reflections on a car accident

So I’m walking Adam to school, around 9 a.m. We approach the corner of Lincoln and Arizona. On one side of that corner is a popular pre-school. At this time in the morning, streams of strollers, parents and maids are moving towards it. On Lincoln, a white car decides (or rather the driver decides – but from our position on the sidewalk, the cars are the masters of the street) that he can make the light – which had clearly turned red – if he pumpe the gas. He pumped the gas and promptly collided with an SUV which was turning onto Arizona. It was a big crash.
As is always the case when cars crash, everybody around froze and watched. I imagine everybody around, like me, had a breathless moment, too. Was somebody hurt? Was somebody killed?
It seems that the answer is no. Slowly the pilgrims to the school resumed their walking, and Adam and I resumed ours.
So, what was the purpose of that potential destruction of human life and the mechanical damage that I’d assess, by eye, as well over 5 thousand dollars?
The purpose was to gain a full two minutes. Stopping at the red light, the white car would have had to wait.
There’s an article in this week’s LRB about a movement in philosophy called “effective altruism.” Inspired by Peter Singer, this movement seeks to direct philanthropy to the most effective causes for ameliorating misery. Although it might sound good in this neo-liberal era, where the gains of democratic socialism have been so pushed back that private philanthropy is now considered the only response to the terrible conditions of the “poor” – thus aggrandizing the power of the wealthiest, of course – still, the whole enterprise, if the explanation in the review is accurate, sounds completely null.
Interestingly, one of the way these new “philanthropists” decide what cause to contribute to is by comparing quality of life measurements. If the quality of life of , say, a blind person is objectively measured and shown to be less than a person with AIDS, then you give to causes to cure blindness. The idea that blindness and AIDS might be connected, might in fact be part of a system of public health or its neglect, doesn’t have a place in this philosophy. Each misery is considered in royal isolation.
However, if one were to do this kind of calculus, surely the misery caused by car wreck – 1.24 million deaths worldwide from car wreck were recorded in 2010, not to speak of the injuries – would surely rank up there. Before one contributed to gun control laws or things of this sort, one should, by the efficient altruism theorem, contribute to suppressing the automobile.
Nobody in reality is going to suppress the automobile. The last public intellectual to seriously consider this was George Orwell, who did think that automobiles by law shouldn’t go more than 30 miles per hour.
In an article in Le travail humain, Anticipation visuelle de collisions en situations simulées: effets de l'expérience de la conduit, C. Berthelon et al. coin some truly Delilo-esque terms to speak of the behavioral situation of the driver in a car. One I love is the “optical flow field”.
“Human observers,” according to the article, “perceive the direction of their displacement relative to some such global flow with a precision that is sufficient to control locomotion in an important spectrum of trajectories and environments.”
Indeed. As we all know, human evolution gave us bodies that could move, by our own locomotion, in bursts of speed up to 27.78 miles per hour. That peak speed was greater than the speed of a chariot or of most vessels in the ancient world.  The peak speed of a tireme, for instance, was about 8 knots, or 9 miles per hour. Of course, humans can’t maintain their peak speed, so the chariot and the tireme were useful. But, for the most part of human natural history, legs were the speediest instruments humans possessed. And, as one would expect, that speed keyed our human reaction time. Our natural global optical flow was such that other flows – the flow of a charging bull, or the flow of a river in flood – often confused us. The literature on bear attacks is a good source for our natural human reaction time to threatening phenomenon in the optical flow. It doesn’t bode well for natural human reaction time to threatening phenomena like 4 thousand pounds of metal moving at 60 miles per hour. Freezing and  racing away are both bad things to do in a car.
Our first mass exposure to speeds that far exceeded those attained by our legs occurred on railroad trains. Schivelbusch’s marvelous little book, The Railway Journey, culls accounts of the first passengers on railroads and their vertiginous experience of a very different regime of velocity.
“The average traveling speed of the early railways in England is 20 to 30 miles an hour, which is roughly three times the speed previously achived by stagecoaches. Thus, any given distance is covered in oen third of the customary time: temporally, that distance shrinks to one-third of its former length.”

Shrinkage, then as now, was the way this kind of transportation  velocity was conceived. It is a rhetoric that penetrates Alice in wonderland, where Carroll has great fun with Alice figuring out the game of shrinking and growing as she drinks the potion that diminishes her to ten inches high, so that she can fit through the door she finds to get into a garden, and eats a cake, to make herself get bigger, or if necessary, smaller. This was precisely the game that was being played by geographers at the time in the popular quarterlies. Schivelbusch finds, for instance, this quotation from a British magazine that irresistably suggests Alice.

“For instance, supposing that railroads, even at our present simmering rate of traveling, were to be suddenly established all over england, the whole population of the country would, speaking metaphorically, at once advance en masse, and place their chairs nearer to the fireside of their metropolis by two thirds…”

Magically, though, the objects in the optical flux would remain the same size as ever. In this way, shrinking isn’t really shrinking, even though it is.

The next great leap in shrinking and not shrinking was, of course, the automobile. The passengers didn’t direct the railroad car, they just sat in it. Now they were placed to direct a weighty object going at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour.

Greg Siegel, in a Foucauldian article entitled The Accident Is Uncontainable/The Accident Must Be Contained: High-Speed Cinematography and the Development of Scientific Crash Testing, claims that World War II marks a difference between two administrative responses to car crashes. In the first period, the emphasis was on reducing car accidents to the lowest possible number. In the second period, after WWII – and as the strategy of nuclear war made popular the idea that the attainment of state objectives that might cost millions of lives in a brief period of time – the emphasis shifted to administering the damage –or as Siegel puts it, from Crash avoidance to Crash amelioration. The parallel with war strategy is not arbitrary –the construction of vast highway systems was propelled by the strategy of nuclear war and the imperative to make cities evacuable in record time.

“By the early 1950s, however, the basic terms and tendency of auto-safety discourse had changed dramatically. The emphasis was no longer on the prevention (and progressive elimination) of accidents but, rather, on the reduction of crash injuries and fatalities. This conceptual and discursive shift - from a regime of crash avoidance to one of crash amelioration - was tied to the emergence of a new technoscientific ritual: the automobile-collision experiment. Full-scale "accidents," complete with humanoid dummies as human surrogates, were painstakingly re-created at several industrial and institutional sites across America during the postwar period. Intricate systems of instrumentation, electronic and photographic, were used to facilitate the observation, registration, and analysis of the collisional process in all of its aspects: every motion, every mechanical deformation, every anatomical contortion.”

Those tests were performed at sites that, five years before, had used dummies for another purpose – to explore the effect of incendiary bombing. The US Air force would construct Japanese like houses in order to understand how best to burn them down and how best to make sure their inhabitants would also fry.

This history is in the background of the evolutionary restraints that came into play with my man in the white car this morning, speeding towards a red stop light.

In a sense, what happened was a triumph for the second regime. The collision of the cars did not crush either of them, or cause them to burst into flame, as in the movies. The drivers emerged alive – the passengers were not strewn across the asphalt, bleeding.

However, one has to ask: what is waiting to a humanoid dummy?

For the automobile environment is not only about the individual human being and his or her proprioceptive system, but the interlocking of all those systems on the road, in traffic, and on all the roads that follow the driver, in memory, or that the driver envisions, in the future. What the driver learns, and what is communicated throughout all our technical systems, is that waiting is an almost unbearable negation of the driver’s purpose. Waiting is the enemy.

Waiting, however, is not the enemy. Waiting, I would say, is the hidden foundation of ethics. Not respect – respect derives from waiting.

Which is a position I should defend at some future time.