Monday, 24 November 2014

A 1980 crash, a rushed hearing - and why paradigms keep trumping facts

It was an experience in April 1980 – when I was ten years old – that first forced me to confront people’s thinking and expectations about road safety. I’d left my primary school in Glasgow without my homework and, on arrival at the flat across the road where I went after school, remembered and turned around. But, as I crossed back, a car that had come round a bend in the road hit me, and threw me up in the air. I wasn’t badly hurt when I landed but the impact must have been significant. One of my shoes landed in the back garden of the substantial house on the other side of the street.

Over the next few days, I encountered the complexities of people’s reactions. There was, of course, sympathy, as one would hope a 10-year-old would receive under such circumstances. But there was also a pursed-lip terseness to some adults’ solicitousness. They clearly regarded the whole thing as the inevitable outcome of my careless crossing of the street. Their view wasn’t, I think, based on the crash’s circumstances but on their expectations of how such things worked. Something in their head – a paradigm – told them that if I’d been hit it must have been my own silly fault.
The street where the Invisible Visible Man - then the Invisible
Visible Boy - was hit by a car 34 years ago. Adults sucked their
teeth at his negligence. But the streetscape changes hint
at the wider cause. (c) Google Streetview

My mind’s returned to that childhood experience this week as I’ve been pondering how ordinary people, the police and news reporters respond to road crashes far more serious than mine. Many of these events, it seems to me, are filed just as quickly as my crash was into convenient, easy-to-understand categories. Police officers, I suspect, start off with a similar paradigm to the one I faced 34 years ago – that pedestrians’ and cyclists’ mistakes, not cautious, respectable motorists, tend to cause crashes. Reporters overseen by under-pressure news editors all too easily fit events for their readers into even simpler, more misleading constructs.

One recently-publicised case shows such paradigms’ ability to overpower the truth. New York news outlets in October last year cited police sources as saying Allison Liao, a three-year-old, had “broken away” from her grandmother in a crosswalk in Flushing, Queens, before Ahmad Abu-Zayedeha drove over her in his SUV. The phrase “broke away” conjures up images from road-safety films of a child’s heedless breaking away from a parent’s grasp. It suggests a freak event – or negligence on the part of the grandmother or little girl – that Abu-Zayedeha could not have been expected to anticipate. The phrase is such a cliché that it ought, in retrospect, to have alerted readers that it was based on false assumptions.

Footage from another vehicle’s dashboard camera showed Abu-Zayedeha in fact simply drove his vehicle through the crosswalk oblivious to the presence of Allison and her grandmother, who had right of way and were holding each other’s hands. The truth, however, contains none of the satisfying closure of the “broke away” version, which suggests the event is simply a sad, unavoidable tragedy. There’s nothing to satisfy the reader’s curiosity about why such a horror should happen – no obvious sign of the driver’s using his telephone or acting deliberately. There isn’t an easy narrative to fit the many pointless, avoidable crashes that arise from drivers’ impatience and inattention while carrying out simple manoeuvres.

It's a long shot - but this NYPD driver
may not spend a lot of time questioning
the paradigms behind his thinking
about street safety.
Yet the recognition that the minds of all involved – the police, reporters and drivers – are falling in line with paradigms suggests a route towards achieving better understanding of such events. It’s vital, it seems to me, that road safety advocates start countering misleading stories about crashes’ causes still more quickly and aggressively than they do at present. Only when unspoken assumptions are spoken and revealed for myths will new, more accurate paradigms emerge. It’s imperative to recognise that narratives about crashes are built around pre-existing templates, rather than constructed afresh for the facts of each incident.

A change in the narratives might encourage police and prosecutors to act – and discourage future poor behaviour. Abu-Zayedeha has faced no criminal charges for his extreme negligence. Even the two traffic violations he faced were dismissed, after a hearing before a Department of Motor Vehicles hearing that Radio WNYC last week revealed lasted just 47 seconds.

