Monday, September 19, 2011

Car Culture & the Law

True Story #1:

A mother and small child cross the street on foot to catch a bus and are hit by a car driven by a man who had been drinking, was on painkillers, mostly blind in one eye, and had a previous conviction for a hit-and-run accident. Result?

The mother was convicted of vehicular manslaughter of her toddler and faced the possibility of three years in prison. The car driver meanwhile served six months.

Apprentice Writer imagines that in most places, reaction would be atomic level "WHAT?????"

In Marietta, Georgia, USA, where this story took place, however, this astonishing end result apparently makes sense (at least, to the members of that jury). Looking a little deeper into the situation creates greater unease: the mother and son were black, as are most of the public transportation users in the town described as mostly white and affluent. She was convicted by an all-white jury who held her accountable for not crossing at a designated crosswalk thus "causing" the death. The saving grace was that the judge ultimately transformed her sentence to community service and payment of a fine rather than actual jail time.

AW's thoughts: There is a scene in the old Eddie Murphy movie "Beverley Hills Cop" when the hero is thrown through a plate glass window of a skyscraper lobby by security guards and subsequently arrested by police. When he incredulously asks why, they state that he is accused of trespassing. He is so astonished at the backwardness of this, feeling that he is the clear victim rather than the perpetrator, that he goes on to ask whether a person struck by a car in that town would be arrested for jaywalking.

In the movie, the scene was played for laughs because of the blatant absurdity of the situation. It is chilling to see a true life scenario turn out this way. Has car culture really reached such a level that pedestrians are not only viewed as "the enemy" to drivers, but considered to bear the lion's share of responsibility to ensure that they don't get in the way of "rightful" users of the road (no matter how physically or chemically impaired)? Is this some new variation of social Darwinism, where it is considered someone's own fault if they don't have the means to own a car and that's that?

AW hopes not. She also hopes that this case could become a catalyst for people not just in Marietta to take a look at the economic and ecological cost of getting around in daily life and take action that promotes transportation in a more co-operative rather than confrontational way. Because discouraging rather than encouraging use of public transportation and forms of healthy transport like walking or biking? Is so five steps backward. Especially at time when greenhouse gases and lack of exercise are at crisis levels.

True Story #2: A woman gets in a car, drives to school to drop off her child, swings by the grocery store, and is arrested.

It must have been a stolen car, right? Or she was driving erratically and endangering others? Or didn't have the right papers with her?

Incorrect. It was her family's vehicle, she had a licence, and followed traffic rules. So what did she do wrong? Be born female.

Once again, cue the atomic level "WHAT????" from most places.

In Saudi Arabia, however, where this story took place, this astonishing end result apparently makes sense (at least, to the lawmakers). Manal al-Sharif, a Rosa Parks of sorts, chose to make herself a lightning rod for the rights of women to drive themselves, and posted video of herself defying the ban of female driving to Youtube. This has launched a mini Saudi Arab spring of other women in that country doing likewise, with outrage and threats poured upon them as a result for supposedly threatening Saudi culture, traditions, and morals.

AW's thoughts: Are Saudi men truly such fragile flowers that their self-worth is threatened by a woman going to the grocery store herself? Seriously. How is something so banal emasculating or interpretable as an attack on the superstructure of an entire culture?

It isn't, of course, as is proven by the multitude of countries where women have been driving for generations without the existing culture falling down around everyone's ears. AW hopes that as evidence of the non-catastrophic results of women driving builds, laws will come to reflect that.
Bravo to the women of Saudi who decided that enough was enough, and put themselves forward to create progress for themselves and the next generation.


Rachel said...

What a timely, needed and thoughtful post. I was flabbergasted at the result of the Marietta incident and couldn't figure out why there was not more of an uproar over such a ridiculous outcome. It's hard to know where the fingers should point. Is it a car culture? Is it being a member of an underrepresented group? Whatever the cause, the results are unacceptable and yet they are reality. There's been more of an uproar about the changing face of Netflix than about what happened in Marietta (and for a country all about "freedom, democracy, and civil rights" we in the US are suspiciously mum about our oil rich allies) which is surprising and disheartening.

M. said...

I was amazed to hear in the news yesterday that the Saudi king has announced that he will allow women the vote in the 2015 elections. Women at the steering wheel is still, apparently, not even worth discussion for the Saudi king, but still: a step in the right direction is a step in the right direction.

He does know that with the vote, women will be able to to support more driving-friendly candidates, right?