Monday, 31 December 2012

A car crash, Sandy Hook and the limits of freedom

My BlackBerry takes really poor pictures -
but somewhere in there are an upturned car
and a bunch of firefighters

“Bang! Boom-boom-boom-boom.” The successive thuds I heard from my apartment’s kitchen one Tuesday night two-and-a-bit weeks ago sounded out of the ordinary, even for an area where subway maintenance, truck movements and any number of other things are apt to create noise. When I then heard the wails of multiple emergency vehicles, I knew something was seriously amiss. Reporter’s instincts awakened, I headed out to the street, to find a car overturned further up the block. The driver had come down neighbouring Court Street too fast, according to people who’d seen it, misjudged the turn into our street and somehow flipped the car. The driver, who by now was in police custody, had seemed very drunk on getting out – mercifully unhurt – from the car, onlookers told me.

The incident could easily have qualified as the biggest event of my week had it not been for the events of the Friday. Just as I remember working in the Edinburgh newsroom of The Scotsman in 1996 when news started coming through of a shooting at a school 35 miles away in Dunblane, I found myself that Friday following reports of an incident at a school 75 miles away in Connecticut. Once again, I experienced the gut-jolting realisation that this incident, far from being a run-of-the-mill, local tragedy, was on a scale that would grab the attention of an aghast world. Whereas the Dunblane massacre killed 16 children, the one in Connecticut had killed 20.

The crash and the Newtown shootings might, at first blush, look unrelated. They are certainly of contrasting gravity. The car crash dented a few vehicles and led to the driver’s arrest. The Connecticut shootings killed 20 children, seven adults and culminated in the shooter’s suicide. But they both ultimately raise the same questions – ones that apply both to road-users and gun-owners – about the limits of individual freedom. It’s an issue that I confront every evening as I cycle a few blocks on Court Street amid cars that no-one restrains from driving at grossly excessive speed. It extends all the way to my worries about my own children’s safety in their own elementary school, where “shelter drills” train them how to react if a dangerous intruder is on the loose.

Midtown Manhattan in winter sun:
not self-evidently a city built by stupid people
It certainly makes a difference to my perspective that I’m writing in the United States, where I moved in August, rather than the United Kingdom, where I had been living for nine years. It’s fashionable in Europe to sneer at some of the US’s freedoms – particularly when it comes to gun ownership – as if they were merely factors in a general national craziness. Why, patronising European voices ask, doesn’t the US just ban guns? The tone of the comments often carries undertones of the ultimate European sneer - that the people of the world’s richest, most successful country are either collectively a bit stupid or morally bankrupt.

Yet there is something profoundly valuable about many parts of the American constitutional system – and one of them is undoubtedly the Bill of Rights’ guarantee of certain freedoms. Only the most unbending critic of the United States could fail to be impressed by how the country’s constitution and democracy have flexed to deal with successive historical challenges. The system has adapted to stitching the US back together after the civil war, national mobilisation for the second world war, the cold war and the civil rights movement. Many constitutional rights – including the rights to free speech and freedom of assembly – have come under attack at the times of the worst strain. It has surely been part of the US’s successful negotiation of these crises that the rights have largely survived intact.

Nor is there something unique about US politicians’ willingness to sacrifice the lives of vulnerable citizens in the name of other people’s freedom. The day that Philip Hammond was appointed the first transport secretary in the current UK government, he vowed to end the “war on the motorist” – shorthand for a series of measures that included the introduction of speed and traffic-light cameras at the most dangerous accident blackspots. The gradual withdrawal of funding for such successful safety measures has been accompanied by a slow but steady increase in the number of motorists, pedestrians and cyclists thrown fatally into the air by speeding vehicles, crushed under trucks’ wheels or bleeding slowly to death amid the wreckage of their cars.

These cars were all free to drive over the Brooklyn Bridge on
Christmas Eve - so none of them was free to cross it fast.
There is a similar fear in many countries of the world – including the Netherlands and United States – about introducing distance-based charging for road use. Nearly every transport economist knows that only a direct charge for road use, varying according to the time of day, can tackle most rich countries’ congestion problems. Yet the only country so far to have introduced a national scheme to charge for using the busiest roads is Singapore – which uncoincidentally suffers an acute shortage of land, allied to intense relaxation about restricting individual freedoms.

