Technology is a mixed bag. Nowhere is this more evident than in transportation. Hyper-mobility, the ability to quickly travel across long distances gives the illusion of bringing us all closer together. Yet the ability to quickly traverse space causes us to live farther apart (because we can) and it has the unintended negative impact of cheapening and devaluing space. Space becomes something to get through quickly rather than something with inherent value. So we pave, pollute, degrade and ultimately destroy it with our highways, parking lots and airports.
Technology works against us in other unforeseen ways. Computer networks attached to essential water, data, transport and energy systems make these systems more vulnerable to hackers. Civilian airplanes can become huge bombs when crashed into buildings and, now, terrorists around the world are using motor vehicles as murder weapons.
Just in the last year there’ve been over a dozen attacks in the US and Europe that used motor vehicles. The most horrific incident was in Nice, France last summer, when a cargo truck driver deliberately drove through crowds of people, killing 86 and injuring 458. In December, an attacker drove a truck into a crowded Christmas market in Berlin, killing 12 and injuring 48. This spring there were two motor vehicle attacks by ISIS-inspired assailants in the UK. One, near the Palace of Westminister in London killed 4 and injured 50. The second, on London Bridge killed 8 and injured 48. These were followed by an anti-muslim van attack outside Finsbury Park Mosque in London that killed one and injured ten. An ISIS sympathizer in Stockholm, Sweden stole a beer truck and drove into a crowd of pedestrians, killing 4 and injuring 15. In Spain, jihadists drove vans into crowds of pedestrians in Barcelona and Cambrils, killing 14 people and injuring 136 others. And, of course, there was the white supremacist who drove his car into a crowd in Charlottesville, Virginia killing one person and injuring 19.
As horrible as these attacks are, they are nothing compared to the daily carnage motorists inflict on pedestrians and cyclists around the world. Worldwide, cars are one of the top ten leading causes of death, particularly for children. In the US last year, nearly 6000 pedestrians were killed by cars and over 100,000 were injured. This is part of a general upward trend that’s evident here in Minnesota and in Saint Paul. So far, the city eclipsed 2016’s pedestrian crash totals. At last check, 128 people have been hit in 2017, compared with 114 in 2016.
The reasons for this are numerous. Distracted driving is a major cause. People are texting, talking on their phones or staring at data screens while driving. Even the police can be guilty of this. Another major cause is car-centric street and road designs. Pedestrians are often forced to cross large boulevards with no traffic control and few if any crossing aids, or they walk on narrow sidewalks with no protection from cars. But issues of distracted driving and bad street design are easily fixable. If we really want to fix them, we could ban all text and phone use as some states have done and we could create safer, more protected spaces for pedestrians and cyclists.
In the USA, however, another major contributor to pedestrian and bicycle carnage is a culture of disdain or outright hatred directed at pedestrians and cyclists. It’s promoted by right-wing shock jocks and the advertisers who support them. It’s broadcast on radio, television, in newspapers and on social media and it’s everywhere.
We can see lots of it right here in Saint Paul, where police sergeant Jeff Rothecker using an alias “JM Roth”, wrote posts on Facebook telling motorists how they could run over Black Lives Matter protesters and get away with it. This was a police officer telling people how they could commit murder with cars. Or there’s WCCO, Joe Soucheray, Rush Limbaugh, and other radio jocks in Cleveland, Houston, Raleigh and elsewhere who’ve advocated hitting cyclists and pedestrians with cars. They know how to blow all the anti-pedestrian and anti-bicyclist “dog whistles” to get their followers riled up. How are these people allowed to have newspaper columns and radio shows? It’s because both these media are sponsored by the automobile industry, the last big radio and newspaper advertiser, and the automobile industry itself threatens and denigrates pedestrians and cyclists in their print and television advertisements. Check out this 2018 “AMG E63” Mecedes Benz ad that just ran during the US Open Tennis Tournament with a tag line for pedestrians that says “Get the F**K out of the way“. And there’s countless past ads, like the old one Julie Kosbab recently posted on streets.mn or this classic from Volkswagen:
Over time, this sewer of shock jocks and pop culture gradually brainwashes us. Mayors, drivers and the legal system start blaming pedestrians for getting hit and we get angry wack-jobs who feel justified threatening or hitting people with their vehicles. These include the road-rager, recently videotaped by cyclist Ward Rubrecht in Saint Paul, or a sick hit-and-run incident in Minneapolis earlier this year. I still occasionally encounter people who think nothing of yelling or throwing stuff at me from their cars or using their cars to threaten me. It’s the same “drive-by” mentality that allows people to leave nasty or threatening messages on the internet, or drop bombs on people in foreign countries. Their technology distances them from their victims and they think they can just drive or fly away and remain anonymous. Some cities are passing legislation specifically targeted at this type of harassment.
I support free speech but advocating or making fun of hitting someone with your car is worse than yelling “fire” in a crowded movie theater and it’s no different than making a death threat, or threatening someone with a gun …and that’s not protected speech. We need to pay attention to these folks on local and national media and call them out. In one of our many racist double standards, consider what would happen if an imam posted what Jeff Rothecker posted. He’d be prosecuted or put in jail for “inciting terrorism”. Rothecker merely had to resign.
So, if you’re wondering where terrorists got the idea of using cars to mow people down, maybe they got the idea from Rush Limbaugh and Mercedes Benz.