We Need to Talk About
The United Sates is,
apparently, very wealthy but on a wide range of well-being indicators it scores
poorly. When the statisticians crunch the data it is always an outlier, as
Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson showed in The Spirit
Level (2008). Outside the USA, there is some general awareness of this: we
sort of know that American people
experience gun violence, drug addictions, obesity, police violence, prison
incarceration rates, mental ill-health, crumbling infrastructure, and all-round insecurity on a scale which
makes for what some would call a shithole country. To make matters worse, a
significant part of the population is now clearly beyond any ordinary appeal to
reason, caught up in religious cults, conspiracy theories, and the more or less unhinged thinking
of the Alt Right and at least some of the campus Wokes.
Any explanation is
going to be complex but certainly lies deep in America’s dominant cultures.
Angie Schmitt’s Right of Way is a
carefully documented and modestly argued analysis which starts from a problem
which does not make many headlines, pedestrian road deaths. In 2018, the USA
boasted 6,283 pedestrian road deaths and around 1,500 further deaths involving a
person and a vehicle in an off-road car park or private driveway. On a per
capita basis, this is a poor result because it is about four times higher than
equivalent deaths in the usual suspects for best performance, the Scandinavian countries.
painstakingly develops her account of underlying causes and potential
solutions, it becomes (inadvertently) clear that America is stuck in some very
hard to shift cultural assumptions and practices, many of which become fully
articulated in its criminal justice system. A stand-out case is presented in
chapter 3, “Blaming the Victim”.
Back in 2011, having
missed a bus in her home state of Georgia, Raquel Nelson - a black woman - had
to wait an hour for the next one. As a result, it was dark when she and her three young children
alighted from the bus and set out to cross the four-lane highway which
separated them from their suburban housing estate. Halfway across, her four year
old son broke free of his mother’s hand to run with his sister to the other
side. His sister made it, but he was hit by a van being driven at speed and he died.
The driver of the van had vision problems, two previous hit-and-run
convictions, and had been drinking on the day of the crash.
Outcome? The nearest
crosswalk (pedestrian crossing) to the bus stop where she had alighted was a
kilometre away, so Raquel Nelson did what everyone in her area did and crossed
the road directly from the bus stop to her home. Big mistake. Jaywalking is an
offence across the USA, an offence invented during the automobile's post - 1918 rise to dominance, so she was charged with jaywalking, reckless conduct, and
vehicular homicide. She was convicted of all three offences. The conviction was
upheld on first appeal and on second appeal (made possible by a pro bono offer) to the Georgia Supreme
The driver of the van,
taking advantage of America’s eye-brow raising plea-bargaining system, pleaded
guilty to fleeing the scene of the crash.
It would take a long
essay to unpack all that is being illustrated by this single case. Schmitt uses
it as a way of crystallising the argument that American culture, embodied in
laws, assumes that roads and streets
exist primarily for drivers, and that it is the role of pedestrians (and
cyclists) to stay out of the way. And not only that, that it is the role of
pedestrians to accept Personal Responsibility for anything bad which might
In the United Kingdom,
we have heard a lot about Personal Responsibility lately, some of it from our
Ayn Rand-inspired GOP Health Secretary.
As Schmitt unfolds her
narrative, it becomes clear that many parts of the USA simply do not have the
kind of infrastructure anyone in the UK or mainland Europe will take for
granted. There are some simple but very tellling photographs.You cannot assume pavements or
street lighting or pedestrian crossings or traffic calming devices or even safety
regulations to reduce the design risk which vehicles pose to walkers. In the
USA, they do light-touch regulation if you are wealthy and powerful and willing
and able to litigate.
This is brought our
forcefully in her discussion of SUVs. SUVs are pedestrain killers for two
reasons. If an ordinary saloon car collides with a pedestrian, it will strike
the pedestrian below the waist and maybe no higher than the thighs and will
tend to throw them forward and onto the bonnet. This actually creates a
survival chance. But the high-rise, flat fronted SUV will strike you above the
waist, impact your vital organs - and knock you backwards so that it will then
run you over. This reduces your chances of survival. That’s not all. High-rise
SUVs have blind spots, fore and aft. A small child in front or behind a SUV
will simply not be visible if they are closer to the vehicle than about three
meters. Schmitt illustrates this with a photograph of seventeen children
sitting comfortably on the ground in front of a stationary SUV, all of them
within its blind zone. It is these blindspots which cause many driveway deaths,
known in America as “Bye Bye” deaths because they often involve a young child
waving to a departing parent or relative who reverses over them as they position their vehicle for driving away.
In the USA, SUVs now outsell saloon cars (sedans) heavily. Schmitt links this to an American sense that the whole world is hostile environment against which one needs to be armed and defended. A vehicle which derives its design from a military jeep or armoured car has a lot of appeal; some recent SUVs are advertised as bullet-proof, no doubt attractive for mothers doing the school run.
But SUVs now play a significant role in the explanation for America’s high pedestrian fatality figures. The
SUV problem has been recognised in other countries and regulations have obliged some design changes to the vehicles which mitigate the problem; but such regulations are not to be heard of in the USA. That would be too much like
Big Government and Big GOP-funding Business wants government small.
There is so much more
in this sober and sobering book. I guess the publisher wanted the sub-title,
which is accurate but which may suggest to some potential readers that matters
have been pre-judged. They haven’t; Schmitt is careful in her arguments because she wants to unite not divide her potential readers. If you are appalled to the point of mental
exhaustion by what you have been reading about the USA for the past five years
and want a way into refreshing your understanding, I recommend this book.