When I was a kid, the car’s radio was always tuned to W1310, “Oldies 1310”, as it was known. As a result, I gained a pretty good knowledge of ’60s music. I remember Wayne Cochran’s Last Kiss being played a few times on the station. (You probably know the song, “Oh where, oh where can my baby be/The Lord took her away from me…”.)
A few years ago (fine, decades), Pearl Jam released a cover of Last Kiss, and it got a good amount of airplay. At this point, I was no longer subjected to my father’s musical whims and we wound up hearing this new version.
My dad had an unexpectedly virulent reaction to the song, angrily responding to the singer/narrator, “the Lord didn’t take her away. You did.”
I didn’t have a particularly urban childhood, and my dad isn’t what you’d call an urbanist. We lived in a variety of suburbs–Bel Air/Copeland Park, Carlingwood, Longfields. We always had a car and drove a fair amount. When we moved to Barrhaven, we briefly had two cars (and I was pretty ticked when we got rid of one, because, fuck, Barrhaven).
But, then again, we often bused (well, my dad, my sister and me, not so much my mom), and when choosing a neighbourhood to live, he made sure that he’d be able to bus there (he worked at Tunney’s Pasture). Some days, he’d even walk.
He and I tended to bus to Rough Riders games. The family would sometimes Park-n-Ride it to the Ex. My sister and I took OC Transpo to school for a number of years…and, just generally, felt free and confident to take it to go the mall or whatever.
More recently, dad fled Barrhaven for the Glebe and, then, Riverside Drive. During this time, he’d still walk a lot (at least in the Glebe), and he made sure that his new homes were always transit-adjacent…even if driving has become, more and more, his primary mode.
My dad split his childhood between Ottawa and Vancouver. I don’t know much about the areas of Vancouver where he grew up (like, say, what areas he grew up in), but in Ottawa, he lived in Manor Park when he was young. Later, during high school and university, his family lived on Metcalfe (Dad went to Tech).
I know his father had an affinity for walking…and downtown apartment living (especially for a white-collar family) would imply some sort of draw to what we’d now consider an urban lifestyle. It would seem this impulse was incorporated to the suburban lifestyle he chose as an adult.
Years ago, there was much concern about the a certain “killer stretch” of Highway 7. It was pretty winding, and it saw a disproportionate amount of crashes, injuries and fatalities. News reports spoke of how dangerous it was, and it how it caused all these accidents.
My dad scoffed.
This was back in high school, around when I would have been learning to drive (maybe a little before), and it was one of those minor little moments that stuck with me.
In the news, we hear so much about “accidents” (though, that is changing, thankfully). We hear about how drivers lose control. How there was nothing they could do to avoid a collision.
Dad objected to the framing that the road, not the drivers, was responsible for the collision. People were driving too fast for the road. They weren’t driving properly. When you’re driving, it’s your responsibility to be safe.
I understood, but I suggested that sometimes a driver isn’t responsible–if it’s raining or icy.
Again, my dad scoffed. It was the driver’s responsibility to drive to the conditions. If you were driving too fast to be able to stop in the rain, that meant you were driving too fast and any collision was your fault.
The other day, an autonomous vehicle killed someone. Her name was Elaine Herzberg.
That’s a pretty horrid formulation; the AV may have been the implement of death, but it wasn’t the actor. That’d be the company (Uber) and the “safety operator” (Rafaela Vasquez).
The media and police took up Uber’s dirty work, trying to quickly place blame on the victim (jaywalking! homeless! jumped out of the shadows!).
It was a despicable smear campaign.
Video was eventually released, but the cops watched it first and tried to get the narrative going in one direction:
It’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode (autonomous or human-driven) based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway.
But, of course, the video doesn’t tell the story the cops and Uber want it too. Yes, the person was crossing mid-block, but she was moving at a normal walking pace and was more than 3/4s of the way across the multi-lane road. There was no jumping out. There was nothing sudden about it. Oh, and I’m really not sure why we’re supposed to be ok with a killing if the victim may have been homeless.
On top of that, the car was speeding (and never even attempted to stop).
Oh, and the “safety operator” wasn’t even paying attention when it happened.
What’s clear is that the woman should have been detected by the AV. A human driver should have been able to avoid the collision. The AV completely, utterly failed.
But let’s put aside all the ways Uber failed. And all the ways the “safety operator” failed. And all the ways the road designers failed.
Let’s go back to the notion, pushed by the cops, that there was no way for the AV to stop.
It was this notion that got me thinking of my dad and his view on driver responsibility. A slow-moving pedestrian is not a surprise. She is not a sudden obstacle. If the car truly could not stop, then the car was going to fast. Even if the car was going the speed limit (which it actually wasn’t), it was still going to fast. It doesn’t matter that it was an AV rather than a regular car. If it couldn’t stop, it was going to fast.
This is only one element of the tragedy. There are clearly other ways that Uber, the AV and the “safety operator” were at fault here, but this notion that, welp, it just couldn’t stop is such deeply ingrained, toxic attitude in our car-centric culture, and it is this sort of mentality that we have to fix. Until then, AVs–just like regular drivers–will continue to be a threat on our streets.