In my own crash, I remember for sure that the school crossing guard – “lollipop lady,” in British parlance – had left by the time I arrived. I also recall letting pass a car heading in the other direction from the one that hit me. I’ve little idea why I then missed the one coming from my right – but there was a slight bend in the road and cars on either side. I used to tell myself that the driver – a driving instructor, on his way to a lesson – was speeding.  But I think I’d have been more seriously injured if the vehicle had been going faster than the 30mph speed limit.

The truth of the crash is probably that the road, with its 30mph speed limit, no permanent crossing and parked cars obscuring the view, was simply a hostile environment that was intolerant of an incautious driver and my momentary lapse. A check on Google Streetview reveals that the site now has a raised pedestrian crossing. Many of the parking spaces that obscured mine and the driver’s view of each other have been taken out. There’s a 20mph speed limit around school times. Those all seem to me like retrospective recognition that the tooth-sucking adults 34 years ago were putting too simplistic a construction on events.

But humans take minutes or hours, rather than decades, to reach their conclusions on many crashes’ causes. The simple paradigms in many people’s heads keep pushing them, it seems to me, towards some strikingly misleading conclusions in that period.
The foot of the Manhattan Bridge bike lane, near where
Matthew Brenner was hit: a confusing place, but not one
where people deliberately take suicidal risks.
In one recent case, for example, the New York Police Department announced shortly after Matthew Brenner, a cyclist, was fatally injured in a crash near the Manhattan Bridge that he had been cycling against the traffic down Sands St – a street supplied with one of the city’s best segregated bike lanes – when hit. The explanation made sense only if one always frames such incidents in a mental construct that says cyclists regularly take suicidal risks with their own safety.

I expressed scepticism in the comments below an online story about the narrative, only to be criticised by other commenters to the point of abuse. Further investigation and video have nevertheless suggested Brenner – who had previously worked as a cycle courier in Washington, DC - appeared confused about how to reach one of the area’s bike lanes and was hit by two separate vehicles. The simplistic early version was indeed based on invalid, improbable assumptions.

Another more recent tragedy shows how the neat paradigms in police officers’ heads distort their efforts to assign culpability for crashes. On November 15, a man driving an F150 pick-up truck with a raised chassis and illegally tinted windows killed Jenna Daniels, a 15-year-old jogger, in a crosswalk on Staten Island. The police almost immediately told reporters that they were blaming the crash on Daniels’ crossing the street outside the marked crosswalk at the site. They had ticketed the driver for having illegally tinted windows, they said, but these played no role in the crash.
An F150 at the Detroit auto show: imagine a raised chassis
and tinted windows - and ask yourself if you'd assume such
a vehicle's design played no role in a fatal crash.

It takes extraordinarily powerful mental biases to reach those conclusions based on the available facts. The poor young woman, after all, was hit at least close to a crosswalk, by a driver whose vision must have been impaired not only by his vehicle’s height and size but by an illegal window tint. Only a very strong urge to blame pedestrians for crashes and exonerate drivers could immediately exculpate the windows and the driver.

Yet, as a newspaper reporter with more than two decades’ experience, my concern about the paradigms at work doesn’t stop with the police. I note their effect just as strongly in the work of journalists. The failure of reporters to interrogate their police sources about their improbable versions of events has certainly made life easier for the district attorneys, police officers and others who want to go with the easy version of events.

It’s perhaps less obvious to a non-reporter how those stories must reflect priorities coming from elsewhere in the news organisation. It’s clear to me, for example, that news editors regard many stories about traffic crashes as a minor matter, worthy of only a brief story. It’s hardly surprising that the stories often feel rushed and only partially researched. Reporters are inevitably under pressure to write such stories quickly and move on to the next. It’s impossible by its nature to contact a dead victim or one who’s in a coma to see if he or she agrees with a biased police investigator’s account.

