Sunday, 7 June 2015

A Twitter row, a gospel passage - and why victim-blaming keeps coming back

It’s not, I accept, a common outcome to a row on social media. But, as I was cycling home on May 20 past downtown Brooklyn’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, my mind turned from a row I’d been having on Twitter with Rory Lancman, a New York city council member, to the New Testament. Specifically, I thought about an incident in the 9th chapter of the Gospel ofJohn.
Jay St: not an obvious place, I accept, to start pondering
the Gospel of John
The passage came to mind because Councilman Lancman wants to amend key provisions of the council’s Right of Way law, passed last year. The amendments would shift from the driver to police and prosecutors the burden for proving violations of the law were avoidable. That would make it far harder to use the law for its intended purpose of charging drivers who hit pedestrians and cyclists who have the right of way. The councilman’s arguments to my mind suggest he thinks there are cases where motorists strike vulnerable road users acting legally and the crash is still ultimately somehow the vulnerable road user’s fault.

John Chapter 9 is a reminder of how long human beings have been battling that same instinct to assume people nearly always bring their misfortune on themselves. It details an encounter between Jesus and his disciples and a man born blind. The disciples assume the man must be suffering because of some wrongdoing either on his own or his parents’ part.

The efforts by Councilman Lancman and many others to shift the blame for crashes make far more sense, it seems to me, looked at in the context of millennia of instinctive victim-blaming than as a rational piece of public policy-making. The belief that victims deserve their fate continues to underlie thinking in a huge range of areas. While it clouds a huge amount of people’s thinking about road safety, it has still more invidious effects in thinking about class, race and, most obviously in the contemporary US, violence by the police. It is particularly invidious because it tends to be applied disproportionately to the powerless – the pedestrian or cyclist more than the motorist; the poor, unarmed black person killed by police more than the police officer.

“As Jesus went along, he saw a man blind from birth,” John Chapter 9 reads. “ His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned - this man or his parents - that he was born blind?’”

A crash I encountered on Friday: since it involved two
motor vehicles, Councilman Lancman is spared
the task of working out how to exonerate one party.
Councilman Lancman, of course, doesn’t accept my interpretation of his proposed amendments. He insists that his concern is a purely technical one – that the law passed last year is wrongly being interpreted as a “strict liability” law: that drivers are charged irrespective of the circumstances and their culpability in striking the victim of the crash. The police are wrongly failing before making arrests to analyse whether the crash was somehow unavoidable.

An email he sent to fellow council members explaining his proposed amendments, however, suggests he simply doesn't think drivers are truly to blame for many crashes.

“Adding a provision to the bill to require an analysis of due care will penalise drivers who hit pedestrians out of recklessness and gross negligence, while sparing drivers when accidents are caused by poor road conditions, bad weather and scofflaw pedestrians,” he wrote.

The email suggests strongly that many motorists who strike pedestrians and cyclists moving legally and with the right of way are somehow helpless victims either of circumstances on the roads or of the negligence of those they hit. Since it’s impossible that a pedestrian crossing the street with a walk signal can be crossing the street illegally, Councilman Lancman seems to be suggesting that, for example, a motorist might be let off charges for striking him or her if, say, the victim was talking on a mobile telephone.
Two pedestrians in this Meatpacking District crosswalk
are on their phones. That makes them fair game, right?

The email also suggests an entirely mistaken conception of a driver’s duty to exercise due care. In poor road conditions and bad weather, it’s a driver’s responsibility to drive more carefully. If a driver has blindspots, he has to compensate for them by looking more carefully. To assume that the vulnerable have to assume all the blame is to make a crude assumption that might is generally right.

The true obscenity of the councilman’s proposed amendment, meanwhile, is that it’s seeking to stamp out a “problem” that barely exists. According to Streetsblog, between the introduction of the Right of Way Law last August and the end of April, only 22 drivers had been charged under it, out of 8,000 collisions between motorists and pedestrians or cyclists. His proposed amendment would usher in a system where even that minuscule number of prosecutions would inevitably fall to nearly zero. It is no comfort at all that the councilman's proposed amendment and some other recent legislation aimed at gutting the Right of Way Law seem to be aimed at ensuring that more members of Transport Workers' Union Local 100, which represents New York bus drivers, escape arrest when they hit pedestrians.

