications of elevating the value of customers’ lives over those of bystanders, and moreover, the general decline in our collective ability to distinguish between moral and economic philosophies.
Moments after Transportation Alternatives’ Executive Director, Paul Steely White, opened the Vision Zero Cities conference by imploring the audience to regard Vision Zero not as a mere slogan, but as an achievable target, NYPD Commissioner, Bill Bratton, sullied the room’s enthusiasm by flatly stating that the goal, while laudable, was in fact impossible. The commissioner’s skeptical assessment, while disappointing—and as I will discuss momentarily, false—was ultimately unsurprising. But I would venture to guess that beyond the circles of activists, academics, and experts who better understand the nature of traffic violence, Bratton’s sentiment is largely shared by the general public. So long as people are walking, bicycling, and driving in close proximity to one another, won’t there always be the occasional confluence of circumstances that will tragically end in the death or serious injury of someone?
It is a hobby of mine to follow my hometown newspaper in order to stay in touch with those local affairs. However, to my great repugnance, I have read about one cyclist fatality after another. In the past month alone, there have been three human beings struck and killed by vehicles, the most recent of whom was killed by a woman with a suspended license. Yet no sooner does the ink dry on the reports of these tragedies than do apologists begin to hurl blame around to everyone but the one behind the wheel. And while it is true that tragic accidents do occasionally happen, what we see most often are not freak occurrences but deaths that were entirely preventable by the driver. But until we begin to hold drivers accountable for their manslaughter, I expect that we will continue to see article after article trying to make sense of why our neighbors’ lives have been cut tragically short. Here are some of the excuses that perpetuate the mindset that the driver can do no wrong.
“Cyclists are reckless, and therefore at fault for their own deaths”
The ‘victim blaming’ card is one that will require a little bit of nuance in order to understand it the way that I do. Every action that we take has consequences: some of which we can reasonably anticipate and others that we can not. All actions, however seemingly insignificant, carry risk. Although some risk may be negligible, everything we do undergoes some sort of internal cost-benefit analysis. However, even though some choices we make can lead us in greater or lesser danger, if an incident was to occur, it is never the fault of the passive party. For example, if I have two possible routes to walk home, and one is longer, but on a well-lit thoroughfare while another is shorter, but through a dark alley, the latter may carry a higher risk than the former. Yet however irresponsible my decision may have been and however much I could have potentially done to prevent it, if I were to get mugged, the fault would lie solely with the mugger. For it is he who perpetrated the crime even if there was conceivably something I could have done to lessen my risk. It is he who actualized my risk into consequence, and without him, my action, however risky, would have passed without incident.