David Ortman, for many years the director of the Friends of the Earth’s Northwest office, is a credentialed lawyer rather than a cheeky activist now. But he’s still an irrepressible gadfly, and a fount of ideas that often sound wacky and often aren’t; email from him is a surprise package worth opening
Ortman’s latest brainstorm: warning labels on cars. “Cigarette packages carry warning messages,” notes Ortman. “Perhaps it is time for vehicles to do the same.” Consider: Automobile collisions kill about 32,000 people a year in this country and more than 1 million worldwide — far fewer than cigarettes, but still a lot. Car crashes strike much more unpredictably (a smoker who doesn’t see it coming is a smoker who refuses to look), and claim young as well as older victims.
Ortman suggests several messages, to be affixed to new cars’ steering wheels:
WARNING: This vehicle can harm or kill your children.
WARNING: A collision during pregnancy can harm your fetus
WARNING: Driving can cause fatal injuries to passengers.
WARNING: Driving can kill you.
WARNING: Driving less reduces serious risks to your health.
I thought this idea was just another tongue-in-cheek modest proposal, until I thought about it. I realized that Ortman had omitted the most often overlooked, and for a person of conscience perhaps the biggest, danger about driving. And I remembered a friend of mine in college. Call him Ishmael.
Ishmael arrived at midyear and left a few months later; he didn’t have much patience or focus for his studies. He’d started school the year before but dropped out following a traumatic event. He’d been driving one night on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, a notoriously worn and narrow-shouldered old highway, when he passed a car pulled over on the side. Suddenly a nine-year-old girl darted out from behind that car and into his bumper.
Ishmael was a haunted man. The insurance lawyers hounded him with endless motions and depositions as the ensuing case ground on. Worse than that, he could not forget what happened that night, and could not stop wondering what he could have done to make it turn out differently.
Those us of who are no longer adolescents sure of our immortality worry about the terrible things that can happen to us when we start the car, and to the friends and loved ones who ride with us. To protect ourselves, some of us buy high-riding, big-bumpered, screw-the-other-guy urban assault vehicles that are twice as likely as ordinary cars to kill the occupants of any vehicles they crash into. They transfer the risk in collisions to those outside their steel castles on wheels — nevermind that they’re just as likely as car drivers to die on the road, thanks to SUVs’ penchant for rolling over.
Doubtless you’re not so actively contemptuous of strangers’ lives and limbs. But ask yourself: How often do you think about the chance of killing innocent strangers when you drive? That risk remains no matter how well you drive; a kid can run out from behind a car or chase the proverbial ball into the street.
I don’t think Ishmael worried about that either, until it happened. I finally lost touch with him; he dropped out and crisscrossed the country. Last time I saw him he was building a house, on his own, trying to quiet his mind by working with his hands. I expect that deep down he’s haunted still.
I don’t know whether knowing him has made me a more careful driver. (Certainly not, some who’ve ridden with me would surely say.) But it’ has made me drive less, to walk and bus and pedal whenever I half-conveniently can. On a bike you come to appreciate and try to anticipate all the ways a two-ton steel box on wheels can cream you, all the things that can go wrong in an instant. Still, better to get killed than to kill. At least you won’t be haunted by the memories.
For all that, I get complacent like anyone else when I get behind the wheel of a 200-horsepower machine, lulled by the peculiar desensitized detachment that comes with driving. It wouldn’t hurt to see an ugly little indelible message in the middle of the steering wheel:
WARNING: Driving this vehicle may cause you to kill a child.