The Gospel of the Car Ad (part one in a series)

It’s come to our attention that a cyclist in British Columbia who struck and injured a pedestrian at a traffic light in 2002 has been fined $130,000 by the BC supreme court, Hon. justice W.G. Grist presiding. It is not known what kind of car Mr. Grist drives.

What we do know is the cyclist, a male person named Nast, passed three cars that were stopped at a red light before hitting the pedestrian, a woman named MacKnight.

“Witnesses said Nast sped along the curb past a line of three cars stopped at the light before striking MacKnight as she stepped out onto the crosswalk.”

“Evidence showed Nast, who was cycling to university, didn’t try to brake before he was 10 metres from the crosswalk.”

Does $130,000 sound like a lot? Does it make you think perhaps the supreme court takes seriously the safety of pedestrians in British Columbia? And what does this have to do with the so-called “Gospel of the Car Ad?”

Let’s parse this story:

1. For a cyclist, $130,000 is a shit-load of money. It’s enough to buy a few very interesting bicycles, or a thousand bicycles worth $130. It would give about an hour’s worth of car drivers on a busy road a way to get to work that doesn’t darken their souls forever.

2. The pedestrian was badly hurt. She was knocked unconscious, suffered a broken collarbone, and to this day can’t sit for long periods of time in front of a computer, as her profession (bookkeeper) demands.

3. For a car-owner, $130,000 is a drop in the bucket. It would cover the costs of car ownership for only a few years at best. The cost of car ownership is a fun game to play, but no matter how you spin the dials it doesn’t come out looking good for the car owner. If you ask the Main Stream Media for the answer, you’ll get one thing. The Globe and Mail’s “Megawheels” section the other day (March 31 2005) devoted its centerfold to the gruesome facts: depreciation plus maintenance and repairs, plus fuel, plus insurance and registration (but not including parking fees!) add up to annual costs (over four years) of $8,200 (for a 2005 Toyota Echo sedan) to $12,109 (for a 2005 Chevrolet Malibu Maxx). That’s the cheap end, too: a 2005 BMW 530i will cost you $24,532 per year. On the other hand, if you go to an ecologist for the answer, they will want to add “the real but hard-to-estimate cost to future generations of dealing with the oil depletion and climate change the car is creating today” plus “the [cost of] pollution, [of] building and maintaining the roads, [of] the medical costs of accidents and the noise and the aesthetic degradation caused by urban sprawl” (Kalle Lasn, “the true-cost marketplace”).

4. Pedestrians are dispensible, unless they’re hit by bicycles. This settlement sounds stupendous until you put it in perspective: when was the last time you heard about a pedestrian knocked down by a car winning the big bucks in a court settlement. My favourite is the “car hits bus shelter” scenario; that’s always good for a few laffs. Injure or kill a few pedestrians in a car, that’s a matter for insurance companies, not the courts. And insurance companies are seeking to reclassify it as a “act of god.”

5. The real crime here has nothing to do with knocking over a pedestrian. After all, she stepped into the road. Anyone who drives knows how unpredictable pedestrians are. Anyone could hit a pedestrian. The real crime here is theft.

Consider the CBC report of the case:

“Witnesses said Nast sped along the curb past a line of three cars stopped at the light before striking MacKnight as she stepped out onto the crosswalk.”

“In his March 31 judgment, Grist found the cyclist…disregarded the signal and passed stopped traffic … in an unsafe manner.”

But theft? Was the bike stolen? I didn’t read anything about “theft.”

Not the bike.

6. According to the Gospel of the Car Ad, part 1, “Freedom of the Road” is what cars give you. You buy it when you buy a car. The crime of this cyclist was not that of knocking over a pedestrian. What he stole was “freedom of the road,” and he stole it from the car owners who were dutifully lined up at the traffic light. They pay dearly for freedom of the road, and this court case, Hon. W.G. Grist presiding, was their chance to bill a cyclist for his theft of it.

It was a chance to make Nast pay, and $130,000, the cost of five years’ BMW ownership, is a start.

“Disobey the signal” cost Nast $65,000.

“Passed stopped traffic?” Another $65,000.

“Hit a pedestrian?” An understandable lapse. Judge Grist let that one go. Next time though, pay for it up front. Buy a car.

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