Even on guns, the shocked insistence of some US politicians that citizens must be able to retain guns for hunting, self-defence and other legitimate uses is not unique. I remember vividly the controversy when the Duke of Edinburgh, the queen’s husband, insisted after the Dunblane massacre that proposed bans on the ownership of certain kinds of handguns were an unfair imposition on sportsmen. He asked whether, if someone had burst into a school and beaten 17 people to death with a cricket bat, the government would also legislate to ban them. The obvious point that guns’ capabilities set them apart from other potentially deadly weapons passed the Duke, like so many US gun lobbyists, entirely by.

Yet I remain instinctively suspicious of any freedom that is predominantly exercised by the well-off and already free at the expense of their poorer, less-free neighbours. US advocates for gun-owner freedoms tend to be overwhelmingly white and relatively rich. Even in a country with car ownership as high as the United States, the heaviest users of cars - and those of whom the politicians are most fearful – are the better off. Anecdotal evidence around New York suggests that the pedestrians paying the price for uncontrolled car use are disproportionately people like Maleka Begum, a 54-year-old mother of three, originally from Bangladesh. Ms Begum died after a bus hit her on a pedestrian crossing in Queens in October, in an incident that witnesses attributed entirely to the bus driver’s poor driving.

A speed-limit sign by the Brooklyn Bridge.
Most people accept in theory that
speed limits are a reasonable restriction
on freedom - for other people, at least.
The truth is that even the keenest advocate of the freedom to drive a car or shoot a gun ultimately depends on some curtailment of those rights. Motorists share roads with each other, cyclists like me and pedestrians. If everyone were given pure freedom to drive anywhere at whatever speed they liked, with no price restrictions to curb demand, gridlock would quickly set in and the accident rate soar. Even the US’s National Rifle Association would surely eventually tire of the arms race if, for example, anyone in the US who wanted it could arm him or herself with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, depleted uranium rounds or – why not? – biological or tactical nuclear weapons. Drivers depend on the police’s restricting the rights of the worst drivers to drive, while gun-owners ultimately rely on the state to prevent their finding themselves outgunned by fellow citizens toting battlefield weapons.

The question, consequently, isn’t whether to impose curbs on drivers’ ability to speed drunk down Brooklyn streets or to hold large caches of deadly, high-powered weapons. It’s where to set the tipping point between their rights and others’ rights to protection from them.

It’s my powerful conviction, based on my own experience of trying to bring dangerous drivers to account and witnessing the toll of gun crime in the United States, that the emphasis in recent years has fallen far too heavily on protecting the drivers and gun-owners. Some of the clearest evidence is how cowardly many countries’ police forces and legislators have become about enforcing even existing, sensible rules. There are, for example, no speed cameras in New York City, even though excessive speed seems to be a factor in many fatal crashes. Astonishingly, background checks on those planning to buy weapons are not enforced at gun shows, which as a result account for a growing proportion of gun sales. Eagerness to safeguard drivers’ and gun-owners’ rights is slowly but surely toppling over into a lawless free-for-all.

The barriers in the way of better, more effective enforcement of road rules are at least relatively minor, both in the United States and elsewhere. Properly-framed laws or police procedures could re-energise the effort to catch drivers that, for example, speed through busy junctions or ignore red lights. In the US, the constitution’s strangely-worded second amendment, with its guarantee for the right to bear arms, stands in the way of change. It’s not a right that I personally would have chosen to enshrine in the constitution. But it’s not an amendment that’s going to be repealed or changed in the foreseeable future.

As a result, my modest proposal would be that gun-owners should be subject to one new obligation that already faces drivers – and that seems to be reducing deaths on the roads. The owners of the cars that the drunk driver on my street hit could at least be confident, it occurred to me afterwards, that the driver had – or should have – comprehensive insurance. The families of Sandy Hook’s dead will know the guns’ owner carried no comparable insurance. It’s a grotesque mismatch that the owners of vehicles that kill people as a byproduct of their use are forced to insure themselves, while owners of purposely-designed killing machines are not.