A pedestrian tries to cross Varick Street, in Manhattan's
West Village. The intersection's badly designed and cars
behave badly around it. But, if something happens to him,
you can be fairly sure what the paradigm in the police's heads
will be telling them about whose fault it was.
It will be even less apparent to anyone who’s never worked in news how hard it can be to write a story that doesn’t fit a readily-understood paradigm. Even the shortest story needs some kind of narrative if it is to satisfy readers’ curiosity. It’s far easier from a news editor’s point of view to frame a story like Allison’s death as an inexplicable, unpreventable tragedy than to try to tie up the loose ends of the events in question.

The “inexplicable tragedy” version of road crashes also has the significant advantage – especially in England and Wales, which have appallingly restrictive defamation laws – that it tends to blame a dead or unconscious victim. A dead person can’t sue a newspaper. A driver accused of negligence certainly can.

That tendency to pick conveniently on the dead to simplify the consequences of their deaths for those still alive is, incidentally, one of the coldest, most cynical parts of the whole process.

It's far harder, however, to kill off a misleading paradigm than it is to kill a vulnerable road user. The paradigms in news editors’ heads were some of the last holdouts of last century’s outmoded ideas on sexual identify, domestic violence and a host of other issues. The paradigms about how to write about race, crime, immigration and a swathe of other issues continue to distort reporting. It is hardly surprising that few reporters currently care enough or are well-informed enough to counter their editors’ entrenched views of “common sense” views of traffic issues.

The paradigms in police officers' heads, meanwhile, can literally kill people. It's hard to imagine that, if Darren Wilson, the Ferguson, Missouri, police officer, hadn't had fixed views about the behaviour of his town's black people, he wouldn't have felt it necessary to kill unarmed Michael Brown in August. It's hard to imagine that police views about the likely behaviour of people in Brooklyn's Pink Houses didn't contribute to a police officer's shooting of Akai Gurley, an entirely innocent young man, last week in East New York.

54th St & 8th Avenue, Midtown Manhattan:
it's a chaotic environment - yet I never doubted
when I rode it daily I'd get no sympathy from
the police if a driver ran into me
Yet none of this is intended as a counsel of despair. Campaigners against domestic violence, drunk driving and countless other social scourges have changed the media narrative through sheer persistence. Street safety activist groups can adopt similar tactics, raising quickly after every crash the legitimate questions that police and news organisations currently fail to raise. The questions need not even be very specific to the individual incidents. The stories about Matthew Brenner’s fate and Jenna Daniels’ death would both have been improved by a simple reminder that research shows motorists - not the victims - cause most crashes involving cyclists and pedestrians in New York.

It is likely, no doubt, to be an uncomfortable business for activists used to running positive, non-confrontational campaigns to start taking such a stance. The resources to find people willing to put in the hard work will be hard to find. There could easily be resistance from police, media organisations and those responsible for causing crashes.

But substantial changes can take place. After all, as I sat on the kerb of that road in Glasgow waiting for an ambulance and wondering where my shoe was, nobody queried why a road past a school lacked a crossing, good sightlines or a lower speed limit. No-one now, I fancy, would tolerate the then-conditions on that road. If, heaven forbid, there are still crashes as horrendous as the one that devastated Allison Liao’s family three decades hence, the reporting should be just as different.

There are, goodness knows, multiple problems with rich-world countries' justice systems, societies and the way people write about them. But the conditions that led first to Allison’s death, then its misreporting then its mishandling by the legal system are undoubtedly among them. They must be recognised as lazy, complacent, obscene assumptions that obscure the truth of appalling tragedies.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Canadian terrorism, an Alphabet City hit-and-run - and the dehumanisation of the streets

It’s one of the excitements – and stresses - of my work that from time to time I have days like October 22. I found myself at the end of the day going to bed in a city – Ottawa – and a country – Canada - that at the start of the day I’d had little inkling I might visit soon.

Canada's parliament, the morning after the rampage
I was sent to the Canadian capital because of the shooting dead earlier that day of Nathan Cirillo, a Canadian soldier who had been on guard at Canada’s national war memorial. The gunman responsible – who seems to have been an Islamist jihadist – then ran into the Canadian parliament building, firing his gun. The parliament’s sergeant-at-arms and others shot him dead. Many streets were still closed when I arrived and the lockdown of parliament hill – imposed in case there was more than one gunman – hadn’t been entirely lifted.

