Wednesday, January 16, 2013

If We Want to Ban Deadly Weapons, Let's Ban Cars

Gate City, Virginia, has not had a school shooting, but we have had an historic tragedy in which a single demented individual killed a large number of students. The murderer was a drunk driver; the weapon was a car.

The incident occurred in the 1940s. The students were a Sunday School class of "older" teenagers. My father, not yet sixteen, wasn't in the group but recalled being taken to sit beside his older brother in the hospital. Nothing could really be done to save the uncle I never saw. My father and the younger uncle I did know had to watch their brother die.

About a dozen other teenagers were killed or permanently disabled by this "accident." I knew some of the survivors. So far as I know none of them is still alive, although other people their age have not necessarily even retired.

After this accident my grandparents, two of my grandfather's brothers and their wives, my father, and some of the cousins, vowed that they would not own or drive cars. Some of these vows were later set aside, in some cases when my then-young elders joined the Army. Dad's younger brother was ordered to learn to drive a car, and did. Dad, himself, got around the moral conflict by remembering his brother's death when he got behind the wheel; this caused him to tremble visibly, and since he was otherwise a good soldier he was excused from driving on account of his "phobia." (It's unsettling to think that, if this happened today, the soldier would probably be "medicated" with something that commonly causes sterility and sometimes causes violent insanity.)

I wasn't alive when these vows were taken. By the time I was born nobody really demanded that I take similar vows. I learned to drive and have owned three motor vehicles at different times in my life. After Dad became blind, he not only didn't forbid me to drive to work, but encouraged me to "get some practice and pay off car-pool debts." The primary reason why I don't own a car, and drive only in emergencies, is that I inherited Mother's astigmatism; driving feels like the equivalent of running a marathon to my eye muscles. There are a few dozen contributing factors, of which the memory of my elders comes way back behind the money I save by not driving, the pollution I avoid by not driving, the health benefits of walking, the moral issues involved in gambling schemes like car insurance, and the memory of a child in a car I forced to swerve out of the road when I lost control of my last car....but I try not to lay guilt trips on people who share their cars with me, because sometimes (like today) I really appreciate the fact that other people don't mind driving cars.

What happened after the tragedy? Nobody in Washington called for any bans on specific types of motor vehicles; back then, such a show of ingratitude toward American Industry was unthinkable. Nobody called for a revival of Prohibition; both cars and alcohol were actively marketed. Instead, concerned parents across America started discouraging children from walking anywhere, and unto this day, as a woman who would be a grandmother by now if I'd ever been a mother, I still hear "friendly" comments like "It's dangerous to walk! Aren't you scared?"

Once in a while I have been intimidated, by road hogs or other street criminals...but I am my father's daughter. One of my "Yes-but" moments, while reading John Stossel's Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity, occurred when Stossel claimed that "We don't" tell five-year-old girls to stop acting like babies if they cry. Hah. Maybe the Stossel family don't, but my own Drill Sergeant Dad did. Some other things he told me were "Of course the tree's shaking under you! That's why you're up there! Now stop whining and shake down the fruit!" and "Why didn't you stand up and turn that runaway mule? Don't you know a horse or mule will turn if you wave and shout at it--well, nine times out of ten, anyway," and "So you've been offered a job? That's wonderful! Now go back and tell'em to hire your brother too, because you're not going to work there without him." In short: feel the fear and do it anyway, because it's better to die doing something that's worth doing than to live knowing that you were too much of a coward to do it. So I'll pay someone to drive if I need to go further than I could walk in the time allotted, but I will not be bullied out of my right to walk.

I can think of some ways our government could be protecting my right, and every American's right, to walk to school, work, church, or wherever. I'm not talking about packing people into slums where they're afraid to walk, in any case, because everybody basically hates everybody else being too close to them. I'm talking about making it physically safe to walk around town. Concrete barriers around motor traffic lanes would have saved the life of that uncle I never knew, back in the 1940s, and would save thousands of other lives now. I've made some tongue-in-cheek recommendations by analogy with idiotic firearms laws; I seriously believe that every road should have a motor-free lane, and roads that are wide enough should have a motor-traffic lane, and there should be enough concrete between the two to keep the road hogs on their side of the barrier. Without that physical barrier, pedestrian and bicycle lanes are a joke.

There's an analogous recommendation for protecting school children from the likes of Adam Lanza, at least, if not from Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Adam Lanza was not a student at the Sandy Hook school. He was not the parent of a student. He was not a school employee. That being the case, how did he get into that classroom? A simple policy like "All visitors must report to the office" would have protected the children Lanza murdered. I'm not sure that even a policy that the school should have an armed guard, as some legislators have proposed, would have been necessary to have kept Lanza out of that schoolroom...although it would have helped, and may help at some other school some day.

But if we want to indulge in the kind of sloppy, primary-school-age-level thinking documented here...

...then, to be consistent, instead of just working toward a reasonable goal like putting concrete barriers between cars and pedestrians, we should "try very hard to make cars not allowed."

Cars kill many times more people than guns do.