Why Vision Zero Advocates Need to Talk About Anne Heche
1:31 AM EDT on August 15, 2022
On Aug. 5, actress Anne Heche, 53, crashed her car into a home in the Mar Vista neighborhood of Los Angeles, igniting a fire that destroyed both the residence and her vehicle and left Heche with severe injuries. On August 12, after more than a week in a coma, she was declared legally dead, leaving behind a 13- and 20-year-old son.
It's the kind of story that street safety advocates don't talk about often, because it doesn't look anything like the vast majority of deadly car crashes in America.
The road where Heche crashed is a quiet, two-lane residential street with a 25-mile-per-hour speed limit, which video from a neighbor's doorbell camera suggests she shattered. Suffice it to say, this was not the kind of dangerous, multi-lane road that road design experts say encourages dangerously fast speeds.
If anything, it's the opposite.
Heche's car, too, was not the type of vehicle that most traffic safety advocates would associate with such a dramatic crash. It was a modest Mini Cooper, not a massive pick-up with bull bars or one of the thousands hulking SUVs that's saturated American streets in recent years — despite the outsized danger they post to anyone not in a comparably-huge vehicle, or even inside their homes.
It's the kind of extreme collision about which even the most avowed advocates of the Swedish traffic safety model known as Vision Zero often stay silent — perhaps because, secretly, they are not totally sure the crash could have been prevented.
Since its creation in 1997, the Vision Zero approach has succeeded in radically reducing car crash deaths and serious injuries in cities as far-flung as Helsinki and Hoboken, and promised to eliminate the rest through a combination of safe infrastructure, safe vehicles, and other systemic policies. But it hasn't always ended the kind of extreme collisions like the one that killed Anne Heche; in 2017, for instance, the city of Oslo was forced to hang an asterisk on a near-total Vision Zero victory, because a single driver died when he crashed into a fence.
Despite our best intentions, some might say, terrible things will always happen on our roads, though that's no excuse not to do our best to save most lives.
But others might say that the kind of crash that killed Anne Heche may undermine the whole concept of Vision Zero. That it is proof that individual motorists, not unsafe systems, are the underlying problem — and the only thing to do is to prosecute the dangerous drivers who survive to the fullest extent of the law, one by one, until there are none left.
To say that the reactions to Heche's crash on social media and traditional media have been polarized would be an understatement.
On one extreme of the debate are those who say Anne Heche deserves no sympathy because she made the choice to drive recklessly and under the influence of drugs. The actress reportedly had cocaine in her system at the time of the crash, a fact that undoubtedly made her unable to drive safely. Video suggests that she nearly struck a pedestrian before crashing into an apartment complex garage, another vehicle, and finally the home of Lynne Mishele, destroying the entire structure and all her possessions inside. That neither Mishele, who was home at the time, nor her pets, nor any other passerby were seriously injured or killed is nothing short of miraculous.
It is understandable why so many people have scrutinized Heche's choices to help explain her death, even if the conclusions they jumped to were deeply problematic. They pored over a podcast she released before the crash in which she talks about drinking, and concluded that she must have been drunk at the time of incident, too — until her representative clarified that the audio had been recorded weeks before. They scrutinized photos of bottles in her car's cupholder and declared that they were vodka, before authorities later confirmed there was no alcohol in her blood.
When it was revealed that Heche had tested positive for cocaine and fentanyl, some jumped to the conclusion that this was why she drove 90 miles per hour through a residential area, according to tabloid reports from unidentified "police insiders" — though lawyers were quick to point out we don't yet know whether she'd consumed enough of either substance to legally qualify as "impaired," and she may have even been given the fentanyl at the hospital.
On the other extreme of the debate are those who say Heche deserves no culpability for the crash that claimed her life — because of her self-reported history of mental health challenges and addictions.
People of this opinion point out that Anne Heche has long been open about the fact that she was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and a series of major traumas throughout her life; that she endured decades of biphobia and years of blacklisting following her relationship with Ellen DeGeneres; that she was, in her own words, "insane" for her first 31 years, and that she sometimes "escaped" to a "fantasy world" in which inhabited "another personality" to cope. They point out that her brother also died in a car crash at 18, which Heche herself believed was a suicide.
It's unstandable to see Heche as a victim, and it is certainly a more compassionate response than the alternative. Addiction does play a massive and largely understudied role in America's traffic safety crisis, even as state DOTs across the nation spend billions on anti-drunk driving campaigns.
