Carmageddon, Part I: The War on Pedestrians

2010 August 20
by Ando Arike

“Drivers can usually be expected to behave in ways appropriate for their own safety, but may not always have the same commitment to the safety of people outside vehicles.” — NYC Pedestrian Safety Study & Action Plan 2010, Dept. of Transportation

In the popular videogames Carmageddon and Grand Theft Auto, one way players score points is by running down pedestrians, whose bodies typically ricochet off the speeding vehicles in a burst of body fluids, guts, and lost limbs. No doubt this is great fun for the gamers—one imagines the peckers of millions of adolescent boys throbbing with bloodlust—but don’t you think there’s something pathological here? After all, innocent pedestrians—people walking along, minding their own business—are ridiculously easy prey for high-powered motor vehicles. Where’s the sport? The challenge? Maybe I’d understand if the gamers were whacking RPG-armed evildoers, but these are unarmed noncombatants—roadkill. Why is this so exciting?

The answer, I’m afraid, lies in the creepy symbiosis between automobile technology and the primitive violence-centers of the reptilian brainstem. Speed, aggression, sexual conquest, penile penetration, homicidal rage, suicidal daredevilism—these are all bound up in the “mystique” of the auto, as witnessed in so many real-life events and media fantasies. Transportation? Noooo, the auto is about much more primal human desires, a fact marketers and manufacturers have long known and exploited. Does anybody really need 300 horsepower? Or a two-ton Hummer? Again, no—but the feeling of size and throbbing power under the hood lends people a sense of importance that may be denied them anywhere else. That little wave of the hand drivers use to signal pedestrians it’s safe to cross the street in front of their cars—it means: “I could kill you but I’ve chosen not to—this time.”

And then there’s driver negligence—rooted in the fact that people in cars occupy different perceptual zones than those of us on foot. Surrounded by armor, peering at the world through glass, cooled by A/C, tuned to the radio, often chattering on cellphones—or texting, for chrissake—drivers are simply in alternate universes, blithely unaware of much that’s going on around them. Until, of course, they’re forced to slow down or stop. Then the Tantrum of the Imperial Self begins, rage building with every passing millisecond. “Get out of my way motherfucker or I’ll fucking kill you!”

As a long-time resident of NYC where only 45% of households own cars and the vast majority of people either walk, bicycle, or ride subways or buses to work, I am continually appalled that we devote so much space (40%) and psychic energy to enabling this sociopathic technology. In a city where the density and terrain is ideal for walking or bicycling, motorists and their accomplices in government (cf. Robert Moses) have done everything in their power, it seems, to deny pedestrians and cyclists their rights to basic bodily safety—the movement of auto traffic seems always to take precedence (remember when Rudy Giuliani erected cattle gates at midtown crosswalks?) We are supposed to accept as“facts of nature” the constant threat of injury, the daily intimidation by aggressive drivers, the blaring idiocy of cretins leaning on their horns at the slightest delay, and the ugliness of these steel, glass, and plastic boxes parked along our streets. But imagine for a moment a car-free city! Imagine how many of the drawbacks to city life would disappear with the exile of these abominable contraptions!

Now, at long last, as America’s love affair with the auto begins to seem like a sickness to more and more people—thanks to the dawning realities of global warming, peak oil, the collapse of the U.S. auto industry, and a consumer debt overload that places new cars out of reach for many—now, the tide may be turning in favor of pedestrians. One sign is the Bloomberg Administration’s release on Monday, August 16 of its 2010 NYC Pedestrian Safety Study & Action Plan, prepared by the NYC Dept. of Transportation (DOT). Both the study and the planned changes to our street infrastructure have the potential to be major tools for “winning hearts and minds” in the struggle against Auto Imperialism.

In what’s billed as the most comprehensive study of its kind, the DOT’s researchers analyzed the records of more than 7,000 car-pedestrian “KSI crashes” (i.e.,“Killed or Severely Injured”) occurring on New York streets in the last decade. Although this is only a fraction of the total KSI crashes in the last decade, the research paints a shocking portrait of the automotive violence reigning over our city, giving statistical weight to what most pedestrians and cyclists know through experience—that we are all potential roadkill, like the cartoon figures in Carmageddon. I’ll comment on some of the study’s main findings below:

• A“War on Pedestrians”? Isn’t that hyperbole? After all, these are accidents.