An insurance scheme would continue to facilitate the kinds of gun use that the NRA says it supports. A hunter who keeps a shotgun or bolt-action rifle locked up in his study would present only a modest risk and need pay only modestly to insure against it. A woman who wanted to keep a semi-automatic rifle with a large magazine and two powerful handguns unsecured in the house with her 20-year-old would probably face a prohibitively high bill, however.

Insurance companies’ risk assessments already seem to be playing a role in reducing road accidents. The costs of insuring the youngest – and most dangerous – drivers appear to be preventing them from taking up driving until they are older, and safer.

My proposal would not, of course, solve everything. Criminals would continue to pass around powerful, illegally-held, uninsured weapons. Ill-intentioned or unhinged people might still manage to steal or otherwise misappropriate the weapons needed for horrific massacres. But it would, I think, reduce the chances that, one day, it might be my children and their teachers facing an angry young man who has found weapons powerful and destructive enough to express his anger, rage and despair. As such, the curtailment of freedom involved seems to me a very modest price to pay.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Washington, a stabbing - and why an individual cyclist tells you nothing about the rest

Washington, DC surprises me every time I visit. While New York feels just as bustling, large-scale and chaotic as the films and TV programmes would suggest, the US’s capital feels nothing like the West Wing. Sure, there are people influencing the whole world’s fate in lots of those neoclassical buildings – but Washington’s atmosphere most reminds me of other sleepy US administrative capitals like Richmond, Virginia or Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Washington, DC: provincial to me
- but full of cycling savages according to one Facebook user
During a visit last week, it nevertheless occurred what an advantage it was that Washington seemed a far calmer place than New York to ride a bike. The cyclists I saw during the visit mostly seemed to be riding sedately, calmly and in general harmony with other road users around them.

This was, however, entirely the wrong conclusion, according to at least one person I know. On Friday evening, two days after I came back from my DC daytrip, a Facebook friend commented on a story about an altercation between a cyclist and a motorist in North-West Washington the night I visited. The motorist appears to have somehow alarmed the cyclist, who responded by hitting the driver’s car with his D-Lock. The ensuing argument ended with the cyclist stabbing the motorist, who suffered rib injuries but looks likely to survive.

“Savages,” my Facebook friend commented. “Civility is an alien concept,” someone else replied in agreement. The clear implication was that I, as a cyclist, was complicit in an appalling, entirely unjustified assault of a kind I would never have contemplated.

My immediate instinct was to launch into an argument, pointing out the fatuousness of jumping from a single, knife-wielding cyclist to the implied generalisation – all cyclists are savages. Concluding that I was unlikely to change clearly entrenched attitudes, I limited myself to “unfriending” the person responsible.

But, as I cycled home that evening, a more mature reflection occurred to me – one sparked in part by the controversy in the UK over the inflammatory “War on Britain’s Roads” documentary. If it made no sense to draw a conclusion from a single stabbing - or the misleading footage of an alleycat race in the documentary  - to cyclists’ general behaviour, why did I feel free to criticise in general the culture of driving or the police? Was I making any more sense than my former Facebook friend?

One possible response to the “cyclists are savages” claim would, of course, have been to point to some of the numerous incidents of motorist-cyclist violence. In the space of a year of cycling in London, I suffered one actual – albeit mild – assault and had to make an emergency call to police to avert another. The first incident involved a bus driver who abandoned his bus – and passengers - to confront me because I’d photographed him blocking, illegally, a cyclist-only area at traffic lights. He smashed the mobile ‘phone I was using as a camera out of my hand. The second incident came as I tried to photograph a motorist I’d previously seen deliberately drive across the path of a cyclist who’d complained about his driving. He threatened – alarmingly convincingly - to smash up both me and my camera.

The most pertinent case I could have raised, however, was the stabbing in September of Colin Albright, a cyclist in Pittsburgh, whom a motorist pursued as he carried his bike away from a road up a set of steps. The motorist stabbed Albright repeatedly, including in the throat, possibly over some perceived slight involving a traffic incident.
You might have prejudices about people who make strange
transport choices - like skateboarding down Sixth Avenue.
It doesn't mean you know anything about this individual skateboarder.

