Monday, November 14, 2005

A Cautionary Tale

A friend who is staying with me for a few days came in late last night. She had said that she was going out with a friend to look for a suit for her job interviews, so I was mildly curious about what she might have been up to. This evening, when she came in, she said she had had a crazy night. We waited for the tea to boil. Then her cellphone rang, she took the call, and it was obvious that she was speaking rather formally to someone she didn't know. I drifted into that half-consciousness almost oblivious eavedropping of someone who isn't either invited in or excluded from a conversation. It was when she said something like "no, we didn't leave the scene until later" that I snapped to.

She and her friend were standing on the corner of 17th and 7th. They had bought a newspaper and were had spread it out over the top of the newsbox to check the movie listings. Out of the corners of their eyes, perhaps, they noticed a movement, looked up, and saw a man plummeting to the ground from perhaps eight feet out of the sky. He fell vertically, and landed directly on one side of his brow. This was at most three feet from her. She said that everyone, everything seemed to stop.

The interviews that my friend was buying a suit for are for ER residencies. While her friend dialed 911, she felt for a pulse and checked the man's airway. NYFD and ambulances were on the scene within a few minutes. They cut away the clothes that had been obstructing the view to the man head, and she says she saw that the man's face was totally compacted one side. One eye was not where it ought to have been; she was mercifully vague.

She spent the next few hours talking with cops and some print reporters. Here is a truncated NYPost version, which doesn't mention a few things:
--the driver was a Correctional Facilities Officer
--that he was "in shock," according to my friend
--that he tested spotlessly negative in a breathalyzer
--that the victim was turning back to the curb after his attempt at crossing proved too dangerous
--that every eye-witness out of about forty seemed to report something different (at least one claiming that "the cab" didn't see the pedestrian, although the driver was in a black Honda).
My friend, whose relevant testimony I think is contained in toto above, was interviewed "like twenty times" by NYPD--and, then again, the next day, as the phone call makes clear. I wonder whether this kind of investigation is the standard for what I would presume might be called "vehicular manslaughter" (IANAL), and I wonder whether more than due diligence might not be performed on behalf of a fellow uniform. Frankly, I'd be happy if either were true. It sounds as though if the guy survives, it might be in a very different condition than before last night. As many facts as can be gathered now, checked and doublechecked, should be an appropriate standard, before either criminal or civil proceedings go forward.

We drew a number of advisories out of this truly senseless, awful tragedy. For these, click through. 1) For God's sake, look both ways before crossing the street. It's very chic, very cosmopolit, very devil-may-care to jaywalk, but if you get hit by a car, not only might you die or be maimed, the person who maybe inadvertantly hit you might be destroyed. This is harder for New Yorkers to remember than it ought to be. I'm typically speed-walking down the street with WNYC in my ears and a free newspaper in my eyes--because I've walked the same stretches every day for six years and I'm bored by them. But it's crucial, folks, to get a reminder every once in a while, so consider this it: look up, look around, take care of yourself.

2) This is a much more contenstable point, but since my friend said that numerous eye-witnesses confirmed that the victim tried to turn back and since my experience bears my moral out to be true, I'll go with it: If you're going to jaywalk, having judged the timing of the (lethal) competition, be consistent. In most utopian of senses, jaywalking is a contract between the driver and the pedestrian: the pedestrian gauges the likely speed of the car and proceeds, while the driver gauges the likely speed of the pedestrian and proceeds. Here's the problem: if the pedestrian freaks, his or her only option is to go back to the curb. If the driver freaks, he or her options include: swerving and braking. My general advice to jaywalkers would be: For God's sake, if you are going to jaywalk, be as brazen and determined about it as possible, so as to signal to drivers that you won't break. Hopefully, that advice presumes the caveat that you've looked both ways before crossing the road.