However, an aspect of the stories I wrote over the ensuing few days struck me especially strongly because of my interest in safe streets. The shooting caused particular concern because it came only two days after another attack in which Martin Couture-Rouleau deliberately drove his car at two Canadian soldiers in a car park in Quebec, killing one, Patrice Vincent.

The immediate, unequivocal – and justified – condemnation of Couture-Rouleau’s act made me reflect on why in New York and some other rich-world cities even clearly deliberately dangerous driving often attracts far less censure.

The temporary press pass that got me into parliament in
Ottawa. I heard unequivocal condemnations of Martin
Couture-Rouleau's behaviour - of a kind I'd be surprised
to hear for Jose Henriquez's similar act.
The point resonated with me all the more because in the days before heading to Ottawa I’d been thinking about Jose Henriquez. Mr Henriquez was irritated that a cyclist took the lane ahead of him one day last year, on a narrow street through Alphabet City on New York’s Lower East Side. He then deliberately rammed him from behind, according to reports of witness accounts. He sent the cyclist tumbling over his bike’s handlebars and head-first into the road. He drove around the cyclist – who was injured but survived - and fled.

Just before I went to Ottawa, Steve Vaccaro, the attorney for the victim, announced the district attorney for Manhattan – Cy Vance – had dropped all assault charges against Henriquez. His only punishment will be a $250 fine for leaving the scene of an “accident," as the law deems this assault.

Both Henriquez and Couture-Rouleau had deliberately used their cars to ram other, vulnerable human beings with the intention of causing them injury or death. Couture-Rouleau’s act was worse for having been premeditated, politically motivated and having led to the victim's death. But it was far from clear why one act was roundly condemned in the Canadian parliament and the other treated as little more serious than a technical parking violation.

Pedestrians cross the 1st Avenue bike lane, with the light.
I'd like to think I'd never again cut off a pedestrian crossing
late - but I fear I might.
The two acts, I came to realise, lay on a continuum of deliberate bad behaviour in traffic. It starts with the kind of pre-meditated murder that Couture-Rouleau carried out but goes down as far as acts in which even I find myself engaging. I occasionally start riding when the traffic light turns green even when there’s a pedestrian crossing against the light still in the crosswalk. I do it mainly because I know the pedestrian will hold up motor vehicles and hence represents a chance for me to get a head-start on the accelerating drivers. But I know my practice also reflects my irritation with the way some pedestrians cross when I’m near the front of a line of traffic. I see some looking at me, appearing to calculate, “It’s OK – he’s only a cyclist,” and striding out.

Couture-Rouleau’s attack has, it seems to me, far more in common with other bad behaviour on the roads than might initially appear. To carry out his attack, he will have had mentally to demote Warrant Officer Vincent from being a human being with thoughts, feelings and relationships to a mere symbol of what he wanted to attack – the Canadian military. Jose Henriquez was presumably engaged in a similar mental process when he deliberately accelerated his car behind the stopped cyclist – as witnesses attest he did – and drove at him. The cyclist must have shifted from being a fellow human being into being a mere obstacle, something that could be struck with impunity.

Henriquez's behaviour is certainly not especially unusual.

In 2011, a London bus driver abandoned his bus full of passengers, got out to confront me and smashed out of my hand the phone with which I was recording him. My offence had been to take a picture of him blocking the cycle box by a set of traffic lights.

Some years before that, I was involved in an incident very similar to the one that faced Henriquez's victim. I swore at a motorist that was following me dangerously closely down a street in Brixton, South London. I let the car pass me at the next break in the parked cars but he stopped immediately after passing me. The passenger jumped out to confront me and told the driver to reverse at me.

