I find it extremely frustrating that most people do not look beyond the (usually imagined) behavior of the people involved in an accident like the one that almost killed my sister, or that did kill Megan Glanville. Either they identify with the frustrating experience of driving, and blame the victim, or they side with the law, and place the responsibility at the feet of the operator of the more dangerous vehicle. I will always side with the person who suffered more, but both views are myopic. When someone has been killed in an accident, the question of who was more "right" in that sliver of time is irrelevant. It is worse than irrelevant; it is an insult to the lives of all the people affected.
There are other, far more urgent questions that need to be raised. If you see a problem, the first question you should always ask is, "In what way am I responsible for this?" We are all bound together by bonds of mutual responsibility, and nothing happens among people, good or bad, for which each of us are not in some sense responsible. That is what words like "society," "community," and "civilization" mean. They describe the fact that the bonds that link us together are fundamentally inescapable. There is such a thing as integrity, but there is no such thing as self-reliance. Interdependence is the very essence of what makes us human. And so, if you see something that upsets you, the first thing you should look at is your own role in causing it. Through our choices, we were all present on morning that George Souza killed Megan Glanville. You. Me. Everyone. We all had a hand in it.
Clearly, we failed. You failed. I failed. Someone is dead as a consequence of that failure.
So, let us set aside the choices of George Souza and Megan Glanville, and look at the choices we made that contributed to this terrible thing. They are easy enough to see :
This is the crosswalk where Megan was killed, which is part of a system of roads that belong to the City of Davis. The arrow on the yellow sign is pointing almost directly at the spot. The laws that govern the design of the road are a kaleidoscopic fugue of local, county, state, federal and international regulations. Within that often contradictory matrix of statutes, the city government has a small keyhole of authority within which it may choose what the road looks like and how it works.
From an engineering point of view, it's pretty clear what the problem is. The road on the left is just a stone's throw from the border of the city. Beyond the border, it is a wide county road that cuts a nearly straight line for miles among orchards and farms. When it crosses into the city, this road suddenly plunges into a dense residential neighborhood with no transition whatsoever. The intersection where Megan was killed is the very first intersection an eastbound driver encounters in the City of Davis. So, drivers come in from the county road going at county road speeds, and roar through this intersection where people are trying to cross to the bike path that parallels the road. Add a little darkness and bit of fog, and the accident was basically inevitable.
Why was this intersection designed this way? I don't know. According to the laws and statutes that regulate its engineering, there is nothing particularly wrong with it. But then again, houses that catch fire and burn people alive inside are often built to code. Compliance with the law is not enough. Only thoughtful design can keep people safe, and the absence of that thoughtfulness killed someone.
So, who is to blame? The legislators who wrote the statues describing how intersections should be designed? The engineers whose designs were constrained by those statutes? The City of Davis Public Works Department that built and maintained it? Surely, some of the responsibility falls to them. But not very much. If you've ever driven, walked or bicycled through the intersection of Lake and Russell, then a great deal of the responsibility falls on you. If you've ever felt uncomfortable or unsafe while passing through it, then you knew someone would get hurt there sooner or later.
The Council Chambers are open to the public. The meetings and agendas are available weeks in advance for all to see, at CityOfDavis.org. You can even submit your concerns in writing if you don't have time to come to the meetings. In other words, you had the reason and the means to get this fixed, or at least play a part in getting it fixed, before Megan Glanville was killed. I share in this responsibility; I serve on the commission charged with advising the City Council on these things, and I did not raise this issue either. And I use this intersection several times a day. And I always feel unsafe. It is my fault too.
So, here is what is going to happen. The City Council was asked, and agreed, to take steps to prevent anyone else from getting killed. The proposed changes will add stop signs on Russell Boulevard in both directions, a blinking red light in case drivers don't see the stop signs in the fog, and four new street lights for better illumination overall. It will cost about $20,000.
This is a much better design. It's impossible to know if it would have saved Megan's life had it been in place in December, but it seems likely that it would have. I strongly support it.
Roads are not natural phenomena. They are public infrastructure, and they are designed and built and maintained in exactly the way the public asks them to be. Let's try to do a better job of holding up our end of that conversation.
In particular, this is map is intended to examine bicycle accidents. I hope people will look at this map, and think about how they behave on the roads, weather on foot, on a bicycle, or in a car. How you behave on the road has direct, and sometimes dire, consequences for you and for other people.
However, there is more to this than behavior. This is also a design question. Roads are not natural features. They are designed and built by people for use by people. As with anything that is made by humans, there are good designs and bad designs. These designs have a real impact on peoples' lives. In the case of streets, the impact on your life can be very literal, as this map shows.
