Traffic School


August 27, 2005


Browse in Commons

It is the nature of evil to wear us down. The drip-drip-drip of injustice and institutionalized greed, leave us both resigned and numb. Or else it insinuates itself into our lives until it becomes a new normal, and we cease to notice. Dictators understand this; Hitler turned the screws slowly. So too do corporations, which push the boundaries of the acceptable inch by inch instead of all at once.

This helps explain the generational aspect of dissent. To feel outrage, one must be able to remember — or at least imagine — something different. (Not for nothing do dictators and corporations seek to enlist children.) A Vance Packard could write with outrage at the psychological wiles of the modern advertising industry because, in the 1950s, he could remember when commerce was simpler and more straightforward.

By the same token, a Newton Minnow, John F. Kennedy’s chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, could inveigh against the “vast wasteland” of commercial broadcasting because his generation could remember the early days of television when the broadcasters were promising — and sometimes delivering — something very different. Forty years later we just shrug. Commercial television? What do you expect?

The shrug is evil’s victory march. When it has become the normal and expected, it has won.

But every so often something stirs, a memory of a memory perhaps. That happened to me recently at traffic school. I was not pleased to have to get up at 6:30 AM on a Saturday morning. My mood did not improve when I had to prowl the environs looking for a place to park. But once the class started, I began to think: This isn’t the worst thing to do now and then.

I’ll admit it. I’m fuzzy on a lot of traffic rules. I couldn’t tell you exactly where you can make a U-turn (legally that is), and the difference between commercial and residential areas in that regard. I couldn’t tell you the exact significance of a lane defined by two solid yellow lines with broken lines on the inside. I was uncertain even regarding right of way at intersections. Basically I try to use common sense — and to keep an eye out for cruisers when I’m not sure.

Judging from the discussion in the traffic class, I’m not the only one. So as I said, a refresher course is not the worst thing. It’s especially not so bad to watch the videos of road hazards and how to avoid them. These are meant to be sobering and they are. The sight of crumbled cars and people confined to wheelchairs for life does get ones attention. Never again will I let my eyes wonder from the road to fumble with a heat switch.

Well, at least I’ll be more careful. I’m glad to know, at last, how anti-lock brakes work and what you are supposed to do in a skid. And what to do if you are caught in a flood.

I was sitting there making amends and hoping I could remember some of this. Then it occurred to me. Why are videos such as these kept cloistered in traffic schools? Why aren’t segments on the media every day, the way visual rhapsodies to reckless driving are?

The vast majority of American adults drive. Some 3600 Americans die in crashes every month, which is almost double the total U.S. deaths in Iraq so far. The cost of car crashes is well over a $100 billion a year, in medical bills, car repairs and the rest.

Couldn’t we use the vast media apparatus of ours to try to lessen this toll, instead of constantly stoking it? Couldn’t a portion of it be devoted to safety, in a way as edgy, compelling and persistent as the ads that encourage the opposite?

Graphic depictions of the results of reckless driving could be especially important for young people. Car crashes are the leading cause of death for those 15-20; and those under thirty are the riskiest drivers, as insurance rates amply attest. Yet what fills the commercial media? Images of vehicles tearing up a mountain terrain. Chase scenes in which muscle cars defy the laws of physics, and flaming crashes in which no one ends up dismembered or paraplegic.

People object when fundamentalist preachers urge violence to their flocks. What about this?

We are so used to it we hardly notice. To suggest anything else is to seem hopelessly naíve. Yet the broadcast airwaves belong to us. We are the owners, commercial broadcasters the tenants. Cable channels lay their wires under our streets, and operate under contracts negotiated with our elected representatives. Video game makers are protected by copyrights and patents that are a privilege, not a right; and that are granted under laws our elected representatives write.

Somehow we have been evicted from our own domain. The trespassers have taken over, along with those who have committed forced entry under color of law. We get relegated to the role of passive consumers, supplicants in a script in which we ought to be the boss.

Couldn’t there be at least a little time to respond, so that people get to see both sides? You can argue that people are free to go out and rent the safety videos, which we are, if they are available. (I didn’t see them at my local video store.) But with kids in particular, what appears in a public forum carries an authority and validation. What Dad makes you watch at home — well, come on.

Besides, repetition is the key. GM doesn’t run a single ad. It orchestrates a drip-drip-drip. Come to think of it, that’s what corporations do with the culture generally. They seek to commandeer every moment — branding our clothes and coffee, placing products in the media, naming and therefore defining our public spaces. The effect, if not the conscious intent, is to silence dissonance, and to keep us too preoccupied even to remember.

When the rules of a society impede the use of resources to meet urgent needs, it is a sign of a system that is living on borrowed time. Ralph Nader used to say that when you raise questions about the car, it leads to questions about the corporation that makes the car. By the same token, to ask why the truth about driving is not permitted on the media the way the romance is, leads to larger questions about what is not permitted, and why.

It does not take much to break the spell. A baby crying in a movie theater can do it. A single billboard on a major thoroughfare could counter the effect of a hundred others. Evil’s victory is fragile, which is why it has to police it with such vigilance. So let’s start by resurrecting the memory. The airwaves are ours. The cable companies operate at our sufferance……