"We'll be coming for you with a gun next time," one shouted as they drove off after I took shelter on the pavement (sidewalk, American readers).
The floral tributes by Canada's Cenotaph sum up the horror
at the events I covered. Politically-motivated violence
retains - rightly - a capacity to shock that deliberate
traffic violence seems to have lost.

I’ve had many drivers deliberately manoeuvre across my path in irritation that I was in front of them, been dangerously tailgated many, many times - including when with my children - and suffered more times than I could possibly recount passes so close they were clearly meant to send a message. I imagine that most regular commuter cyclists have similar experiences to recount.

I’m also confident that far more fatal and serious crashes involving cyclists and pedestrians have a genesis similar to Henriquez's case than is generally acknowledged. It’s luck rather than the perpetrators’ judgement that none of the incidents I’ve suffered led to serious injury. It must seem far more acceptable in a police interview room to say one didn't see the pedestrian or cyclist one hit than to admit one deliberately drove at the victim out of irritation.

Nor are there clear boundaries to the behaviour that results from this mental dehumanisation of other people on the roads. It’s emerged during the past week that New York’s Department of Motor Vehicles has voided the traffic tickets that were issued to Ahmad Abu-Zayedeha for running over Allison Liao, a three-year-old, as she walked through a crosswalk in Flushing, Queens, in October last year. Video from another driver’s dashboard camera clearly shows that Abu-Zayedeha turned fast and negligently through the crosswalk and cannot have looked properly. He continues to insist, despite the evidence, that Allison broke away from her grandmother, who was accompanying her, and that the collision was unavoidable.

News of the DMV’s action has brought back to my mind a mental picture of Allison’s father at a protest I attended last year to call for better street safety. He stood quietly at the back of the crowd, weeping and holding up a picture of his daughter, as Amy Cohen, mother of Sammy Cohen-Eckstein, described her grief over Sammy, her 12-year-old son. Sammy had been killed only a few weeks before on Prospect Park West in Brooklyn.

It is impossible to imagine that Abu-Zayedeha could have driven as he did – or reacted as he appears to have done since – if he had been fully aware of the humanity of the people he was putting at risk by paying so little attention.

A speeding BMW driver hit and killed Nicholas Soto, 14,
at this corner in Red Hook in June. It wasn't terrorism
and wasn't deliberate. But it surely wouldn't have happened
if the driver had fully recognised Nicholas' humanity.
Yet the failure so far of any law enforcement or licensing authority to take any action over Abu-Zayedeha’s behaviour – and the Manhattan District Attorney’s dropping of the assault charges against Henriquez – illustrate the nature of the problem. Law-enforcement authorities in many countries seem almost explicitly to endorse the idea that drivers can’t be expected to behave responsibly – or rein in their violence or negligence – when behind the wheel of a car. I've seen cyclists suggest on the internet in the wake of the Henriquez decision that the only answer if threatened in such a fashion is violence, given the official passivity. The implications for everyone – pedestrian, cyclist or motorist - if such a sentiment gains ground are alarming.

Couture-Rouleau’s act was certainly more wicked than Henriquez's and I will lose no sleep over his fate. After crashing his car during a police chase, he emerged brandishing a knife and was shot dead. But it is also clear that Canadians are regarding Couture-Rouleau’s act in a different light because of its explicitly political context. It is certainly unimaginable that the Manhattan DA would be taking such a lenient view of Hernandez’s actions if his victim had been, say, a police officer, Henriquez had been an observant Muslim and he had been heard to shout the slogan, “Allahu Akbar!” as he drove at him.

There seems to be a vast range of circumstances where, short of such a clear ideological motivation, violence on the roads is understood, tolerated and, effectively, encouraged. Moral philosophers have warned since the time of the ancient Greeks of the consequences of allowing such amorality to flourish. New York City battled in the 1970s and 1980s with a culture where a range of other violent offences were treated with the same misguided tolerance as motoring violence is currently. Only when society and law enforcement officials start to treat the use of vehicles as weapons with the same seriousness they treat the use of guns will the problem have a chance of being properly resolved.