Thursday, August 30, 2007

On Forgiveness and Unintended Consequences

My unpleasant encounter with a car fender last Tuesday has left me thinking about several things, including forgiveness and the law of unintended consequences.

In the moment that I stood in the street fumbling with my cell phone and deciding whether or not to dial 911, several instincts played through me. A long family tradition of toughness weighed against bothering the authorities over a little thing like a roll on the pavement. My history of cycling activism told me to hold the driver accountable. My deep belief in peace and reconciliation left me spring loaded to forgive. My years of experience in the criminal justice system have left me with a healthy respect for its limits. All that, combined with my own reluctance to spend time with police while waiting to get to the doctor, led me not to call 911. Some people who commented on my last post think I should tell the police what happened, if only to keep their statistics straight. I see the point in that call, and I may do it.

The incident did make me think about Toronto's street design, and the driving habits it encourages. Where minor streets such as Euclid cross arterial roads like Dundas, a long time can pass during rush hour without the kind of break in traffic drivers at stop signs should wait for. On Dundas, as on many other streets, when traffic in one direction breaks, the traffic in the other often does not. Drivers frequently pull forward at the first break in traffic closest to them, then wait for a break in the traffic going the other direction. Doing this creates a dangerous situation, but if drivers did not do it, traffic in this city simply would not move. At Euclid, the street where I got hit, "traffic calming" measures (excuse a hollow laugh) compound the problem. Normally, a driver attempting to cross a major street such as Dundas would have the option to turn right and circle back to their destination, but the maze of one-way streets, specifically designed to exclude traffic from the neighbourhood, boxes drivers in and makes it difficult for them to choose the safer course. The neighbourhood pressure groups and traffic engineers who designed the street where I got hit probably did not intend to create a stressful situation for drivers or a dangerous one for me, but between them, they did so.

In his book Dancing with a Ghost, Rupert Ross discussed the preference of Native Elders for justice which dealt with the root of problems, rather than simply punishing the offender. In this case, I see the root of the problem as bad street design, a city profoundly conflicted about the role of the car in our culture, and some very mixed messages about aggressive driving. Right or wrong, I would rather address these roots of the problem than visit retribution on the apologetic young woman whose front bumper shoved my bike.

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