When a Car Becomes a Weapon

Vehicles can do great damage, yet when people drive aggressively or vengefully, the destruction is often dismissed as "an accident."

Image
Reuters

Driving down Route 1 in South Miami on Saturday, I passed a strip mall with the sign that contained an amazing juxtaposition: "Gun School/Accidents." Funny, right? But also pretty sad.

The accidents that are being advertised are, of course, completely separate from the gun school and don’t have anything to do with firearms. The "accident" sign is touting the services of a group of lawyers who handle the legal fallout of motor vehicle crashes, of which there are many in the state of Florida.

In 2011, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were 2,398 motor vehicle fatalities in Florida. That’s 12.58 per 100,000 population, compared to the overall national rate of 10.39 -- between six and seven people dying every day because of motor vehicle wrecks, with many more injured and countless lives disrupted beyond those injured and killed. The good news is that the number has been going down slowly but steadily since 2007. But it’s still very high. Cars are a way of life in Florida, as in the rest of the country, and so are car crashes.

Later on the same day that I took that picture, a man named Nathan Campbell allegedly used his car as a weapon on the boardwalk in Venice, California. Police arrested him on suspicion of murder after he drove his blue Chevrolet sedan at an estimated 60 miles per hour through a crowded pedestrian area in the beachfront community, killing one woman and injuring another 11. Witnesses said he appeared to be zigzagging in order to hit as many people as possible. Campbell, 38, is apparently a "transient," according to the cops, a homeless person from Colorado who may have been living out of his car. His motive is unknown.

In the aftermath of the Venice carnage, the Los Angeles city councilman who represents the area said that more barriers are needed to protect people who use the boardwalk from drivers who might drive through either intentionally or by mistake.

Everyone in the area remembers the last time that a car invaded pedestrian space in this part of the world – in 2003, when an elderly driver rammed into the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, killing 10 and injuring 70.

That time was different from this one – it was what people like to call an "accident." The driver, an 86-year-old man, apparently became confused and accelerated into the crowd. Among those he killed were a grandmother and her seven-month-old grandson. One witness testified that he said, "You saw me coming, why didn't you get out of my way?" when he finally stopped. The city of Santa Monica eventually paid $21 million in settlement money after a court ruled that traffic arrangements had not afforded adequate protection to market-goers.

We don’t usually think of cars as weapons, except in the context of terrorism, as potential bomb delivery devices. We protect our federal and state buildings against car and truck bombs with barriers and bollards. But places like the Venice boardwalk, with its lively pedestrian culture, its street performers and vendors, are not so protected – in this case, it seems, to ease access to certain parking areas.

But as the Venice case makes clear, cars can be used as weapons. J. Peter Rothe, an associate professor at the University of Alberta, has written a whole book about it, Driven to Kill. In the introduction he says this:

We benefit from the convenience of automobile travel, which may be why our abhorrence at vehicle-related mayhem quickly fades. Our initial shock at hearing of another vehicle-related crime becomes acceptance that auto-centered violence is a common subset of an increasingly violent society. It is not that we don’t care. Rather, we don’t understand the widespread impact. For example, few of us know or think about the fact that automobiles kill more people than do all weapons combined…. The most dominant weapons are firearms. Yet, although we insist that firearms have strict controls placed on them, it would be difficult to insist that motor vehicles require similar controls.

As Rothe points out, "when rage, retribution, or the urge to harm others enters a person’s mind, a motor vehicle can be a convenient weapon-at-hand." And yet when people drive aggressively or vengefully, the resulting destruction is often dismissed as "an accident."

Incidents such as the one in Venice open a momentary window into a reality that most of us never think about, or prefer not to think about. The cars most of us drive every day as a condition of being productive members of the society possess incredible destructive potential. And yet we can’t allow ourselves to worry about it. What would happen to the American way of life if we did?

There is another sign that caught my eye as I was driving through Miami. It’s an enormous billboard, again an advertisement for legal services that are obviously often needed in these parts. The example pictured here looms over a car dealership with brand-new vehicles all lined up and ready to go. "Car Accident," it says. "1-800-411-PAIN."

Top image: Scene of accident at a farmers market in Santa Monica, July 16, 2003. (Jim Ruymen/Reuters)

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.