Monday, 17 December 2012

On Walking, Biking, and Victim-Blaming: An Explicit Connection

This article took me some time to write, and in the course of the time that I began writing until it was publishable half a dozen more accidents involving pedestrians and cyclists hit by cars surfaced in the news. For a while I tried to keep on top of the latest ones and update the first paragraph accordingly, but there are simply too many, which goes some way towards proving my point in the first place.

Hey, I wonder how fast that car's going.

On Monday morning of last week, 6 people were struck by cars in Toronto in the span of an hour, all while legally crossing or waiting to cross the road. That seems like a lot – and it is, it is a lot, a rash – so surely there was some connective factor this morning? Something to learn from so many violent interactions in a single morning? Indeed, says traffic services Const. Clint Stibbe, the common factor was “dark clothing worn by pedestrians”. If those pedestrians had been wearing lighter clothing, then, they may not have been struck by the cars that struck them. What if they had been younger, if they had not been pushing a stroller? Did they make sure all the cars were going to stop at the crosswalk before they started walking? Did they? And if, as Christopher Hume asks in the Toronto Star, Monday's pedestrians were all crossing legally, “why should the colour of their clothing make a difference?” Indeed.

So, to summarize the coverage: a person is the victim of a violent act, a crime, and in the aftermath of that crime we ask each other what the victim did or did not do to invite the violence on themselves.

This is victim-blaming, pure and simple.

Because I am a feminist who is primarily engaged in analysis of media and domestic spaces, I read a lot about violence against women, and lately the narrative parallels between the way we talk about pedestrian and cycling injuries and deaths and the way we talk about sexual assault and domestic violence have become simply too grating to ignore*. This is not to say that the narrative itself is new, just that it newly occupies more than its fair share of brain-space, and not just, it seems, for me: Hume again touched on this very briefly when he mentioned the Toronto police officer's comment which sparked SlutWalk, but I would like to take it further and examine the constructs at work when we have conversations in the aftermaths of tragedies on any scale. An enormous amount of information is taken for granted, in this and in everything, and what we accept as 'normal' dictates the jumping-off point for the questions we ask when 'abnormal' things happen. Lisa Millbank suggests we first ask, “Who are the actors in this situation? Does my positioning of the point of analysis erase any actors, mistake their actions for background (essential) reality?” So when we ask what a pedestrian had on her back, or a cyclist on his head, which actors does that erase?

When we ask what a woman was wearing when she was assaulted, the essential realities we accept are these: first, that men are sexually violent because of extreme, uncontrollable sexual arousal; second, that men are incited to violence by the sight of a woman dressing provocatively precisely because of the uncontrollable aspect of male sexuality; third, that it is possible to avoid sexual violence by behaving in a certain way and that women should therefore behave in that way at all times.
All of these essential realities are myths. Most men are not rapists; rape and sexual assault are about power and control and a culture which eroticizes dominance; women are very rarely raped by a stranger on the street, as the vast majority of rapes and assaults are perpetrated by someone the woman knows; and finally, because of these truths, we know that it matters not one jot what women are wearing when they get assaulted. Women are raped wearing sweatpants at least as often as they are raped wearing miniskirts; the common factor is the men raping them. Our essential reality, then, involves denying or ignoring the actual facts about sexual assault, and it is only by denying that reality (and, as I'll get to in another post, by denying the victim full humanity) that we are able to wonder what the woman did.

In the same way, we accept horrible stories about pedestrian and cyclist deaths as inevitable, and we ask questions about how the injured or killed could have prevented the accident. Two weeks ago in my hometown, a German exchange student crossed at a marked crosswalk and was killed when she was struck by a car. After an investigation, the official statement was that “at this time police do not believe speed or alcohol to be contributing factors in the collision.” So what are the essential realities we're accepting? Speed, first of all: of course speed was a factor; if that car had been doing 10 km/h Amelie Lindberger would almost certainly not have died. But in this town, in this country, city speed limits are 50 km/h, and the car was traveling within the speed limit. When the police say speed was not a factor, what they really mean is that “speed in excess of 50 km/h was not a factor”. A certain level of speed is taken for granted, as a facet not worth examining, implying, in the meantime, that we have no power to address that essential reality, and must focus on the actions of the victim, who was also behaving within the rules of the road. So the road, operating completely as it is designed and intended to run, produces the outcome of a 21-year-old student getting hit so hard that she clears an intersection. At no point has anyone asked whether the rules themselves might be a problem.

Additional requirements are placed on cyclists, superfluous to “follow the rules of the road” (again, no conversation is forthcoming about the efficacy or validity of those rules, nor any awareness of the fact that they were drafted primarily for cars, not bikes): wear bright clothing, some of it should probably be reflective, you could have a flag, and of course, wear a helmet. Make yourself look different to do this dangerous thing. But what are we assuming is actually dangerous about cycling? Where does the danger in the act arise from, in our essential reality? When we ask whether a cyclist was wearing a helmet when they were struck by a car, we accept, first, that riding a bicycle is inherently dangerous, that the act of moving on two wheels is itself a dangerous undertaking; second, that a helmet is a significant mitigating factor against the dangers of cycling; third, that the cars on the road are the ones with the real right to be there, that roads are designed for cars and if cyclists want to use them too they better take precautions, so that the cyclists or pedestrians are the ones with the responsibility not to be hit.

