12 March 2008

Traffic incidents

One always assumes that, barring the very few intentionally planned homicides and "crimes of passion", people who run over other people with their vehicles are not doing it on purpose in any sense, and traffic accidents are exactly that — bad things which just happen. All too human mistakes. Bad luck. Randomness. Things going bad at the wrong time.

In Argentina, things seem to "go bad" all the time, so our traffic accident record is appalling. Each Monday, on TV, we get the tally of the weekend's road casualties alongside the football match scores. The tally is never zero, or even close to it; often it's in the double digits. Sometimes it's so bad it makes the international news.

In our law there are these two main alternative views of death (I guess this must be the case in other places as well, though the names and details are sure to vary) that apply to traffic accidents. If you killed the other person on purpose — e.g. you drove as carelessly as to make certain that you'd eventually hit someone, or else (as in most cases) you killed the other person truly by accident. You're still guilty in the latter case (unless the victim jumped in front of the car or something like that), but the legal consequences aren't as great as in the other scenario.

Most drivers don't want to run over people and kill them in the streets; yet most drivers in Argentina often drive as if they didn't mind killing themselves and as many other human beings in the process. At the very least they bypass traffic laws that they deem unimportant, put too much trust in their driving skills, and justify themselves with the lamest excuse in the book: "everyone else does it". Think about it, and you'll find it very difficult to continue referring to those dead and maimed human beings as victims of "traffic accidents".

At last the law is doing something about this. A prosecutor is asking the court to change the accusation against a driver who hit a motorbiker and killed him, last November, in Casilda (45 km west of Rosario). The driver was being investigated under the charge of homicidio culposo (that's more-or-less involuntary manslaughter), but the prosecutor wants him to be charged with homicidio doloso (which implies a degree of willfulness, and stops short of plain murder). This is a new one — and it might establish a precedent. Jurisprudence is not as important in our system (which is one of civil law, rather than the common law system of Britain and former British colonies), but a precedent like this cannot be dismissed.

And just what did the driver do? He drove his pickup truck, at about 9 AM on Sunday, down an avenue, at over 70 km/h. He hit a motorbike he couldn't not have seen, and dragged it (and its driver) more than 20 meters. He didn't try to dodge, and he didn't brake. He was in a hurry because he had a punctured tire and wanted to get it fixed before it was completely flat. And he was reported to have been under the influence of alcohol at around 7 AM. We don't know if the report was accurate, because he didn't allow the police to test him — which made his troubles worse.

We simply can't allow ourselves to keep this "shit happens" stance regarding traffic. Motor vehicles are potentially lethal weapons; and as with weapons, it holds true that "cars don't kill people; people do". Maybe this guy gets the sentence he deserves. What I really hope, though, is that this serves a purpose. Let careless drivers think twice about what they do, and the rest of us should stop thinking of traffic accidents as something akin to the weather. They're not random, and neither (as many seem to believe) is a tendency to recklessness embedded in our genes. "We Argentinians are like that, plain and simple", "there's nothing to do about it", "this country will never change" is bullshit.

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