Even good designs can always be improved. Davis is a pretty safe town in which to walk, bicycle and drive. But if you study this map, and think about it as you go about the town, it's also clear that things could be better.
I'm not a traffic engineer, or a civil engineer, or a city planner. I claim no expertise in those areas. I'll leave it to other people to make specific suggestions. However, I think it is important for the users of streets -- pretty much everybody -- to think about what kind of streets they want. This map should help give you a better idea of what kind of streets we actually have.
For some reason, people seem to get very emotional about traffic. I grew up in Los Angeles, home of the nation's worst traffic jams. Perhaps this is to make up for our lack of a professional football franchise. Passions about transportation, especially mundane things like parking spaces and HOV lanes, get people really worked up. Los Angeles is also famous for road rage, and nowhere is it in greater evidence than in the corridors of City Hall. Public meetings on traffic can make I-405 look like afternoon tea. In fact, thousands of people from all over the world tune into the internet broadcast of the Santa Monica city council meetings to listen to Californians scream at each other over the exact position of little blobs of paint on little strips of asphalt.
What the conversation needs, I think, is some perspective. Data can help provide that perspective, especially if it can be represented in a way that is easy to understand. Maps are good at that.
If you will indulge me, I'd like to share my perspective on this data. Each marker represents a traumatic event for someone. Under some of those markers, a life came to a sudden, violent end. I'd like to share a picture of what kind of event a marker on this map represents. You won't find a marker for this event because it happened in Norman, Oklahoma, a college town that is a lot like Davis.
Anna and me
In October of 2007, my little sister was riding her bicycle near her house. A lady in a Mercedes made a lazy left turn, and crossed onto the wrong side of the road. She hit Anna head-on. Anna went up and over the hood of the car, and face-planted on the windshield, breaking her nose and her front teeth. The lady slammed on the breaks, and Anna then went flying off the car and slammed her head on the pavement. That much is clear from where my mother photographed the tire marks, the blood stains, and scattered teeth.
Who designed this street, anyway?
The sequence of events afterward are a little unclear, since Anna does not remember anything from that day, or for several days before and after the accident. The police report includes several details that are impossible or don't make any sense; for example, the officer thought she was coming out of a driveway onto the street, but the driveway did not belong to anyone she knew, and was paved in gravel (extremely annoying to bicycle on). The report also places the accident on the wrong side of the street, which was obvious enough based on the tire marks and blood. Based on what her friends say she was doing -- biking from her house to a friend's house -- she would have just been pedaling along the side of the road. The details of what happened are somewhat unclear, other than the evidence left on the road and gouged onto my sister's face.
After hitting the pavement, she evidently got up and staggered around for a bit, and then collapsed. She stopped breathing, and officer on the scene couldn't find a pulse, and assumed that she was dead. This was the reason given for not immediately summoning an ambulance.
Then she suddenly revived and started mumbling. The lady who ran her down went into screaming hysterics, and had to be restrained (or evacuated, or something). It was only then that an ambulance was called. From the report, it appears that paramedics and police spent a good deal of time tending to the driver of the car, who was having an anxiety attack, instead of Anna, who was bleeding from massive head trauma.
Anna then spent the next several days in the hospital. My mother got on the next flight to stay with her. For the next several days, Anna went through long and short memory lapses and dizzy spells of various lengths. When I spoke to her on the phone over the next several days, she also had some kind of aphasia, which was very jarring to me because she is normally a very articulate person. And then there was the puking. Brain injuries often come with a heavy dose of overpowering nausea. She was on anti-nausea drugs for a long time after the accident.
It took a long time for he to start feeling "normal" again. Almost two years later, she's still not sure she feels completely normal. Fortunately, thanks to some really great work by her surgeons, she looks normal. Needless to say, she is both very lucky and very tough.
Anna's bicycle. The police kept it as evidence, but allowed my mother to photograph it.
You could say that I have a personal stake in this, and I will not claim to be unbiased. Many people who argue against safety measures that would slow traffic argue their case on the basis of personal responsibility. We are each responsible for our actions, they argue, and if you do something stupid, you are responsible for the consequences. Why should people who don't do stupid things be inconvenienced?
I agree completely. However, if one casts any real issue into the frame of personal responsibility, then things are rarely so simple. Everyone who could act in a situation has responsibilities, even if they are not they are directly involved. When you have the power to prevent something bad from happening, and you choose not to act, then some of the responsibility falls on you. Every unfortunate, stupid thing that happens involves a cast of thousands of silent, but not blameless, bystanders.
