The problem with handing out real punishments for the kind of crimes that everyone could realistically be a perpetrator of is that nobody really wants that kind of consequence for themselves.
Usually, this isn’t a problem. Most crimes that are severe enough to worry about are committed by people we are generally not afraid of becoming. We want them off the streets. We want them punished. They’re not us.
Most crimes we can identify with are not of a severity that is enough to really worry about, so we can accept the meager consequences in these instances.
The cases that become a little more contentious, however, are often concerning minorities. You know, an all-white, middle-class jury handing down a harsh sentence to a struggling black man. Or the opposite – financial industry big-wigs who are busted for white-collar crime of gross proportions and get off with a slap on the wrist and still get a huge severance package (if they even lose their positions).
These things make us upset. It can seem as though justice is thwarted by those with power, either in wealth, or influence, or simply in numbers.
Innocent because we’re all guilty
Justice can also be thwarted by the basic drive towards self-interest. You know what I’m talking about. We’ve all done it to some degree at some point in our lives. Perhaps when you were younger and got yourself involved in a little bit of a caper with a few mates and one or more of them gets busted, but you decide to take the high-road and graciously excuse the behaviour to save yourself from being discovered. It could just as easily been you that is in their position, so, hey, it’s really just a misunderstanding, or not really that big of a deal, or really, it was kind of the other persons fault anyway. Let’s all just forget about it and move on.
Here’s the thing, though. We never really grow out of that. The trouble we get into as adults isn’t even all that different. You might be thinking that we’d be better because we’re smarter and more responsible, but it’s likely worse for the very same reasons: we should have a better understanding of the consequences, even when it’s all “just a bit of fun”. As for the distancing of ourselves from the situation, that’s exactly the same as when we were kids. We didn’t want to get into trouble then, and it’s no different now. If it can be avoided, we’ll give it a shot.
Retail shrinkage and banana prison
When discussing people’s propensity to let people off with only their own guilt (or not) to serve as the consequence for killing someone with their car when it could have easily been avoided, it looks like to me that what we’re talking about is an example of people rigging the environment so that they can get away with something in the future if they get caught doing it. Getting people used to a situation. Building their tolerance to it. Protecting the precedent that could benefit you if necessary.
You work at a supermarket and you want to steal bananas. Over time, you influence management that a certain percentage of retail shrinkage is acceptable so that you can start taking bananas home. In the meantime, maybe you start stashing bananas in various places around the supermarket or convince other staff to take a few home – either way, you’re not currently at risk of being caught out.
Not convicting anyone for killing someone else with their car (specifically when the victim is a more vulnerable road user) is the same as the situation above, except you might never end up stealing bananas. You might though, and if you do, you’re covered. What is happening is that we are continuously protecting ourselves against the possibility that if we were to end up being caught with illicit bananas in our bags, we wouldn’t be sent to banana prison.
(note: I’ll just mention here that I don’t think prison, strictly speaking, is always, for every scenario, the best response, but, for a matter as serious as killing someone when that could have easily been avoided, the consequences need to be serious indeed)
All the pieces are there, but nobody wants to put them together
Why do we end up needing to license people for doing certain things? Because they are dangerous. There is risk associated with the action. People weren’t required to obtain a driver’s license by passing a test whereby they proved that they were competent to operate a car until some time after they became popular, and it was because they were becoming such a problem with damage to, well, everything, that it was necessary. It is an agreement, a contract, saying that “I know the responsibilities that come with this, and I will operate this vehicle in accordance to and with respect for the law and for human life.”
And, to ensure we remain diligent, we have amassed a collection of consequences for all kinds of things that can be dangerous. Texting. Speeding. Driving drunk. There are punishments for these, no questions. We agree, even if we don’t realize it, that driving is dangerous. We agree that there are consequences to behaving badly in a car. We agree that killing someone with one’s vehicle is a tragedy and should be avoided at all costs. We have taken incredible steps to cushion the blow of “accidents” as much as possible, without having done anything to adjust for one of the most significant factors in any
accident collision: the person controlling the vehicle.
