Should City Driving Be Considered Terrorism?

[UPDATES: See below]

When an allegedly intoxicated driver plowed into crowds of pedestrians in the heart of Times Square today, you’d be forgiven for thinking this isn’t something that happens all the time in New York. Alas, you’d be wrong. Even in the densest city in America cars are allowed to race around at lethal speeds. The solution from police is of course to crack down on jaywalkers, with predictably bloody results.

But since this collision (we still don’t say accident) mowed down so many in what’s essentially a giant public plaza, the BREAKING-NEWS-AT-ALL-TIMES!!! mainstream media ran with lines about “Terrorism”, or at the very least “might not be terrorism”. We just don’t know!

Half an hour in, they were eagerly alerting us that this was, unfortunately, not an act of terrorism, just a regular act of traffic violence. But then readers of this blog and other livable street advocates declared aloud, ‘Well, it IS actually still kind of terrorism.’

Then a few alt-takes focused on the likely inebriated status of the driver, who was caught and sufficiently roughed up enough for his shirt to get shredded – (nothing too violent, what with all the onlookers).

The always disappointing Chris Hayes from MSNBC-DNC pointed out drunk driving kills more Americans than terrorists do. Vending machines and wasps also kill more people than terrorists, but whatever, good job Chris.

But what the M.A.D.D. moms and ad campaigns reminding you not to text while driving and even the occasional study that gets published warning that sleepy driving is the most dangerous driving all fail to point out is the 4-ton steel elephant in the room: Cars are the lethal common denominator in all those scenarios.

Most collisions happen when drivers are only momentarily distracted, while perfectly sober and alert. But you can have eyes on the road and hands upon the wheel and still wreck someone’s life. The reason for this is simple: we simply do not have the evolutionary ability to make consistent life or death decisions while moving faster than the human body can run. We can’t even make eye contact with anyone outside a car traveling faster than 20 mph.

In fact, without being able to naturally communicate with other humans outside of our cars, we’re robbed of our ability to empathize in ways we’ve spent millions of years perfecting. This is cause for emotional impotency, the biggest catalyst of road rage.

So won’t driverless cars fix all this?

No, of course not. Driverless cars likely won’t ever work as promised, but even if they do, any increased safety will be offset by increased usage. Streets won’t be any safer, because the laws of physics won’t make a 4-ton truck stop in time for children playing in the street – where they used to play for thousands of years before the invention of the automobile.

The envelop of harm that cars create even when operated safely projects an ever-present sense of terror. As long as we stay on the sidewalk, we think we’re fine, but this low-level, constant fear tempers social interaction between neighbors. It prevents kids from exploring the wilderness of childhood. It drowns out the sound of urban wildlife. It isolates us from the spontaneous goings on that car-free open streets foster.

As many wondered today, maybe it’s time we started thinking of – and reacting to – all city driving as a sort of terrorism. Tomorrow is #BikeToWorkDay in the United States. I can’t think of a better way to reject the terror of the automobile than by banishing it to the dustbin of history in favor of the logical bicycle.

Update 1: Police cite no alcohol involved, but driver may have intended to kill pedestrians. Link HERE.
Update 2: Footage of the suspect’s vehicle has been released. This was definitely deliberate. Warning, very graphic. Link HERE.


Revisiting Donald Appleyard’s Livable Streets

You may have wondered, while watching a Streetfilm or reading a post on Streetsblog, where we got the term “livable streets.” The answer can be found in the work of Donald Appleyard, a scholar who studied the neighborhood environment and the ways planning and design can make life better for city residents.


1 comment

  1. Just going to nitpick a bit. Most cars weigh around 1-1/2 to 2 tons, with big SUVs pushing 3 tons. While I totally agree with your point, the “four ton” wording is distracting.

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