From the New York Times, Oct. 8:
4 Die in Crash at Notorious Turn on L.I. Road
All five were teenage friends from Queens, and four had been classmates at Richmond Hill High School. Some had started college and were planning for careers years away, and they were all out for a ride early Monday in a car that one of them — a 17-year-old with a learner’s permit — had recently started driving.
Et cetera. An insightful post by Charles Komanoff of StreetsBlog deconstructs this coverage, calling it out for placing the blame on the Southern State Parkway’s dangerous “Dead Man’s Curve” rather than the pathological car culture. He also contrasts far superior (and sadly atypical) coverage in the Times by columnist Ginia Bellafante. In her piece, “Gift, and a Tragedy, Born of a Car Culture,” she notes that the kids came from the Queens neighborhood of Richmond Hill, where—in contrast to the stereotypes about youth in Manhattan—the fetishization of the private automobile, and its links to status and rite-of-passage symbolism, are as entrenched as in the ‘burbs. The “gift” in question was the car itself, which the driver, Joseph Beer, 17, “had been given by his parents for performing well academically.” At the time of the crash, he was violating three provisions of his learner’s permit: must have licensed adult in the car, cannot have more than one passenger under 21, may not drive between 9 PM and 5 AM. Beer, ironically, was the sole survivor in the wreck. Writes Bellafante:
When I visited Richmond Hill High School last week, several teenagers I spoke to quickly recalled other accidents involving friends and friends of friends. The current horror evoked memories, in particular, of an accident involving a group of Guyanese teenagers from South Ozone Park who ran into a guardrail on the Van Wyck Expressway five years ago. Similarly, the driver had been given the car as a gift from his parents.
This tradition is not atypical for families of modest means. As Ian Ramdas, an acquaintance of some of the victims of Monday’s accident, explained it to me, he had been a car enthusiast since at least age 14. When he graduated from John Adams High School in Ozone Park two and a half years ago, his parents, both nurses, bought him an Infiniti G37. “My car from the factory, no bragging, is $53,000 after taxes,” he told me…
“When you modify a car to your standards, you’re expressing yourself; it’s our art,” he said. “Some people invest $3,000 in a car. That’s what I paid for the rims. That’s what makes me different from everyone else.”
Komanoff writes that the accident five years ago on the Van Wyck,
like last week’s, altered or ended the lives of five Guyanese teenagers. In that December 2007 incident, a new Dodge Charger that had just been given to one of the teens was driven, apparently at high speed, into a guardrail on the Van Wyck Expressway. Two of the five were killed, and the other three were brought to Jamaica Hospital Medical Center in critical condition.
What happened, one wonders, to the three survivors? Five years on, are they physically or cognitively disabled? Do they drive? If they do, do they fetishize their cars like Ramdas and the other young people whom Bellafante interviewed? Did their schools and churches recruit them to warn against the reckless behavior that nearly killed them? Will they do so, now that another wreck has taken four more from their midst?
Komanoff notes approvingly that Bellafante “focused her column not on the community’s sense of loss but on the ‘almost obsessive’ car culture in which the five teenagers came of age. Indeed, judging from her reporting, other Richmond Hill young people were more keen to talk up their wheels than reflect on the loss of life.” And he contrasts this coverage to the more typical accounts of yet another such ghastly incident:
Her column also stands in contrast to the paper’s depiction of the aftermath of another horrific multiple-teen fatal crash in our area — an August 2011 incident in which a 17-year-old driver and three passengers, all members of the Mainland High School football team in Linwood, NJ, were killed. The subsequent multi-part series described the commendable efforts to bind the team’s wounds but said next to nothing about the circumstances of the crash itself, which occurred on the Garden State Parkway on a Saturday morning in broad daylight.
No one has reported the Linwood vehicle’s speed, and it was missing from the New Jersey Police crash investigation report that I obtained last year. Nor was the speed reported for the 2007 Van Wyck Expressway crash. So it’s heartening that Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice has contacted Subaru “to determine if the vehicle had a black box from which data about the vehicle’s speed can be downloaded,” according to CBS New York.
Disclosing and reporting the speeds in this and the other crashes won’t help the families. But the knowledge gained might help break the cycle of forgetfulness that makes future tragedies almost inevitable.
Its good to see some consciousness about the endemic cultural roots of this all too prosaic carnage finally percolating into the mass media. But we take issue with the identical bet-hedging adjective used by both Bellafante and Komanoff: “almost.” A better descriptive for the car culture Bellafante describes would be “utterly obsessive” (or simply “pathological,” which is what we call it at World War 4 Report). And the better descriptive for the inevitable nature of more and more such carnage until the underlying roots are addressed—in our culture; in our economy, with its links to foreign military adventures to secure control of Middle Eastern oil; in the very physical landscape of our communities, designed around the automobile rather than the human organism—is “perfectly.”
Finally, as we have pointed out before: These deaths are not “tragedies,” which implies mere acts of God. They are crimes. Use of the word “tragedy” or even (“accident”) obscures the political nature of the problem.
See more reasons WHY WE FIGHT.