It’s hardly as if, after all, there isn’t already a firmly-established paradigm in the heads of police officers and district attorneys that pedestrians and cyclists bring their fates on themselves. On May 18, for example, a driver struck and killed John Torson, 89, at the corner of 1st Avenue and 61st Street on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and claimed that, while she had done her best to stop, he had “just hobbled into the middle of the street”. Extraordinarily, the New York Police Department appears to have accepted this improbable excuse for hitting a man of 89 who was crossing with the right of way. The NYPD let it be known that Mr Torson had been “crossing outside the marked crosswalk”. Pictures of the scene showed the car stopped only just beyond the crosswalk, suggesting that he must at least have been very close to the marked lines.

Mr Torson was killed only a few blocks from where a turning cab driver killed Amelia Sterental, 76, on May 9 at 60th Street and Madison Avenue. That crash – which also involved a turning driver and someone crossing the street with the walk signal - has yet to produce any charges either, suggesting that the police in that case have also found some improbable excuse for the driver’s negligence.

A van driver swings through a crosswalk
on Sixth Avenue. If he hits a pedestrian,
in many circumstances, Rory Lancman
will have his back
New means of suggesting pedestrians and cyclists bring their fate on themselves are constantly emerging and need to be slapped down, like some strange game of cultural whack-a-mole. One snowy morning in early 2014, I shouted at a cab driver who honked at me to try to get me out of a crosswalk. When he got out to confront me, I told him impatient driving like his explained the city’s poor road safety record. He asserted – even though I had not been using a phone – that pedestrians’ mobile phone use that explained the spike in crashes. I have seen abundant commentary recently on the risks of pedestrians' mobile phone use - and far less on the far greater danger posed by distracted drivers.

In the UK, Bradley Wiggins - for whose sporting achievements I feel the greatest respect - recently made the latest of a series of poorly-judged interventions on cycling safety to say cyclists "have to help themselves" by wearing "helmets and things". The Metropolitan Police shamefully failed to charge the driver who fatally hit Michael Mason on Regent’s Street because, although his bike was well lit, he was wearing neither a helmet nor high-visibility clothing. Most dispiritingly, I once had a lunch with a UK road safety minister who, when asked about cyclist safety, said cyclists were "their own worst enemies".

The persistence of such thinking is all the more extraordinary given the mental leaps that should be required to accept this narrative. Research regularly places the main blame for between two-thirds and 80 per cent of crashes involving vulnerable road users on the driver involved. Yet the victim-blaming narrative suggests cyclists and pedestrians either don’t know themselves to be vulnerable or consistently throw themselves in front of deadly, speeding vehicles heedless of the dangers.

The desperation to exonerate motorists reflects not only a desire to blame victims but to exculpate the powerful of wrongdoing. Last week, for example, after a driver mounted a sidewalk in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and mowed down Oscar Chen, four, the police were quick to dismiss this appalling piece of driving as “just an accident”. The four-year-old was saved, to judge by videos, only by being by a tree – which fell over and protected him – when the vehicle hit him. The distasteful rush to exonerate contrasts sharply with the police’s desperation to accept the false account of Ahmad Abu-Zayedeha, the driver who killed three-year-old Allison Liao in a crosswalk in Queens in 2013. The driver said Allison had “broken away” from her grandmother while crossing the street – a version of events that subsequent evidence has shown to be entirely misleading. Allison's family are constituents of Rory Lancman's.

There are similar forces at work in the effort to vilify Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old killed last year by Cleveland Police, and make excuses for the police officers who killed him. It’s not too much of a stretch, I think, to see the victim-blaming, power-exonerating dynamic at work in much of recent decades’ US economic policy. The rich need the carrot of lower taxes if they’re to be persuaded to work harder. The poor need the stick of withdrawn benefits.

The victim-blaming narrative, after all, has huge implications. If we all primarily determine our own fate on the roads, there should be a presumption of minimal intervention by the police, prosecutors and licensing authorities in drivers’ freedom to do as they please. If, however, people’s fates depend predominantly on the behaviour of others, the presumption in favour of freedom should be significantly eroded.

It’s striking for how long these moral and intellectual battles have been fought and refought, however. In the Jewish scriptures, the book of Job recounts a man suffering a series of afflictions whose friends falsely assume his own wrongdoing has somehow brought them on him. In John Chapter 9, meanwhile, Jesus firmly rebukes his disciples.
Parking outside Brooklyn Basilica: how would Jesus park,
do you think?
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” he says.