Isn’t it interesting that we automatically hand out punishments for speeding even if it statistically hardly ever amounts to any harm to anyone, yet in so many cases when people kill someone with a car, we find it so hard to do anything that says, “this is not acceptable”?
Driving in a way that could cause harm is not acceptable, but actually causing harm is just something we accept as a sad inevitability of having cars everywhere.
Who’s going to look out for the bananas?
So if we can actually, somehow, get people on board with the concept that our responsibility is really to behave in a way that doesn’t kill people, and if we do kill someone then we have pretty clearly breached the contract we entered into when we were granted the privilege of driving a car and so therefore consequences must follow, how will that actually happen? That’s a big problem. Basically, you would have to be ready to sentence yourself to prison if you were to kill someone accidentally, yet negligently. That’s a big call.
The judge. The jury. Me. You. We all have to be ready to convict ourselves of manslaughter if we are to get any justice for the dead out of our system. It is because we can so easily imagine that we could be in that position that our society so eagerly treats road deaths as “accidents” and fails to attach any real consequence to the action.
In a bizarre twist of logic, we believe that it could so easily be us in that position that we hesitate to set a precedent that recognizes the seriousness of the situation, yet we also do as little as possible to design the danger out of the system with slower speeds, higher standards for drivers, meaningful consequences, and crucially, a physical environment that accounts for people’s lack of diligence.
This driver had a responsibility to, in general, drive safely, and specifically, to not kill anyone. She didn’t, and now someone is dead. We can all agree that this is a tragedy, but we simply can’t bring ourselves to treat it as something that should not be acceptable. The way I see it, this is a failure to comply with the agreement that driving is dangerous, is strictly regulated, and shall come with consequences. We want to keep driving, but don’t want to have to worry about the consequences when it’s our turn. So, we remove the real consequences for as many people as possible apart from the really, really terrible people who should be accountable for their actions.
What the judge says is, I find, absolutely amazing, and particularly disturbing:
Judge Paul Cuthbertson said Campanella was not speeding or intoxicated, but had a “gross lapse of concentration” and was likely day-dreaming when she drifted into the victim.
Judge Cuthbertson said most drivers would be guilty of momentary lapses of concentration, but occasionally such lapses resulted in devastating consequences.
“She was doing nothing legally wrong except for not paying proper attention, something we all do when driving to a greater or lesser degree,” Judge Cuthbertson said.
He said he accepted Campanella was genuinely remorseful and was a “good person”.
“I think she will carry this cross for the rest of her life,” Judge Cuthbertson said.
He suspended an 11-week jail sentence and placed Campanella on a three-year bond.
If the victim was the judges daughter or wife, I suspect his rather easygoing outlook on the situation would be somewhat different.
This driver also had a responsibility to drive without killing anyone, but despite not being able to see past the bonnet of her car, she decided that continuing on into the unknown, which contained an 82-year-old lollipop man at a crossing, was a suitable course of action. Result? Dead lollipop man, and dropped charges .
With each case decided in favour of the right to drive without fear of meaningful consequences over the right to not be killed by people driving cars, we inch ever further away from justice.
So how do we change this? We have to want to. Which is a shame, because, as much as we don’t like killing people, we seem to not like being responsible for it even more.
It would be a nightmare to administer, but in cases where motorists (or cyclists, for the one in a million cases where that happens and fault is clearly established) kill a cyclist or pedestrian, it would be great to have no more than 50% of the jury made up of motorists. I suspect the results would start to change.
We are completely comfortable convicting a real criminal to real consequences, but not because we believe that devastating actions that could have reasonably been avoided should carry consequences for the good of the community, but because a real criminal is not someone we see when we look in the mirror.
There are times when a dictatorship would have its advantages.
I fear that as long as we are a society made up almost exclusively of motorists, the law as it concerns the more vulnerable on our roads, when it truly matters, is always going to land in favour of those behind the wheel of a car. There may be exceptions, but they will have brought their own heads on a platter. For the rest, justice will remain as fleeting as a lollipop man in the sun, and as difficult to catch as a daydream with your hands.
Header image: source