How we look at crashes

This startling and sad article from Streetsblog NY and the accompanying video (WARNING: graphic video) about someone who drove his car onto the sidewalk and maimed five children who were walking to school highlights the pervasive problems of vehicular violence and the problematic default responses to it in our society.

In a nutshell those problematic responses are

  • Deflecting blame away from the guilty party
  • Blaming the victim 
  • Minimizing the tragedy

Our tendency to deflect blame can be seen in the language used in mainstream reporting like this from the NY Daily News, starting with the headline: "SUV plows into 5 students — 3 of which were rushed into surgery with multiple fractures — after vehicle jumps curb outside of Queens school” no mention of the driver in that headline.

Apparently the SUV was demonically possessed like something out of a Stephen King novel. 

Blaming the victim is another common reaction. As observed in this DNA Info NY article about the crash, the principal of the school, Camillo Turriciano made a woefully misguided attempt to address student safety after the crash by sending all parents a letter telling them to forbid their children from wearing headphones on the way to school. (For the record, no articles or video indicate any of the children involved in the crash were wearing headphones at the time of the crash).

Since the driver was a parent dropping off his kids at school, a more appropriate response would have been a letter reminding parents to drive slowly, safely, and without distraction when dropping students off and picking them up. Additionally, now might be a good time to engage in their local Safe Routes to School Partnership to develop safer pick up and drop off procedures, if they haven’t already.

Minimizing is also a common reaction in reporting and coverage of crashes like this. In this case, the coverage of this particular crash does seem to do a pretty good job of indicating the severity of the injuries. Often, though, we read that the cyclist or pedestrian suffered “non-life threatening” or “serious” injuries, or was “hospitalized but is stable.”

The problem with this is that a “non-life threatening” or “serious” injuries can be anything from a sprained ankle to a crushed pelvis. “Hospitalized but stable” can mean severed spine and permanent paralysis.

Unfortunately, that was the case in this crash. The injuries sustained by these children included multiple fractured vertebrae, a crushed pelvis, multiple fractures, burns and multiple lacerations. These are lifelong injuries which will change the course of these children’s lives, and their only recourse for reparation is likely to be liability insurance.

A quick Google search reveals that New York state insurance requirements may provide as little as $75,000 per injured party. Given the gravity of these injuries, it’s not hard to imagine 75K being used up very quickly. 

And finally, much is made about the fact that the District Attorney Richard Brown is not (at the time of writing this) considering a criminal prosecution. And even worse, no ticket has been issued.

The issue of criminal prosecution is complicated, as the burden of proof when establishing criminality is so high for crashes and DAs realize that juries are most often drivers themselves and likely to be sympathetic to defendant drivers, and that they are often extremely reluctant to devote resources to prosecuting all but the most egregious of traffic crashes as criminal prosecutions.

DUI resulting in fatalities, fatal crashes that happen during the commission of a crime, crashes that result in the injury of a police officer — these are the types of crashes that DAs will typically pursue criminal charges around. The rest are usually punted to the realm of insurance for “justice.”

We don’t need to send every driver who makes a mistake to prison for decades, but we do need better investigations after crashes. We need a return to a system of laws that put more accountability on drivers and we need systems in place with regard to enforcement, legislation and within the judiciary that recognize traffic crime as “real” crime that exacts a real toll on society.

Chicago ghost bike image courtesy of Eric Allix Rogers. 

Criminal justice

Thank you for sharing this article Jason, and for continuing to raise awareness and push Illinois DAs to apply the law. Reckless drivers who injure defenseless people (whether riding, walking or driving) must face criminal justice.

Amen.

Amen.

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