Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Safe Driving: an Oxymoron?

Last Thursday, a friend of mine, Joe Cole, was in a bad car accident on his way to work. He was in the hospital for a two days with a broken collarbone, a sprained ankle, traumatized kidney, and bruised ribs. Now home, he's still pretty sore. There was a woman driving the other car. She momentarily blacked out following a reaction to medication, and drifted into Joe's lane, resulting in a head-on crash that totaled both cars yet both drivers walked away from. Whew!
Joe or Jo?Joe had called Ma'ikwe and me Sunday afternoon, to tell us the bad news. Unfortunately, we were in meetings at the time and the message went to voice mail. Because Ma'ikwe's cell phone was out of reception range when we checked, the voice recording had been converted to a text message:

"Hi, this is Joe. I'm OK but I wanted to let you know I was in a car accident on my way to school Thursday and broke my collarbone. I'm out of the hospital now and am in considerable pain, but will be all right."

As it happens, Joe Cole teaches philosophy at Guilford College in Greensboro NC. My daughter, Jo, works at the University of Toledo. Since text messages work phonetically, there was no immediate way to tell whether the caller was Joe or Jo, which ratcheted up my heart rate for the minute or two it took us to check the phone number of the caller and determine it was the man in North Carolina; not the woman in Ohio. While we knew that someone we cared about had had a serious accident—and thus it was going to be somber news regardless—it was nonetheless moderately relieving to grasp that it wasn't my daughter.

• • •
Years ago I recall being in a discussion with members of a community who were concerned about AIDS and were wrestling with the question of what constituted appropriate safeguards against that awful disease. This was an urban group and they were contemplating a standard whereby anyone proposing to be sexual with any member of the group would not only have to test negatively for the HIV virus themselves, but anyone that person had been sexual with in the past two years would have to test negatively for the virus as well—which constituted quite a gauntlet.

My response was that they were over-reacting. Yes, AIDS is a horrific disease, yet it's not easy to transmit and they were reaching for a level of security that would attempt to eliminate almost all chance of it accidentally being contracted by a member. While not a bad goal in and of itself, I told them if they wanted to focus on improving member safety, it would be much more productive to concentrate on reducing car trips. I told them they were accepting a far greater risk every time they drove in the city than every time they made love.

And, as Joe painfully found out last Thursday, it's not enough that you're sober, alert, and have good driving conditions. You cannot control the choices that other drivers make, and sometimes accidents will find you through no fault of your own. Fortunately, Joe's injuries are minor enough that he's expected to make a full recovery. Given that he was in an head-on collision, he was very lucky.

We are, by far, the most mobile society of any in human history. In the US we are so wedded to the privilege of mobility that we blindly race to exhaust our dwindling supply of fossil fuels and blithely find it acceptable to suffer a toll in vehicular deaths that accumulates every decade to equal the entire population of Miami—and I'm not talking about the halt and lame here, only the deaths. It's incredible what we'll sacrifice on the altar of mobility. And Joe's story brings that sharply in to focus.

Joe lives in Carrboro and works in Greensboro, a daily commute of 45 miles each way. I'll bet his thinking hard about whether that makes as much sense this week as it did last.

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