For legislators, helmets seem to make intuitive sense, and they have the added appeal of not requiring any actual change in order to implement, because they require individual cyclists to take responsibility for their own head. Just like telling women to keep an eye on their drinks instead of addressing rape culture, telling cyclists to wear a helmet is a way of seeming to address a real, dangerous problem without actually addressing it at all. The impact of helmets on overall biking safety are inconclusive at best, while the effects of mandatory helmet laws on the number of people riding bikes – the absolute best way to make cycling safer for everyone – are definitively negative, as helmets are a barrier to entry for a number of reasons, and fewer people bike when they're required (there is a great deal of information and statistical breakdown of Ontario numbers here). Helmets are effective if you fall off your bike and hit your head on the curb, of course, and if we believe that this is the primary danger in moving around we would also want pedestrians to wear helmets. Many people slip and fall in the shower, so certainly wearing a helmet in there would help decrease shower-fall-deaths.

That last is a bit facetious, but only a bit: you could theoretically fall and hit your head at any time, so wearing a helmet all the time would prevent some number of injuries and deaths. Your head is always safer inside a helmet than outside of it, which is why people assume it makes sense to legislate helmet use - it would prevent some injuries of a specific kind. But placing the emphasis on helmets, as though wearing one makes a cyclist impervious to injury, as though your head is the only place you get hit, as though falling off your bike is the most significant risk to a cyclist, ignores what is dangerous about cycling. The act of riding a bicycle is not itself a dangerous activity; the danger comes from the cars on the road with you, and the speeds they are traveling. 
Data shows that speed is the factor in determining whether or not a collision will be fatal for the cyclist or pedestrian, and it is impossible for me to imagine a situation where traveling more slowly would not be a factor in whether or not there even is a collision in the first place. If you're hit by a car doing more than 40 mph, you have an 85% chance of death, whether you're wearing a helmet or not. That most interactions happen at intersections and crosswalks – that is, the place you are legally meant to be engaging with other types of traffic – indicates that there is a more systemic problem with the way the streets are organized.

Furthermore, the perpetuation of these myths in the way we talk about pedestrian and cycling deaths directly prevents the having of evidence-based conversations and the drafting of laws or traffic codes which target the perpetrators and which could save lives. It also means that, because we assign some of the blame to the victim, we cannot assign all the blame to the perpetrator, so legal recourses to action are difficult and traumatic, and the sentences are shockingly few and light. Like this one, and this one,  and this one, and in fact there are too many to link to, so just check out this handy, horrifying list.

I don't at all want to minimize the trauma experienced by victims of sexual violence, or the pervasive, low-grade fear of assault experienced by women everywhere, and I do recognize that there is a qualitative, malignant difference between these narratives – it is the difference between experiencing violence because of what you are versus what you do, and that difference is all and fundamental. When you arrive at your destination and get off your bike, you are released from the dangers of cycling in a way that people who experience sexual violence never are (and this is for another post, but you're also, as a cyclist, most likely to be a white male, meaning that once you get off your bicycle you are the active recipient of significant privilege. Indeed, being physically capable of walking around or riding a bike in the first place is a privilege). But I do want to elevate the discussion of cyclist and pedestrian deaths, because in addition to being a woman moving in the world, I am a bike-rider moving through the streets, and cultural, narrative change takes time. It is my hope that by making the connection to sexual assault, this conversation will benefit from the immense, incredible work that has been done to get victim-blaming recognized in the first place. The fact that I can use the phrase victim-blaming, and many if not most readers will know exactly what I mean, is because of the work done around sexual assault. It is my intent to honour that work while broadening its structural application. And, though this is also for another post, the drivers of most vehicles involved in pedestrian or cyclist collisions are white males between the ages of 16 and 54: there is certainly much to be said about a culture of aggressive masculinity and where driving fits on a continuum of male violence which also includes sexual assault.

So. Just like the assumptions about sexual assault, these ideas about car-pedestrian or -cyclist collisions are based on half-truths and outright myths refuted by easily accessible, quantifiable data, data which are routinely ignored or misrepresented in order to maintain a status quo which is dangerous and violent. I feel low-grade, pervasive fear while I'm riding my bike; fear that someone won't signal and will turn into me (People! Signal your turns! What's wrong with you?), or that I or my partner will be struck during rush hour, or that I will forget to pay attention to the parked cars in my focus on the moving ones, or any number of other scenarios that never cease running through my mind that all involve violence and death and which are daily validated by close calls. I side-eye cars on the road the same way I side-eye men I don't know walking behind me on the street, and for the same reasons: Because it's always possible that something will happen, because the consequences for me are devastating and potentially life-threatening, because I will be at least partially blamed for any incident that occurs, and because justice is unforthcoming.

* I use “she” for victim and “he” for perpetrator in this article not with the intention of erasing male victims of sexual or domestic violence, or those who do not conform to a male-female gender binary, but because it's far and away the most statistically likely scenario, and also the area I know the most about.

No comments:

Post a Comment