The way I see it is this: According to the DOT’s study, since 2001 more than 1400 pedestrians have been killed on New York’s streets, averaging around 160-170 per year. As of Aug. 19, 2010, the Associated Press counted 1,130 U.S. service members killed as a result of the 2001 invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. When troops are sent to war, we know some will die; likewise, when pedestrians walk around New York, we know statistically that 160-170 per year will get struck and killed. You see, the whole idea of “accident” becomes problematic when something is statistically predictable. If “random killings” is too strong, think of these KSI’s as “random sacrifices.” The point is that drivers, like soldiers, are rarely punished for for the blood they shed: A driver’s license is a license to kill.

• In the study’s words, “Private passenger cars dominate pedestrian KSI crashes, accounting for 79% of the total. Even in taxi-saturated Manhattan, only 16% of pedestrian KSI crashes involved a taxi or livery car. Similarly, trucks (4%) and buses (3%) only accounted for small proportions of pedestrian KSI crashes citywide. Since professional drivers depend on driving (and their vehicles) for their livelihood, they are highly incentivized to avoid crashes.”

To put this another way, between 2002 and 2006, taxis killed 44 and severely injured 727, while private cars killed 439 and severely injured 4,091. It is the amateurs who are most responsible for the bloodshed! And who are these amateur drivers? As the researchers put it, “The drivers that kill and seriously injure pedestrians are overwhelmingly male. 80% of pedestrian KSI crashes involved male drivers, while only 57% of New York City vehicles are registered to men. Per 100,000 population, male drivers in their 40’s are the most likely age to be involved in a pedestrian KSI crash.”

In most social realms (except warfare), when male aggression has translated into death and injury, we’ve heard loud cries from across the political spectrum for stricter, harsher laws, new ameliorative social programs, and new efforts to publicize and prevent violence against children, women, and so on. But while it’s obvious to all, and indeed, something of a cliche, that a pathological situation arises when many men get behind the wheel—in this case, total, funereal silence. Here, at last, in the DOT Pedestrian Safety study are public officials willing to broach the pregnant question: What is the connection between men and automotive violence.

• Among the most damning evidence of the pathology I’ve tried to describe is that 27% of fatal pedestrian crashes involved driver failure to yield to people crossing with the signal in crosswalks. Why isn’t this categorized as manslaughter?

• Driver inattention was cited in nearly 36% of crashes resulting in pedestrians killed or seriously injured. Were these drivers charged with negligent manslaughter or assault? Did the drivers see jail time? Probation? Heavy fines? We can safely assume that if anything, the penalty was a traffic ticket and higher insurance rates. I’ll say it again: A driver’s license is a license to kill.

• “Senior pedestrians (over 65 years old) accounted for 38% of all pedestrian fatalities and 28% of severe injuries, yet seniors only constitute 12% of New York City’s population.” Which is to say that some of the main victims of automotive violence are older people who don’t move fast enough across streets and whose age makes them more vulnerable to injury: roadkill. What does this say about American culture’s regard for the elderly?

• According to the study, most drivers are unaware that New York’s citywide speed limit is 30 mph. And yet, as researchers explain, a pedestrian struck at 40 mph is four times more likely to die than one struck at 30 mph; a pedestrian struck at 30 mph is six times more likely to die than one struck at 20 mph. Why, then, aren’t speeding more strictly enforced?

• Using a hand-held cell phone while driving is illegal in New York City; any type of cell phone use is illegal while driving a taxi. Thus, in 2009, the NYPD issued on average 617 summonses a day to drivers using hand-held cell phones, and during an announced 24-hour blitz on January 21, 2010, issued over 7000 summonses for this infraction.

But studies have shown that driving while using a cell phone is more dangerous than driving drunk. Why, then, are these drivers issued mere summonses, instead of having their cars impounded and being thrown into jail? Why aren’t they forced to undergo treatment for cell phone addiction?

• Friday between 3 and 8 p.m.—evening rush hour—is the most dangerous time to be walking the city’s streets. This is when 16% of pedestrian KSI crashes occur.

• Nearly 20% more pedestrian KSI accidents occur during the winter holiday season—the season to be jolly, huh?

Whatever one’s opinion of the Bloomberg Administration, its leadership in throwing light on our national automobile problem deserves praise. Cars have been a cancerous blight on American cities for more than half a century—now that the automobile’s future has been downsized, we need to use the leverage provided by reports like the 2010 NYC Pedestrian Safety Study & Action Plan to more quickly rid our streets of these obnoxious and deadly machines. A key project will be to demonize the autombile in the public mind, to instill a deep sense of guilt in drivers—in the way that the Hummer and other such obscenities have been made Politically Incorrect. Get the DOT study here. For starters, check out the section on having a speed bump installed on your street!

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