3) For God's sake, drive carefully, for your health, physical, fiscal, and psychological, depends on it. I know more than one person for whom a car accident was a defining moment in their lives, a before and after that could never be reversed. My brother-in-law's family was hit by a drunk driver, killing the father, irreversibly maiming a brother, and changing their family forever. The maimed brother, by the way, recieved a gigantic payment for damages--a payment he deserves, since he's missing a leg, has a withered arm, extensive scarring, and needs to go in for burn therapy regularly. A woman at my childhood church got drowsy at the wheel, ran into another car, and her passenger, her sister (if I recall correctly), was killed; her subsequent testimonies, many years after the fact, showed that this incident preyed upon her mind. My aunt and uncle, also drowsy (and probably at least slightly tipsy) at the wheel rammed into a tree. She lost her kneecaps; he lost his front teeth and an incentive to physical exercise. They are now both in alarming heath, after years of inactivity.

3) For God's sake don't play brinksmanship with drinking and driving. If something really, really bad happens when you've had even a glass or two to drink before driving, you're screwed. Maybe if you're below the legal limit, you might avoid criminal penalties. Maybe. But, good lord, if this Corrections Officer dude had had one beer at the bar with a friend before driving home? A couple of points on the Breath-alyzer? At the very least, someone at work would've pushed him out. Even if the pedestrian had in fact walked straight into his car, a drink or two in the driver's system would be understood by most people as utterly condeming. Eye-witness testimony being so much more dubious than chemical tests. Much, much safer to avoid this kind of grief with DDs--better yet, advocate for public transport near you!

4) The most helpful thing you can do at the scene of a serious accident is to call 911. If the victim has no pulse or isn't breathing, or if you're in the middle of nowhere, then the rules change--but I'm talking for the most of us who aren't properly trained. I decided to cave under the overwhelming social pressure to get a cell phone only last year, but really, I think everyone should have one, even if it's linked to only the cheapest of plans that allow one only to call 911. It is of course also useful to get certified in First Aid, but as my friend's story above shows, even the best training should wait for the EMS in many circumstances. It's the other circumstances we should worry about, and, after Katrina, I'll be the, well, ten thousandth to remember that being generally competent is an ideal that our current order does not privilege, until that order breaks down.

5) Here's the last, most tendaciously political point: cars are dangerous: for drivers who forget how fast they're going because they're impatient and for pedestrians who seem them as velocities in a landscape. I'm not going to bother to look up all of the statistics about how many Americans die in car accidents of one shape or another per year because anyone reading this outpost is probably aware of how awful they are. What my friend saw last night isn't an amazing, unusual event. It shocked her, even as an ER doctor ("I'm used to seeing them all packaged," she said), but this kind of horror is happening all the time. Given the fatality rates, I would hope that people are looking into how best to mitigate sprawl and to enable walkable downtowns. I know that many of our effete designers and socialistic planners have proposed improvements, but I suspect that if we package it right, we can get even the most manly men to sign on to reducing cars in heavily pedestrian areas.

I'm really glad that because of my friend's emergency training and general sanity she won't be haunted by seeing a man die three feet in front of her. I know I couldn't have been so competent or sane, yet this sort of accident happens all the time. In the crassest of senses, this was a statistic, one of the thousands who die every year from automobile accidents.

I suppose my plea should be reduced to this: can't we all go a little slower, please?


Blogger CharleyCarp:

It's really too bad that these Easterners can never adopt the Western Rule. It's a simple trade, in return for all cars absolutely stopping when someone is in a crosswalk, no pedestrian jaywalks when cars are anywhere near. Mutual disarmament.

12/03/2005 08:06:00 AM  
Blogger Jackmormon:

I've got to say, though, CC, the Western rule is predicated on cars' being the only understandable way of getting around.

When I drove, it was in CA. I stopped for pedestrians, sure, but it was out of annoyance and ass-covering.

In NYC, fully half of the pedestrians won't have driven a car in the last year: cars are moving landscapes to them. After they get across that intersection, they'll have another twenty blocks to go!

And then there's the self-righteousness quotient. What the fuck are you doing driving in Manhattan?, some pedestrians think. I embarassed the hell out of my parents by gesticulating at an inconsiderate driver recently: par for the course in midtown, not so much so in the Bay Area.

Since of course it is insane to drive in Manhattan, drivers, particularly those bearing Jersey plates, tend unfortunately to drive even more aggressively. Seasoned drivers seem to know how to play chicken with a witting pedestrian so that both can gauge speeds, both can thwart politesse, and both can survive.

But everybody has to pay attention. I tend to put my newspaper down before I jaywalk.

12/06/2005 10:33:00 PM  

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