The story in John has a far happier ending than many collisions on New York’s or London’s streets or between angry police officers and vulnerable African-Americans. Jesus says that the blind man is blind "so that the works of God might be displayed in him". That is, I accept, a problematical idea. But Jesus goes on to put mud on the man’s eyes and have him wash it off. Afterwards, he can see.

Such a moment of eye-opening doesn’t yet seem to have come to Councilman Lancman or many other policy-makers or law enforcement officials worldwide. It hasn’t, sadly, even come to some of my fellow contemporary followers of Christ. As I cycled home on May 31, a little over a fortnight after my row with Councilman Lancman, I headed as usual down Jay St past St James’s Cathedral. I came up short when I found the bike lane was blocked. People attending an event at the cathedral had arrived by car in large numbers and decided, entirely illegally, to park diagonally to the kerb, blocking the bike lane in both directions. Cyclists were forced out into a busy stream of rush-hour traffic, endangered to provide more convenient parking for the congregation.

It’s a casual example of the arrogance of the powerful against the weak. Were Jesus present on earth in the same sense as 2,000 years ago, there would, I’m sure, be issues that would cause him still more concern. But there's a moral responsibility to park a car - just as there is to move it - in a way that poses the least possible risk to others. When people undertake even such minor acts in a fashion so casually contemptuous of the interests of others, it strikes me as deeply at odds with the solicitude for others that Christian faith – or the true practice of Judaism, humanism or any truly ethical belief system – should inspire.


  1. You are, as usual, far too kind. I have yet to see any research that examines the purpose for which a car at a crash was even introduced to the scene. People are quick to justify their use of automobiles instead of transit or bicycles with claims about weather, difficulty of transporting cargo, infirm drivers or passengers, etc. Based on the supposed necessity that these claims support, we allow the more-risky use of automobiles on public streets.

    Even in the cases where the cyclist or pedestrian is supposedly "at fault" in a crash with a car, was the presence of the car actually necessary? I could wander down the sidewalk lugging a running chainsaw, and be very careful to keep it out of anyone's path, but if someone's child nonetheless "darted" into it and was maimed, I would rightly be asked "What on earth were you doing with a running chainsaw on a public sidewalk? What about the risk to others? Was that really necessary?"

    1. Dr,

      Thank you, as ever, for your comments.

      I guess I've addressed the necessity or otherwise of motor vehicle use in previous posts. The fact, I suppose, is that Robert Moses effectively re-engineered big swathes of New York to make motor vehicle use both more likely and, in some places, virtually obligatory. So, starting from where we are now, there are going to be motor vehicles around for a while yet. I obviously warmly support efforts to make New York and other big cities far, far less car-dependent. In the meantime, there are people losing their lives unnecessarily whose lives could be saved if the road rules were properly enforced and drivers recognised fellow road-users' humanity more.

      All the best,


  2. Somewhat conspiracy theory I know, but I suspect that victim-blaming in road incidents is actively encouraged and promoted somehow by the auto industry. Like any other industry, in the modern capitalist economic model it must constantly expand or die. To expand it must not merely replace existing cars and drivers as they end their lives, it must increase the numbers. Anything, anything at all, which points to alternatives - public transport, walking, cycling, staying at home and communicating/shopping by internet - are threats to that proposition, so they have to attacked, as subtly as possible, just as efforts must be made to advertise the positives of driving. (On that subject, a recent BMW press ad in the Times newspaper in London failed to see the irony of juxtaposing the 1975 arrival of the movie "Jaws" and the new 3 series and its "freedom of the open road" but of course you don't sell the steak, you sell the sizzle, mythical though it might be)

    Of course they are greatly aided in their endeavours by human nature. You see it everywhere, that more fortunate, wealthier people, blame the less fortunate/poorer for their own misfortunes. Most humans, who are not psychopaths, have consciences. You can only pillage Africa if you can convince yourself that you are bringing civilisation to savages, or God to the ungodly. You can only justify your fortune to yourself if you believe that somehow you deserve more than others do. Lower taxes for example.

    One of the most remarkable traits we observe in our affluent commuter town in South East England is the sense of entitlement exhibited by so many of its inhabitants - the way they behave towards serving staff (shop assistants, in particular, which is where I see it through my kids' Saturday jobs) with arrogance and disdain.

    It all seems to me tot be part of the same mentality, and it is exploited very successfully by people who see personal advantage in it.

  3. Hi Invisible,
    It's great that you're sticking up for pedestrians and cyclists in this case. Your arguments are spot on and I hope they win the day in New York.
    Best from Budapest,
    Greg (


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