A team of British psychologists appears to have identified why it has become so unsafe to be on or near a modern roadway unless encased in a cage of steel and coined a word for it: “Motonormativity.”
Motonormativity, according to the team led by researcher Ian Walker, defines the “unconscious biases due to cultural assumptions about the role of private cars” that excuses bad driving for causing death and leads political leaders to dismiss the need to protect pedestrians and cyclists – so-called “vulnerable road users” – from cars and trucks.
Put simply, the researchers contend that many Western societies are now conditioned to believe that the deaths of vulnerable road users are nothing more than the price that must be paid to satisfy desires for transportation systems designed to make travel by motor vehicle as fast and as easy as possible.
Thus when a pedestrian is rundown on Anchorage’s Abbott Road as happened in broad daylight on Saturday afternoon, and the Anchorage Police Department actually charges the driver involved in the collision – something which almost never happens in Alaska’s largest city – some rush to the defend the driver.
“….There were several witnesses on the scene who stated the driver wasn’t at fault,” someone identifying as Tiphanie Huckstep promptly posted on the APD Facebook page in the wake of the accident, “and the person ran out in the road in front of the vehicle in a way they believe he wasn’t able to prevent the accident. There was a field sobriety test and the only other one done was a blood test, but those must have come back already right? Just asking since having him blow didn’t produce results and I watched the field sobriety test done on uneven around and I didnt see any signs of impairment? I’m no an official, but a bystander and these details paint someone in an unfair light. I’d like the results of the blood test being completed before you put this poor kid on blast. I’m sure he experienced some shock and trauma today as well.”
There is no mention of how fast 22-year-old Jaden Jabaay was driving when he struck and killed 20-year-old Jasper Bowers, a veteran of the fabled Seward Mount Marathon, but speed is always a factor in collisions that leave pedestrians dead.
According to the American Automobile Association (AAA), 90 percent of people hit by a car doing 23 mph or less survive, and 75 percent survive being struck at speeds between 24 and 32 mph. After that, the odds fall fast with 50 percent survival at 42 mph, 25 percent at 50 mph and 10 percent at 58 mph or more.
“Risks vary significantly by age,” the AAA’s Foundation for Traffic Safety adds. “For example, the average risk of severe injury or death for a 70‐year‐old pedestrian struck by a car travelling at 25 mph is similar to the risk for a 30‐year‐old pedestrian struck at 35 mph.”
That didn’t help Bowers.
Abbott Road is a suburban thoroughfare with a posted speed limit of 45 mph, but people regularly drive the road at 55 mph or faster, and many ignore environmental conditions that can, in winter’s such as this, render the 45 mph limit too fast.
“Safety issues have…increased, with growing speeds and volumes of traffic on roads that are often icy and slick,” the Municipalities 2010 Hillside District Plan warned. The plan was full of concerns about traffic speeds and safety, but nothing happened to lessen those dangers after the plan was written.
Lowering road speeds in Anchorage is unpopular, and the speed limits on city streets are rarely enforced. APD efforts to catch speeding drivers largely focus on the Seward and Glenn Highways, where pedestrian access is banned. Speeding on roads used by vulnerable road users is virtually non-existent.
There are good reasons.
Speeding, as the British researchers noted, “is an illegal behavior practiced by most drivers that is widely indulged by the public, the media, and the justice system. The treatment of speeding and dangerous driving can be contrasted with other infringements of law that are much more socially disapproved, such as littering, graffiti, public drunkenness, or street noise, unless that noise comes from motor vehicles, of course.
“But if (this) motonormativity were just the casual acceptance of illegal and antisocial behavior we would be writing (this paper) for a criminological audience; perhaps more serious is that motonormative thinking is also endemic in the medical and sustainability worlds and the surrounding policy spheres. It is at the root of how we address vulnerable road user injury by asking what the victims were wearing rather than why they were expected to mix in the first place with vehicles carrying thousands of tons more kinetic energy.”
This victim-blaming behavior emerged in the wake of Bowers’ death, too, with one post on the APD Facebook page suggesting “jaywalking,” as if it were illegal for pedestrians to cross the endless number of roads in the municipality lacking crosswalks, and another claimed that Bowers shouldn’t have been where he was because it was a “private driveway.”
Absolving drivers of any responsibility for killing people does not make for better drivers, and the results are written in blood.
“One in six people who died in crashes in 2020 were pedestrians. Most pedestrian deaths occur in urban areas, on roadway locations away from intersections – where higher speeds might occur – and at night.”