The root causes of that epidemic, though, are more complicated. Studies show that the average DUI offender has driven drunk more than 80 times before she is caught, which Jennifer Homendy of the National Transportation Safety Board once aptly noted is "not just [a matter of] poor decisions — [because] this person is in pain." Similar studies have not been conducted for drugged drivers, but in a country where 38 percent of adults battled an illicit drug addiction in 2017 alone, it's ludicrous to assume that everyone who drives high does so with malicious intent, or even simply because they are reckless. In huge, car-dependent swaths of America, driving is not optional, even for those who know they should not be behind the wheel.
The impact of mental health disorders besides addiction on traffic safety are even less studied, despite the fact that one in five U.S. adults has one — and that number is a severe undercount if you take a more expansive definition of what psychological health means.
The fact is, mental illness is not some extreme category of disease from which a limited portion of the population suffers. It is a spectrum upon which we all exist and move throughout our lives, and even throghout individual days. We drive when we are under extreme stress, in profound grief, in states of debilitating distraction, and even in psychosis, which five to 10 percent of people will experience at some point in their lives. If we have a clinically recognized mental illness, there is roughly a 50-percent chance that we will also struggle with addiction, and many of us will use those substances to self-medicate in the absence of more traditional care. And if we live in car-dependent places that functionally require us to drive to meet our basic needs, sometimes we will drive when we know we shouldn't — because we have no choice.
Applying this lens to Heche's crash specifically, though, is also profoundly problematic, even if that impulse may come from a good place.
The fact is, we know nothing about Heche's mind state at the time of the crash. We know nothing about her diagnoses or her treatment or lack thereof, and how these things did or didn't impact her ability to drive — and it must be emphasized that the vast majority of people with mental illness can and do drive safely. We know nothing about why she drank or used drugs, or how often she did so, or how much she took. Making assumptions about any of these things risks stigmatizing whole populations of people with mental illness and addiction who have never, and will never, harm another person, whether they are behind the wheel or not.
Just like those who would want Heche thrown in jail for life had she survived, assuming Heche was simply in extraordinary psychic pain and nothing could have been done to save her is a dangerously insufficient response to vast and complex problem.
What we do definitively know about the crash that killed Anne Heche is this: it could have been prevented.
If ending car crash deaths is our actual goal, and not just a catch phrase, we will treat collisions like hers as both an outrage and a tragedy — and more importantly, an opportunity to talk about how to build a world where, as author Jessie Singer famously put it, there are no accidents.
We will install speed governors on all cars that automatically slow vehicles to non-lethal speeds when drivers speed through neighborhoods, whether they're speeding because they are selfish, or drunk, or high, or in the midst of terrifying psychotic episode, or for literally any other reason. Because ultimately, the reasons why people do dangerous things do not matter, and should not matter — not when we have the technology to physically prevent them from doing them in the first place.
We will stop treating enforcement as a cudgel that will deter 100 percent of drivers from behaving badly, because dangerous behavior is not always a rational choice — and we will recognize that many forms of enforcement themselves carry its own significant dangers, particularly for people of color, and for people with mental illness.
We will robustly fund a wide variety of treatment for mental health conditions and addiction, even if neither is ultimately proven to have been a factor in Heche's death, simply because it is the only correct moral choice.
We will not pretend that everyone who drives drunk or high does so because they are evil or careless. We will recognize that some do it because they struggle to safely withdraw from a substance without medical support, or because they have no other mobility options, or for a universe of other reasons. And we will create safety by creating better systems of care, like simply running buses home from the bar, or installing substance detection technologies on new vehicles despite political opposition.
We can do so much more than mourn and shrug and cast blame after people die in extreme car crashes on ostensibly slow streets in relatively safe cars. Instead, we can radically expand the radius of our compassion and pursue life-saving strategies outside of our core comfort zone. Because if we don't, achieving true Vision Zero will forever remain out of our reach.
Kea Wilson is editor of Streetsblog USA. She has more than a dozen years experience as a writer telling emotional, urgent and actionable stories that motivate average Americans to get involved in making their cities better places. She is also a novelist, cyclist, and affordable housing advocate. She previously worked at Strong Towns, and currently lives in St. Louis, MO. Kea can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @streetsblogkea. Please reach out to her with tips and submissions.
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