What is Traffic Violence?

(TL;DR) I wrote this piece in response to seeing and hearing the new term “traffic violence” and out of two central concerns. 1.) Maintaining the accuracy of language. 2.) Preventing my constituency of share the road advocates from inflicting self-harm. In closing, I write my own musings on death.

Comparing Like Things

Gun violence, domestic violence and traffic violence all overlap on the word violence. If we define violence simply as rough or injurious physical force we can see how vehicles moving on the roadway are able to cause this type of violence but so can boats, weed whackers or dogs. This definition removes violence as a choice and reframes it as an effect. An expanded definition by the World Health Organization does cover the intentional choice which violence requires: “Violence is the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.” I’ll argue this piece about intentionality is critical to delineating what is or is not violence. When we remove the word “accident” in which no deliberate, intentional cause is identifiable and replace it with the word “violence” we are ipso facto stating that the act of moving vehicles on a roadway are intentionally directing themselves towards an injurious state of affairs. This is not something I take to be true. Some may say an accident is the transportation equivalent of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ but this is a weak position of an oversimplified false equivalence. There are people at fault in accidents but to infer that violence was their intention as they traveled is as an uncharitable representation of events. So as we look at areas where traffic violence may overlap with other types of violence such as domestic violence, sexual violence, online violence and physical violence we see that it constantly fails to overlap on the deliberate and intentional behavior all other forms of violence require.

Empathy VS Hyperbole

Now, we can all have some genuine empathy for those injured or killed by automobiles. I don’t want to gloss over that which is a very painful experience but when we start to use hyperbolic words such as “violence” which exaggerates the agents intentionality, we do a great deal of damage to the empathetic process on both sides. Under our system of retributive justice we very often neglect empathy for the perpetrator. Take this case of a San Francisco bus driver who had 35 years of experience and a clean toxicology report. Did he intentionally get behind the wheel that day to kill a jogger? Are we to have no empathy for the driver? This is one of the things I find so pernicious about this terminology. Under the phenomenon known as an accident, we can empathize sympathy for both sides. When we shift the language from accident to violence it makes it much more difficult to empathize with the perpetrator of such violence. Such shifting may have intentional political appeal as Portland Mayor Charlie Hales asks the state of Oregon to invest in these issues of transit traffic violence but that will have to be a topic for another day.

We are but limited human beings and some root causes of accidents are rather basic. Someone didn’t see someone or made an inference that was incorrect. These are the same human errors made as we bump into people in a hallway. You would be hard pressed to call these human limitations acts of violence so why are we allowing such language into our share the road constituency? While I encourage us to continue backing Vision Zero. Let us not create unnecessary, divisive language that splinters us between those who are enlightened, in which the veil of ignorance has been lifted and those backwater people who are stagnant in their education and opinion. I encourage continued vigilance on what terms we allow or confront during the course of this conversation because as a small group already, we should try to remain as much a united front as possible. Terms designed around rhetorical effect which take refuge in argument being more absorbing and important than truth, are not only misleading but poisons the discourse with all the same glibness as comparing your opponent to Hitler. It is on these grounds I not only reject the term but also the path it encourages.

Grappling with Death

“There’s a Zen story in which a man is enjoying himself on a river at dusk. He sees another boat coming down the river toward him. At first it seems so nice to him that someone else is also enjoying the river on a nice summer evening. Then he realizes that the boat is coming right toward him, faster and faster. He begins to yell, “Hey, hey, watch out! For Pete’s sake, turn aside!” But the boat just comes right at him, faster and faster. By this time he’s standing up in his boat, screaming and shaking his fist, and then the boat smashes right into him. He sees that it’s an empty boat.” – Source

The topic of death runs all through this conversation and as someone who has read The Denial of Death twice, given a philosophical presentation on the book, has suffered the stings of death, and read many other books on death; I’d like to say a few things on the topic. Let me start by saying, my heart goes out to those killed in traffic accidents. The ineffable absurdity of our mortal coil is psychologically unsettling. Those who love should not die suffering or those who are healthy should not young die or those who follow faith should not die suddenly and yet….they do.

Where these lives wasted? To waste ones life is to expend it with no purpose and while we have no grand purpose to fulfill we do have the purpose we imbue into our existence. I aim to be a loving husband, good father and great friend. None of these things protect me from a possible vehicular death or suffer through agonizing stomach cancer. Be weary of anyone offering antidotes to these fears and be prescient in what you cling to in order to assuage them. We view death as an evil force and something separate from life and not part of life, yet it is part of life. We share in a collective fantasy where people should only die peacefully in their beds as the only death we can psychologically accept because anything else seems like an incomplete story. I can offer no respite for such feelings and I continue to feel them myself. But it is my belief, like the Zen koan, that if we do not see these unintentional accidents with a clear mind, we may live in a prison, forged brick by brick out of the furnace of our own rage.

One thought on “What is Traffic Violence?

  1. Regarding the Zen koan: many of us spend our time yelling at the empty boat because we don’t know what else to do. The boat could be circumstance. It could also be death, although it is we that move to meet it as the processes of living and ravages of chance take us, driverless, to our certain conclusion. More accurately, however, the empty boat is life, the totality of that which stands between us now, as we are, and our final living moment. Life comes at us as it will, driverless. If we change course, that which we call our life changes course with us and comes at us just the same. Eventually, life catches up with us, and we die, and while our choices determine how quickly the boat travels the distance of our lives, our protests are little more than Ecclesiastes’ vanity. We protest because we fear what all people fear most in death: having misused our time while we have it. The irony is that, in yelling at life as it comes at us, protesting the course it has set for us, we lose sight of what we can do with our time while we have it. We can move ourselves. We can change our own lives. We cannot change the final outcome, but we can change the process. We just can’t do it by yelling, by expressing our futile anger that maybe life isn’t going how we want it to. We have to change it by sitting back down and rowing, which is to say by living.

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