TCS Daily

Evolving Truths

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - March 3, 2004 12:00 AM

As if there weren't enough problems in the world we now have a plague of anti-Hispanic automobiles. Yes, that's right. I read it in the Sunday New York Times, first section, page 25.

These predatory cars are roaming "the automotive jungle of Long Island," according to Times writer Patrick Healy, killing and maiming pedestrians and bicyclists. That these cars are anti-Hispanic may be a rush to judgment on my part, but if I am to believe the Times it certainly appears that they are killing and maiming an inordinate number of Hispanics.

Worse, there appear to be other packs of cars and dreaded SUVs operating "in suburbs across the country, from Atlanta to Washington, to Los Angeles." And sadly, the same pattern of preying on Hispanics appears to prevail in these other metropolitan areas. In Los Angeles "the percentage of Hispanics struck by vehicles and killed is two to three times as much as their representation in the population." This is according to an analyst for a group called the "Surface Transportation Policy Project."

The article begins with the story of Jose Cortes, who "one January night" rode off on his mountain bike to get a pack of cigarettes at a Hicksville, N.Y. convenience store. We soon learn that "Mr. Cortes, 23, never returned home. At 10 p.m. on Jan. 6, a 1993 Ford Taurus slammed into Mr. Cortes, killing him."

Thus, Mr. Cortes became not merely a traffic fatality but "a disturbing statistic," says the article. "Hispanic residents, many of them poor and without cars, are victims of pedestrian and bike fatalities in disproportionate numbers."

The article does acknowledge that many immigrants are at least partially at fault, riding bikes on four-lane highways, being "unaccustomed to the pace and rules of New York traffic," and walking in the middle of the street while drunk.

Although somewhere between 10 to 15 percent of the inhabitants of Long Island are Hispanic, the Times article notes that "Hispanics made up 43 percent of Nassau County's 35 pedestrian deaths in 2002." In neighboring Suffolk County "21 percent of the 28 fatal pedestrian accidents in 2002" involved Hispanics.

That's about it for hard statistics in this nearly two-column article. And frankly they seemed a bit thin and specious to me. But the writer assures us that these figures "get at an evolving suburban truth."

Something more interesting seemed to be evolving as I read on. The article's second example concerned a Colombian immigrant woman who "was crossing Clearmeadow Drive in Hempstead when a GMC Suburban stopped at a red light, turned right and hit her." She died of her injuries a month later.

I began to get an eerie Stephen King vibe from the piece. I thought of all the shiny cars parked, so innocent looking, in the lot outside our Florida condo. I imagined myself walking, as I often do, across Route A1A to get a morning newspaper and seeing a Suburban lurking at the corner, its motor purring as the sun glinted off its darkly tinted windshield.

The next example involved two Salvadoran immigrants, a mother and mother-in-law. They had spent the day cleaning a house in Hewlett, L. I., and were "walking toward a bus stop when, despite a red light, they stepped into an intersection and the path of a Mercury station wagon." They were both killed.

The only other example in the story was a man who lost his legs "when he was struck by a Jeep." The article's two-column headline read, "In The Land of Four Wheels, Immigrants Walk in Peril." A teaser headline near the front of the paper alluded to the "Casualties of Car Culture."

The piece gave a short, disturbing tour of the "land of four wheels" by no less an expert than Luis Arteaga, director of the Latino Issues Forum in San Francisco. The Times summed up his ruminations thusly:

"There are problems with the way the roads are laid out, and a lack of crosswalks, sidewalks and streetlights. They are dangerous arteries between city centers and outer suburbs, he said. Early suburbs, now heavily populated by Hispanics and other minorities, are squeezed in the middle."

This article pulled all the usual Times stops, although it played the familiar tune with a soft pedal. There was merely the implication of well-wheeled whites in the far suburbs "squeezing" the poor immigrants up against the city center. There was no "La Raza" table pounding.

But the only Hispanics we meet in the article are those "who walk to and from bus stops or to jobs cleaning houses or cooking at restaurants." And they are presented as being helplessly pitted against a land where "the roads are often dark, the sidewalks scarce, the traffic menacing."

But where were the drivers of the vehicles in the accidents mentioned in the story? There was a passing reference to a driver "never ticketed or charged" in the case of the "GMC Suburban." And one Hispanic pedestrian interviewed recalled that "a co-worker's cousin was killed by a drunk driver."

But that was it. The villains of the piece were an aging Ford Taurus, a hulking Surburban, a non-descript Mercury station wagon and a Jeep.

Killer cars. Who knew?

I am always saddened to read of traffic deaths. The young man riding the bicycle was particularly poignant to me. I was struck by a car while on my bike one rainy night in Florida some years ago. Last year, in broad daylight, a car pulled out in front of me in Boca Raton. My bike wheel touched the side door before my brakes caught and I flew over the handlebars, landing on the spot just vacated by the moving auto. I suffered lacerations, a broken wrist and, thanks to my helmet, nothing worse.

Both cases, I may fairly say, were brushes with death. I well remember the cars involved -- a blue 1987 Honda coupe and a black late model 700 series BMW. But I remember the drivers more. One (in the Beemer) was a sandy haired kid, probably 17 or 18, who fled the scene with a panicked look on his face. The other (who also left the scene) appeared to be a Hispanic man, which is beside the point.

In both cases the drivers drove their cars out of strip malls into my path without stopping or looking. If I had been killed in either case, one of those two men would have been the killer.

I belabor this obvious point because I am still taken aback by this Times dispatch from the Land of Four Wheels. Even if the writer had chosen not to identify the drivers in the supporting anecdotes by name, would it not have been useful to know something about them? Were they young or old, men or women? Were they drunk? Were they gabbing on a cell phone and inattentive to their surroundings? And, h-m-m-m-m, might one of them have been Hispanic?

What are we to make of articles like this? Should we issue cars to immigrants as soon as possible for their own protection? Should we all take mass transit and ride bikes? Then we'll only have to dodge buses and trains.

The sheer physics of collision pretty much dictate the "winner" when automobile and human being intersect. But rather than probing the mutual responsibility of driver and pedestrian, this article seems to promote the idea of immigrants as victims of the machine.

There's more than a whiff in this article of what seems to be an "evolving liberal truth" that cars -- already convicted as polluters and resource wasters -- ought now to be condemned as killers, like handguns. And these cars and "aggressive" SUVs are abroad right now, where there are no sidewalks or streetlights, prowling those "dangerous arteries" that run through the Land of Four Wheels in that awful gap between the rich and the poor.


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