Agency Problems

The fact is, drivers kill a lot of pedestrians. Outside of central cities, driving is primarily hazardous to drivers; they’re traveling at speeds high enough to hurt themselves despite being inside a ton or two worth of metal box, and there simply aren’t very many non-drivers near the roads. But in cities, cars rarely go fast enough to kill drivers, but they’re nearly always going fast enough to hurt the fleshy mammals propelling themselves around the city on foot or bike. Quite often, these deaths are due in part to road and sidewalk design failures. Many other times, the pedestrians themselves are at least partially at fault. But in practically every situation, some of the fault lies with the driver piloting the large, dangerous hunk of metal. You’d think that if you’re the one behind the wheel of the fast, large, deadly vehicle, then the onus would be on you to avoid the slow, small, fleshy people surrounding you. In most news accounts, this is not the assumption.

In fact, most news accounts present the driver as a mere bystander, an observer without any agency. See here for several examples. It’s striking how pervasive this phenomenon is. I don’t mean to pick on Sommer Mathis — she’s a good friend, who does an excellent job editing DCist — but consider that she is almost surely more sympathetic to the bikers and walkers in the District, and yet this morning’s Morning Roundup post reads:

Briefly Noted: Fenty kills crime lab contract after appeals ruling … Two women fatally struck by vehicles in the District over the weekend … Suspect injured in officer-involved shooting in Southeast … 14th Street lane shifts begin.

Fatally struck by vehicles. Again, in fairness to Sommer, that’s the language used at the linked Post story. But look, those vehicles didn’t do a thing. One person in a vehicle hit another person not in a vehicle, killing the person not in the vehicle. I think the psychological result of getting into a car is often unappreciated. A driver — myself included — immediately feels entitled to deference on the road, to that point that they may become actually angry with other drivers, and with the pedestrians and cyclists who insist on making drivers travel somewhat more slowly, or wait to turn right, or generally make the process of commuting less than an unimpeded sprint from point A to point B. The language used in these stories reinforces this mindset — that the vehicle is vested with some kind of agency or authority. It allows drivers to shrug and say, hey, I’m in a vehicle, others had better watch out for me.

People like Randal O’Toole refer to traffic calming measures as efforts to create congestion in order to screw drivers and deny them their freedom. In fact, they’re necessary to counteract the strange transformation that takes place when one sits behind the wheel of a car, and to prevent pedestrians from getting killed for daring to walk from one place to another. Obviously, O’Toole feels that if they really cared about freedom they’d buy a car and drive it everywhere.


  1. Daniel says:

    This is why I bike on the sidewalk, regardless of the availability of biker lanes or whatever.

  2. Daniel says:

    And that includes when you’re “supposed to” bike in the street.

  3. BeyondDC says:

    That strikes me as counterproductive, Daniel. By retreating to the sidewalk, you’re deferring to their position and sending the message that drivers do indeed have the right to own the road.

    Most people aren’t particularly aggressive behind the wheel; they just drive at the speed they feel comfortable driving. When one cyclist slows them down on an otherwise high-speed trip, they get aggressive, but when they’re the sole car going down a street full of pedestrians, they’re happy to patter along at a snail’s pace.

    The trick is to remove the false sense of entitlement. We can only do that by actually using the street for purposes other than driving.

  4. Karl Smith says:

    I don’t know, this seems like a bit of stretch to me.

    I mean, if you do know whose fault it is, isn’t assigning “blame” to the car the safest thing for the writer to do. Saying “woman in car runs over two pedestrians” really makes it seem like its the divers fault and do we know that for sure?

    As for the sense of entitlement by drivers that just seems like an example of the general phenomenon of people being assholes in a crowded environment. I mean people jostling through the airport for example aren’t exactly sensitive to one another’s transit needs. Are people really what you might call “polite” on the Metro at rush hour?

  5. Bernard C says:

    Ryan, I agree with your point about the psychological changes that take place when a person gets into a car, although I also think Karl is right that the newspaper is just covering its legal backside by not being more specific about who is to blame for the incident. I think Freud would have a had a field day studying “ego” and its relation to the automobile. Unlike walking or cycling, being behind the wheel of a powerful engine (relatively speaking) and being contained in a metal “box” seems to bring out a different side to people. I would guess that this is due to the severing of day-to-day human communication like body language, eye contact, even certain noises or smells when people are in their cars. I would also imagine that his psychological effect has been studied by someone if one cares to research it…

  6. Flip says:

    I would guess in addition to the “severing of day-to-day human communication like body language, eye contact, even certain noises or smells when people are in their cars,” one could add cell phones, Blackberries and IPods.

  7. Tim says:

    It’s hardly the person’s fault. When a Japanese person rides on Godzilla’s back to get across town as he rampages Tokyo do we blame the commuter for knocking down the skyscapers?

  8. Z. says:

    Maybe it’s different here in Canada, but my impression is that the press first checks if the driver has had a drink in the past 8 hours or so, in which case it becomes a “possibly alcohol-related” fatality. If not, they check for signs that the driver was distracted (generally phone-related) and play up that angle. If not, the old standby of “speed-related” is usually put forward by the police, since drivers are always driving above the speed limit. Only when the pedestrian is on the phone or wearing an iPod have I ever sensed the media report was imputing blame to the pedestrian.

  9. Doug says:

    I’m a very calm and courteous driver, and very deferential. I think a Prius kind of emasculates you after a while. But you make a good point, bad events might be the only ones reported in such a passive character. It’s especially funny when you compare to, say- the market plummeted today on fears that the economy won’t rebound until the fourth quarter. Evil inanimate objects harming passive moral ones.

  10. D.Schleicher says:

    Ryan —

    You missed a killer headline here — “Cars Don’t Kill People. People Kill People.”


  11. ibc says:

    “It allows drivers to shrug and say, hey, I’m in a vehicle, others had better watch out for me.”

    Or if you read the comments section of the WaPo, or local blogs, “You may be in the right, but it won’t do you any good when you’re DEAD!1! So COWER BEFORE ME!!!!”

    Let’s face it, your average DC regional auto-commuter is an entitled asshole, and that’s whether inside a car or out.