We have a responsibility to at least attempt to protect people regardless of what they are doing -- even if it is stupid. This is especially true when it comes to the things we build. We shouldn't, if we can possibly avoid it, build things that injure and kill people. If we can think of ways to make something we build less dangerous, we ought to give it a try.
Anna and Earnie, about a year after the accident.
My little sister was stupid not to wear a helmet that day. The lady in the car was stupid not to have been on the lookout for cyclists. But neither of them deserved what happened. Each of them is obviously bears some measure of responsiblity (and I have my own opinions on how those measures are apportioned), but the city of Norman is also responsible. The city didn't even bother to paint a line down the middle of the road; what was the driver supposed to be on the wrong side of?
Yes, this is about personal responsibility. We, the public, build the roads. We are responsible for the markers on this map, and all the terror, trauma and tragedy they represent. Let's try to do better.
After wandering off the Bike Loop a bit, I decided to head home. I was biking down Russell Blvd., and I witnessed a very scary car accident. The accident happened where I stopped recording the track, at the red marker. A guy in a cherried-out lifted F-150 was sitting at the traffic light (that's the point where I turned around). When the light turned green, he floored it. According to the other witnesses, he was racing with someone, or trying to catch someone who had cut him off. I couldn't see the other car because it was behind his gigantic stupid truck.
What I did see, though, was that he accelerated continuously until he reached the next intersection (the red marker), where he had a head-on collision with a girl in a 1990's Honda Civic trying to make a left turn. His engine was deafeningly loud even a block away, and I heard it roaring and down-shifting right up until the crash.
Looking at the damage to her car, it looked like he basically ran it over. The lift kit on the truck put his undercarriage about level with her roof, and there were even little ladders installed to climb up to the doors. After he ran over the Civic, he swerved around a bit, jumped the median, sideswiped a small SUV in the oncoming traffic, spun 180 degrees, and snapped his axle. When the axle snapped, I heard his engine redline for half a second and then cut.
Happily, nobody was hurt. The girl in the Civic was pretty much petrified, though. She was convinced that the accident was her fault because she didn't get out of the way.
I told her this was nonsense; the truck was going more than double the speed limit, and I'm pretty sure he didn't have his lights on (it was dusk, but not completely dark yet). She asked me about five times, "How much do you think it will cost to fix?" I told her, "Cost you? Nothing. He was committing maybe a dozen moving violations, and probably racing someone. His insurance company will probably be so happy not to have to pay medical bills that they will buy you a whole new car."
Maybe she could have been a little swifter completing her turn, but it's a busy street and there is a lot of pedestrian and bicycle traffic (it parallels a bike path). Making a quick turn is probably not a good idea. Or, maybe she could have waited until this asshole passed, but, as I pointed out, he was going maybe 50 or 60 in a 30 zone, and accelerating. She timed her turn right for reasonable traffic flow, but didn't account for total maniacs among the oncoming traffic. It would have been difficult to judge when he would reach the intersection she was turning through.
As it turns out, Davis has been thinking about redesigning this stretch of Russell Blvd. for several years. If you look at the proposed design, it would have made this accident impossible or unlikely. You can't race on a one lane road, and a landscaped medium would have prevented the second collision.
I encountered these two defectors in an extremely crowded parking structure in Old Town Pasadena. This isn't just antisocial behavior. The owners of these two titanic vehicles are also breaking the clearly written rules.
It occurs to me that the decision to buy these vehicles in the first place can also be modeled using many, many iterations of the Prisoner's Dilemma played against every other driver. Here's how such a model might be constructed. The options are :
- Buy an SUV (defect)
- Buy a compact car (cooperate)
In a single round of Prisoner's Dilemma, it is usually reasoned that the only rational choice is to defect. However, when two individuals play many iterations against one another, more interesting strategies can succeed. The strategy that seems to do the best in most situations is some variant of generous, randomly forgiving tit-for-tat. To apply the Prisoner's Dilemma to the automobile market, you must view the game as continuously ongoing because a player can trade in their car for a different model at any time, and the game is played against every other driver on the road. Each iteration makes a marginal contribution to the total outcome for the player. For example, the actual risk of death is the sum over the marginal risk of death arising from the outcome of each game.
The outcomes are :
|defect||Punishment for Mutual Defection
Both players buy an SUV, negating the advantages of owning a larger vehicle. Both players are penalized with substantial marginal increases in traffic congestion, gas prices, risk of death, risk of injury, and rate of damage to shared environmental resources.
