Would Jesus Blame the Crash Victim?

Last year New York City made it a misdemeanor for a driver to harm a pedestrian or cyclist who is walking or biking with the right of way. Since then, the Right of Way Law has come under attack from the MTA bus drivers union and members of the City Council, many of whom helped pass the law.

Worshippers force cyclists out of a bike lane near a basilica in Brooklyn. “How would Jesus park?” asks Invisible Visible Man.
Worshippers force cyclists out of a bike lane near a basilica in Brooklyn. “How would Jesus park?” asks Invisible Visible Man.

One of those flip-flopping lawmakers is Council Member Rory Lancman, who has authored a bill that would make it more difficult for NYPD to charge drivers who injure and kill people when, in Lancman’s words, “accidents are caused by poor road conditions, bad weather and scofflaw pedestrians.”

“The councilman’s arguments to my mind suggest he thinks there are cases where motorists strike vulnerable road users acting legally and the crash is still ultimately somehow the vulnerable road user’s fault,” writes Robert Wright at Network blog Invisible Visible Man. Wright notes that the tendency to blame victims, irrespective of logic, has deep roots.

John Chapter 9 is a reminder of how long human beings have been battling that same instinct to assume people nearly always bring their misfortune on themselves. It details an encounter between Jesus and his disciples and a man born blind. The disciples assume the man must be suffering because of some wrongdoing either on his own or his parents’ part.

The efforts by Councilman Lancman and many others to shift the blame for crashes make far more sense, it seems to me, looked at in the context of millennia of instinctive victim-blaming than as a rational piece of public policy-making. The belief that victims deserve their fate continues to underlie thinking in a huge range of areas … It is particularly invidious because it tends to be applied disproportionately to the powerless — the pedestrian or cyclist more than the motorist; the poor, unarmed black person killed by police more than the police officer.

“As Jesus went along, he saw a man blind from birth,” John Chapter 9 reads. “His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned — this man or his parents — that he was born blind?’”

Wright continues:

The persistence of such thinking is all the more extraordinary given the mental leaps that should be required to accept this narrative. Research regularly places the main blame for between two-thirds and 80 per cent of crashes involving vulnerable road users on the driver involved. Yet the victim-blaming narrative suggests cyclists and pedestrians either don’t know themselves to be vulnerable or consistently throw themselves in front of deadly, speeding vehicles heedless of the dangers.

The desperation to exonerate motorists reflects not only a desire to blame victims but to exculpate the powerful of wrongdoing.

“In John Chapter 9, meanwhile, Jesus firmly rebukes his disciples,” writes Wright. “‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ he says.”

Elsewhere on the Network today: More thoughts on the perniciousness of victim-blaming from a Bike Portland reader; Green Caltrain reports on efforts to accommodate more passengers with bikes; and Second Avenue Sagas laments the seemingly imminent decline of the New York City transit system.

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