Albright’s case would have been pertinent precisely because it illustrates the absurdity of generalising from something extraordinarily rare – a stabbing over a disagreement on the roads – to the generality of day-by-day on-road relationships. In late October, Anthony Scholl confessed to attacking Albright. Scholl was already in custody over an alleged attempt to burn down his parents’ house. While there is little information so far on Scholl’s motive for stabbing Albright, the alleged arson attempt seems to have been aimed, in Scholl’s mind, at preventing his parents from killing him and feeding him to their (presumably imaginary) pet alligator.  Albright’s stabbing also looks likely to have stemmed from what Scholl’s mother has called his “psychological issues”. It seems similarly unlikely that the appalling Washington stabbing will turn out to involve an ordinary, mentally-balanced cycle commuter who just happens to pack a knife to mete out summary justice on uppity drivers.

That anyone could ever have thought the Washington stabbing had anything to do with broader cyclist behaviour, of course, stems from humans’ powerful desire to pin blame for problems on out-groups. The only thing so far known about the Washington motorist’s assailant is that he was on a means of transport against which large numbers of people have powerful prejudices. Few people have the mental self-discipline to avoid working on the basis of such limited information and their prejudices to jump to wholly unwarranted conclusions.

It’s telling, for example, that hardly anyone blames the antics of bank robbers’ getaway drivers purely on their being drivers. Drivers are too numerous and familiar to act as convenient out-group scapegoats. No-one sought to blame the assault I suffered or the threatened assault merely on the perpetrators’ status as motorists. I received, instead, some close questioning about the immigration status of the bus driver and the race of the man who threatened to assault me. Establish a link to immigrants or African-Caribbean men, the implication seemed to be, and the incidents were far more easily explained away.

A cyclist, cars and pedestrians at 55th Street. Which of them
is a "savage" will be in the  eye of the beholder
The prejudices are all the more powerful for not appearing to the prejudiced to be prejudices at all. Have your eye out for poor cyclist behaviour in Washington and you’ll spot instances of such behaviour, rather than the courtesy and calm I witnessed. Assume the main road problem is the cyclists and you’re unlikely to spot the multiple ways motorists misbehave.

The truth is that, in each of the incidents I’ve described, the attacker acted as an individual, rather than a member of a group. Their behaviour stemmed from their own character or mental state, rather than their status as cyclists, motorists, bus drivers, immigrants or anything else. To imagine that the behaviour in a single instance of a single member of a large group has anything to say about the wider group as a whole is a thinking error of a kind that would be shocking were it not also fairly common.

That point could, of course, lay me open to the objection someone recently made in an online forum to my use of statistics to point out that cars generally posed a far greater danger to pedestrians than bikes. That was beside the point, the poster wrote. Each motorist or driver differs so much that it makes no sense to discuss a general level of risk from motorists or cyclists. A very poor cyclist could conceivably pose a greater danger to a pedestrian than an extremely careful, conscientious motorist. I am perhaps particularly vulnerable to such a charge because of my habit of illustrating points on this blog by reference to specific – usually extreme – incidents that I take to illuminate a wider truth.

Yet I have, I hope, been careful when complaining about general problems to have sought evidence that my experience reflects some wider truth. It remains a verifiable fact, for example, that motorists kill a disproportionately high number of other road users in both the UK and New York City. Collisions with cyclists in both places account for a far lower proportion of road fatalities than cyclists make up of road traffic. Research in New York suggests motorists’ failure to yield as required to pedestrians is the biggest single cause of road deaths. Research in the UK suggests failure on motorists’ part to pay attention causes a disproportionate number of crashes.
Court Street at night. Just because most motorists speed here
doesn't mean they all do.

It makes sense on such a basis to say there is a general problem with motorists’ failure to yield to New York pedestrians or to pay proper attention in the UK. I am even confident enough in my own judgement to diagnose a few more local, unmeasured problems. There is, for example, a general problem that many motorists regard Brooklyn’s Court Street as an appropriate place for excessive speed and not somewhere where cyclists’ requirement for space on the roads need be considered. It just doesn’t make sense to predict on this basis that the next motorist one encounters on Court Street won’t be a model of caution, courtesy and respect.

I feel acutely sorry for the victim of the Washington stabbing. His experience last Wednesday must have been appallingly frightening. I trust the District of Columbia police will swiftly identify the attacker and bring him before the courts. I wish the victim a swift and smooth recovery. But I also devoutly hope that no-one in future will make the lazy and offensive mistake of imagining any of what happened had anything to do with me.