Player suffers moderate marginal increase of gas prices, traffic congestion, and rate of destruction of shared environmental resources than the Punishment for Mutual Defection. However, the player suffers a worse view of the road and substantially increased marginal risk of death and injury.
Player suffers a moderate marginal increase of gas prices, traffic congestion, and rate of destruction of shared environmental resources than the Punishment for Mutual Defection. They also enjoy better view of the road and a substantially reduced marginal risk of death or injury.
|Reward for Mutual Cooperation
Both the Player and the Stranger enjoy a better view of the road and substantial marginal reductions in gas prices, traffic congestion, rate of destruction of shared environmental resources, and risk of death and injury.
In computer models of the iterated Prisoner's Dilemma, and in real-world situations are well represented by the model, strategies that are "nice," "generous" and "forgiving" tend to thrive. These terms have a technical meaning here. "Nice" simply describes a strategy that will not defect first, "generous" describes strategies that will not retaliate against other players when they defect under some circumstances, and "forgiving" describes strategies that will "forget" about past defections of other players. Richard Dawkins describes this in some detail in The Selfish Gene (see Chapter 12: Nice Guys Finish First), basing much of his argument on the research of Robert Axelrod.
If the automobile market really can be modeled using the iterated Prisoners Dilemma, then we would expect to see the most successful strategies in Axelrod's tournaments, which are mostly "nice," become the dominant strategy for car-buying. That is to say, we should see mostly compact cars. So, why do people keep buying SUVs? They are playing Defect against the rest of us, hoping to receive the Temptation outcome from most of the iterations of the game.
This is especially curious because because both the Punishment for Mutual Defection and the Sucker's Payoff are very severe. It doesn't take very many people playing Defect to block the view on the road, to drive up gas prices, to dramatically increase the risk of death an injury for all drivers, and to accelerate the rate of destruction of our shared environment. The Reward for Mutual Cooperation should be a very strong attractor in the problem space.
It's very tempting to think of SUV buyers as stupid, or as assholes, or as sociopaths. However, it is more useful to model the decision as a purely rational decision based on what they think will be the best strategy. For most people, it probably isn't a rational choice, but that doesn't actually matter. In the model, we pretend that the players are playing as if they are making rational choices. This is how computers play Prisoner's Dilemma, even though they aren't capable of rational choices.
Game theory offers a fairly convincing (and rather grim) explanation for the phenomenon of SUVs. It makes less sense to play Cooperate if you don't think the game will go on for much longer. On the last round of the game, it becomes the classic, non-iterated Prisoner's Dilemma for which the only rational choice is Defect. Everyone knows that we're running out of oil. Consciously or unconsciously, people are behaving in a way that suggests that the shadow of the future is shortening.
The case was pretty simple, but wasn't completely cut-and-dry. Here is the basic sequence of events :
- There was a birthday party with about 12 people. The defendant was one of the guests.
- The party ended, and the guests went to the sidewalk to get their cars.
- The valet brought her 2007 Mercedes S-class to the curb, but did a crappy job of parking it.
- Another car (an brand new Austin Martin) stopped to wait for the defendant's car to pull out.
- Traffic backed up for about a block (a long block).
- Two motorcycle officers saw the traffic, and noticed that the blockage started at the valet area. This had happened before. They made a U-turn to see if they could get things moving again.
- The defendant, now in her car, pulled away from the curb. The Austin Martin took its spot, and traffic started moving again. The officers decide that nothing more needed to be done.
- The defendant's car stopped after traveling about the length of two parked cars. The defendant later explained that this was to put on her seatbelt.
- Seeing that traffic was once again blocked, the officer activated his lights and his squawker.
- The defendant moved her car up the street about the length of three parked cars, and turned onto Hollywood Blvd, where she yielded to the curb.
- The officer had only intended to prod her into moving along, but since she had pulled over, he figured he should investigate a little more.
- The officer smelled alcohol as soon as the window was rolled down.
- The officer ordered her out of the car and performed a field sobriety test, on which the defendant performed poorly (but not the worst he'd ever seen). The officer then offered her a voluntary breathalyser test, which measured her at more than twice the legal limit. She was arrested, booked, and tested again at the police station with a more sophisticated machine, where she once again came in at more than twice the legal limit.
The sticky part was what happened at between items 6 and 8. The arresting officer testified that the defendant was in the car the whole time. Basically, that nothing happened between item 6 and 8. The defense alleged that the defendant was waiting for her designated driver, and that the officer ordered her into the car, and ordered her to move it. Unfortunately, the evidence that might have supported this allegation (witness testimony) was apparently deemed inadmissible.