Often, the dead are victims of both bad transportation corridor design that ignores anything but motor-vehicle traffic and bad drivers. The Governors Highway Safety Association is now reporting the pedestrian death toll rose to near 7,500 in 2021. Their preliminary data suggests “drivers struck and killed 7,485 people walking in 2021 – the most in a single year in four decades.”
The death rate, according to the association’s numbers, was 20 percent above the long-term average, and the “data analysis revealed a troubling statistic: The percentage of speeding-related pedestrian deaths among children younger than 15 has more than doubled since 2018, from 5.8 percent to 11.9 percent.”
Some parents have noticed.
“Drive Like Your Kids Live Here” signs appear to be sprouting like dandelions all over the country – and yes, even in Anchorage – but there are no indications they are slowing drivers down or making them any more attentive.
There seems more concern about the “shock and trauma” of someone behind the wheel of a car that kills a fellow human though some of them seem no more bothered by this than if they had killed a moose or someone’s pet dog.
With a young man dead along Abbott Road, the concern for some became the possibility the driver behind the wheel was being painted “in an unfair light,” but this is exactly the reason why APD itself rarely identifies the drivers involved in fatal collisions. Killing someone with your car is generally considered an “accident,” in the view of local police.
And when there is an accident, according to a department spokeswoman, the agency doesn’t “identify people unless charges are filed.”
This sort of behavior on the part of authorities, according to the researchers from Swansea University’s Walkers and colleagues from the University of West of England, helps define the Theory of Motonormativity which identifies “a cultural inability to think objectively and dispassionately….aris(ing)because of shared, largely unconscious assumptions about how travel is, and must continue to be, primarily a car-based activity.”
When two days after the Abbott Road death another pedestrian was killed by a hit-and-run driver in the early morning hours along Spenard Road in Anchorage, the first post on the APD Facebook page again put the blame on the dead person:
“I live by here. People run across from the Alex (Hotel and Suites) to the store all the time. All hours of the day. Crosswalk is 100 feet away. It was not if. But when.
“In saying that. Running. Come on man.”
The thinking beyond such posts is based on the now normal idea that anyone venturing onto or near a roadway without the protection of a steel cage is accepting the risk of being killed – asking for it, if you will – and thus if they are killed, it is their fault. There is, ironically, far less public acceptance of one driver running his or her car into another and killing someone than in a driver killing a vulnerable road user because the death of the vulnerable road user is expected in such collisions while the steel cage is supposed to protect people.
The societal costs of such thinking are, unfortunately, not limited to the deaths of the relatively small number of innocent people run down and killed by motor vehicles on the road. The societal costs have been far greater – albeit less obvious – in the damage to public health.
“Here in the United Kingdom, like in many societies around the world, we are in the midst of environmental degradation and no fewer than three parallel health epidemics thanks to the easy hypermobility afforded by private motor vehicles,’ the British researchers observed. “We have an epidemic of collisions, with 1,752 deaths and 25,945 serious injuries in 2019, the last year before the Covid pandemic, (and) we have an epidemic of physical inactivity responsible for 22 to 23 percent of coronary heart disease, 16 to 17 percent of colon cancer, 15 percent of diabetes, 12 to 13 percent of strokes and 11 percent of breast cancer despite 24 percent of car trips being under two miles and so mostly amenable to walking or cycling.
“And we have an epidemic of pollution with vehicle exhaust fumes causing cancer, heart disease and diabetes at such levels that (Royal College of Physicians) estimates have put the UK air pollution death toll at 40,000 per year.”
U.S. deaths linked to a general lack of fitness and obesity are as high or higher than those in the UK, and though no one has yet to do the study tying pandemic deaths to lack and fitness and obesity, the number when it comes in is sure to be a big one. British researchers at the very start of the pandemic calculated that slow walkers – slow walking being an easy measure of basic fitness – had about a two-and-a-half times greater chance of dying from Covid-19 than brisk walkers.
The motor vehicle was one of humankind’s greatest inventions of the 20th century, but the motonormativity it spawned is now making the species pay in many ways. We have met the enemy, and it is parked in our driveways and garages.
Forget about any future issues with global warming, motonormativity is causing big-time problems in the here and now. And the holy grail of climate change crusaders – the electric car – won’t fix these problems.
“Even a future switch to electric vehicles would address only one of (the) three epidemics,” Walker and his colleagues wrote. “It is
clear we must acknowledge a simple fact: transport issues are not just environmental issues: they are also inherently public health issues.”
But who wants to face those facts when it’s a lot easier to get in the car and drive a few blocks to a friend’s house for dinner than to walk there?