By Ian Scharine
Last fall when 3rd District Court Judge Anthony Quinn was killed in Millcreek Canyon by a negligent driver, who swerved from his own lane and into the oncoming one, it received one day of news coverage and one newspaper column. “Jerry” the carriage horse which collapsed in the summer heat and later died garnered more than a dozen stories, news updates and continuing coverage in a sort of carriage horse martyrdom. Last month, Bryan Byrge and John Coons were struck and killed by a driver in the early morning hours while bicycle commuting to work. A week later the investigation continued with no charges. However the foremost local story is of a family dog killed in its own yard by a pellet gun.
The trend these stories demonstrate is one that indicates an increasing detachment in society concerning our attitude towards life, liberty and the pursuit of privilege. New York City’s newly elected mayor, Bill DeBlasio, ran on a campaign of zero traffic fatalities to address the rising concerns of increased accidents involving automobiles, pedestrians and bicyclists. The fact that many of these accidents result in death, maiming and severe injuries to the defenseless while drivers seldom get charged is an indictment of the level of privilege society has awarded motor vehicles: if you have a driver’s license you have a license to kill.
We live in a country which has spent the better part of the last 100 years converting itself to an automobile-centric society. The invention of the internal combustion engine liberated cities from the limits of slow-speed travel by horse and cart, “boneshaker” safety bicycles and walking as a means of transportation. Streets rapidly transformed into thoroughfares that favored motorized travel and laws adapted to protect cars from other cars with little regard to their non-motorized predecessors. By the end of the 20th century, the privilege of driving a car was so widespread that both the very elderly as well as the young and inexperienced shared the right to take to the road. The average American household at the end of the 20th century had a minimum of one car per resident of legal driving age.
Now as peak oil has been reached and the cost of fuel along with an epidemic of obesity has begun to persuade citizens to take to alternative forms of transportation, laws designed to address travel by motor vehicles struggle to account for the increasing consequences of auto accidents involving non-motorized usage of the roadways. Certainly it seems that the principles of the system regarding these sorts of accident has neglected the responsibilities that lie upon the drivers of 1-2 ton chassis of metal, rubber and plastic traveling at high speed. The game has been rigged for the same devices which are fouling our air quality and kill more individuals each year than cancer and gun deaths combined.
Just like any privilege established over time, the attitude towards change is one of resistance and even combative opposition. A quick perusal of public comments following articles about auto-bicycle accidents reveals not only a blatant disregard towards the rights of non-motorists, but startling contempt and animosity towards the rights of any other non-motorized vehicle traveling the roadways. So much for the “if it bleeds it leads” philosophy in newsgathering; individuals traveling by foot or by bicycle are appointed a status lower than that of the common domestic pet or carriage horse. Adding to the perception that bicyclists place themselves in harm’s way are the minority of riders who consistently ignore traffic laws and ride recklessly, placing their own safety in jeopardy. This perception overlooks the majority of automobile drivers who engage in this practice to a greater degree through not only poor adherence to traffic laws but increasing distracted driving habits.
It took 100 years to get to this state of inequality between motor-driven vehicles and everyone else; we cannot allow 100 more to address the rising concerns of fatality on our roads. Driving a motorized vehicle may be an ingrained aspect of American society and the world at large, but responsibility to hold everyone accountable on our roads is paramount to the convenience of getting from point A to point B in an efficient manner. We must pressure legislators and lawmakers to treat every individual equally under the laws and on our roads, and not relegate bicyclist and pedestrians to second-class citizens as they are treated today.