An invisible pandemic of death and violence

Trigger warning: below is a fairly graphic account of a car driving into children.

On Friday afternoon, I was heading to The Miller in London Bridge to put up posters for our show on Wednesday.

Approaching the venue, I heard screaming and wailing. I had arrived into the immediate aftermath of some everyday car violence.

An Uber driver had lost control of his vehicle, travelling at speed, and drove into the entrance courtyard of a 1930s housing estate. He had hit two young children, who had been playing, and crashed into and destroyed two parked cars.

The noise was from the two boys’ family; the children themselves, chillingly, were making no noise at all.

The mother was running back and forth, screaming. Friends and neighbours were watching and crying from the stairwells and balconies.

One kid – the youngest- was carried straight to Guy’s hospital, thirty seconds away. It has no A+E but the urgency of the kid’s condition necessitated the move. Where he had been hit was marked by a large pool of blood.

The second kid was still under the Uber. a nurse had arrived just before me, and the kid’s leg was ripped open to the bone.

I left after the police arrived and headed, in a daze, to the pub, where the staff kindly bought me a stiff drink and listened to me retell the tale.

Two days on, I’m just about in a state to talk and think about this. After the car that drove into me in 2020, I suffer a lot of anxiety around main roads and car noises and aggression.

Strangely, though the violence happened to me while I was on a bike, my confidence while cycling has been unaffected. The best way I can explain it is I feel more in control of my destiny on a bike, whereas as as pedestrian I feel like a sitting duck.

And, of course, trauma is not rational.

I’ve long been interested in how normalised mass automobile death and injury is. News reporting around the topic treats cars like an act of God or the weather.

Drivers are mentioned passively, if at all, as though automatic cars is a reality, not an ongoing, decades-old fantasy of the car and oil industries. And the word “accident” is abused to the point of meaninglessness.

Things weren’t always like this. Paris Marx’ Road to Nowhere, an enjoyable debunking of a lot of the myths and self-serving fantasies of the tech industry’s visions for the future of transportation, reminds us that the car’s invasion and takeover of public space was a massive public scandal, and was fought bitterly by the people:

“In the 1920s, a movement grew to draw attention to the mounting death toll and demand action. According to historian Peter Norton, mothers whose children were killed by automobiles were considered white- or gold-star mothers, like those who had lost children fighting in the war, and it did not stop there.

Posters and cartoons depicted the automobile as a “modern Moloch” that demanded child sacrifice, while others showed mothers cradling dead children or kids asking after their fathers who would never return home.

In cities around the United States, groups held events to draw attention to the lives being lost. Children were memorialized with funereal parades, public ceremonies, and landmarks honoring the dead.

In 1919, a campaign by Detroit’s safety council had the bells at City Hall, every school, and even a church and a fire station tolled eight times twice daily on every day that a life was lost to a motor vehicle. The names of the dead were also read out to school children by teachers or police officers.”

Excerpt From
Road to Nowhere
Paris Marx

This all feels faintly unimaginable today. Marx continues:

“There was a moral clarity in the recognition that when a driver killed a pedestrian in the 1920s, they were seen as a murderer. Today, if a pedestrian dies when venturing onto the street, people often respond by questioning why they had been there in the first place.”

I tried to find out what had happened to these two kids. I could find no mention in the local newspapers, such as they are (beyond the Standard, local London papers are little more than aggregation sites these days).

I don’t really know how to finish this post, other than to say I hope they’re ok, and we profoundly need to rethink who and what our cities and our streets are for. We can’t go on like this.

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