I suppose that the judge decided that whether or not she was ordered to drive was irrelevant, on the grounds that she could have refused the order. However, one of the key elements needed to sustain this kind of charge is that the act needs to be voluntary and deliberate (although one need not necessarily intend to break the law). If the officer's order somehow stripped her of her volition, that may undermine the charge.
However, we were never permitted to hear evidence to support the allegation that she was ordered into the car. Evidently, the judge didn't buy the argument that such an order might have stripped the defendant of her volition. So, based on the evidence we had on hand, we were forced to hand down a verdict of guilty on both charges.
Personally, I would have preferred to hear the argument and evidence pertaining to her volition. I probably would have urged a guilty verdict anyway, but I think it might have been relevant. After all, if a police officer orders you to do something, most people feel an extraordinary pressure to comply. If, in this case, the officer orders you to do something that happens to be illegal, I suppose it must be ones own responsibility to refuse. If that is what happened, the argument should have been vetted before the jury. It might not have helped the defendant, but if that is why she did what she did, she should have been permitted to explain herself.
Anyway, I'm very curious to find out what arguments were made during the sidebar discussions. Maybe I'll feel better about the verdict when I find out what was kept secret from us.
Otherwise, the experience was very interesting. We had a very entertaining bailiff. If you ever get pulled over by a Los Angeles County Sheriff named Rodriguez, and who has big tattoos on her biceps and talks very fast, she's only acting like a jerk. She's actually a very nice person. The jury had a lot of interesting people.
Oh, and George Takei was in my jury pool. He was dismissed, but I got a chance grumble a little about transportation to the courthouse with him and to say hello as he was leaving the next day. I wasn't quite sure if it was him, but his voice is absolutely unmistakable. He's also a really nice guy in person, though I don't think that's really news to anyone -- except maybe Tim Hardaway.
In truth, I actually don't have a bad sense of direction. I have a bad sense of timing. I usually know exactly where I am going and how to get there, but I often don't realize where I am in time to make the right turns.
Fortunately, one thing I am not going to do in Beijing is drive. I'm not particularly worried about the drivers in Beijing, though. I spent many years driving in Boston on a daily basis, so the belligerence, recklessness, carelessness and stupidity of other drivers is something I've grown expect. Rather, I refuse to drive in Beijing because cars are rolling legal time-bombs. Almost every aspect of a normal automotive experience is intimately tangled with litigation, prosecution and/or the potentiality of litigation and prosecution. Automobiles are pretty much the only means by which a normal person can accidentally break the law. It's practically inevitable, in fact.
So, I'm sure as hell not going to risk driving a car in a country that doesn't have an independent judiciary. I don't care how careful or how reckless the drivers are. It's much more likely that you will make a mistake leading to an accident than for someone else to randomly hit you, especially over a short period of time. So, if I wind up in court, I'd prefer it weren't a kangaroo court.
Anyway, the GPS unit is a Garmin nüvi 660. Evidently Costco had a fantastic deal, because when he offered to buy me a GPS system, I suggested something much less extravagant.
The device is actually quite friendly for Linux users. When plugged into a USB port, the device simply shows up as a (rather large) mass storage device. The "interface" consists of a bunch of folders into which you may put stuff (e.g., MP3s, audio books, images, et cetera). If you wish to upgrade the firmware, you just plop the firmware file into the right directory and reboot the device. It also works as a standard Bluetooth hands-free unit, and has a very, very good speaker phone. So, if you have taken the trouble of making Bluetooth hands-free units work on Linux, then the nüvi 660 will work fine.
Garmin also helpfully placed the manuals on the device as searchable PDF files. It's a good idea; if you have the device, you have the manuals too. I think this is probably the future of technical documentation and bundled software. Why not just integrate a flash drive into the device? The cost of a 128 MB of flash and a USB interface could barely be more than the cost of printing and distributing manuals and CDROMS (never mind the extra cost of technical support for when those items are lost).
The only downside of the nüvi 660 is that there doesn't seem to be a way of pulling real-time GPS data off of it. When you connect by Bluetooth, it will always show up as an audio device. When you connect by USB, it always shows up as a mass storage device. There doesn't seem to be a way of telling it to be a serial GPS. I may be incorrect on this point, but I have not yet found an option that would make this possible. It is already a pretty sophisticated device,though. I don't see why Garmin couldn't add that functionality in a firmware release...