By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
Subscribe and Save up to 55%
It was the first Friday of spring break, 1984, when I climbed into the bed of Greg’s compact truck, leaned back against the cab, and watched the keg party fade into the distance as we drove away. The engine whined through first gear, then second, and had just dropped into third when the truck bucked underneath me, left the road, and bounced along the rolling lawn of one of the big houses that lined Sunset Drive in Redlands, California. My head smashed violently into the cab, and I lay moaning, faceup in the truck bed.
“Is everybody OK?” came a shout from the road.
I didn’t know if I could move, and I didn’t want to try. I heard others groaning.
“Are you OK?” asked a bystander, now looking down at me.
I squeezed my eyes shut against the pain. Of course I wasn’t OK.
People kept repeating that question, as if by asking it enough times they’d finally get the answer they wanted. Sirens filled the air. EMTs slid me onto a wooden plank and secured my head to it with a strip of tape. To go with the sickening ache at the base of my spine, I now had a sharp stab from a knot on the back of my head, which was pressed brutally against the plank. I complained as they hustled me into the ambulance, and the EMT apologized but said it couldn’t be helped.
The ride seemed to last an hour. Though every bump in the road hurt like a nail driven through my skull, I was pretty sure by this time, based on the attitudes of the EMTs, that I was going to recover: I could move my arms and legs. I could think clearly. I wasn’t bleeding. All my bones seemed to be in place.
In the ER the scene evolved from a near tragedy to a madcap extension of the keg party. No one had been seriously injured, a nurse told me, though we’d certainly caused a ruckus on an otherwise quiet night.
Greg’s mother kept the wrecked truck in their backyard as an object lesson for teen visitors. We’d been going only thirty-five when we’d hit the palm tree, but it was enough to crumple the front end into an accordion. Ten miles an hour more, and we’d likely have died. The accident merited a brief, inaccurate paragraph in the local paper. Every year, it seemed, three kids at our school died in car accidents — always three, like a ritual sacrifice, our version of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” Their deaths were mourned but accepted as inevitable. Greg’s mother wished for us to derive a moral from the story: don’t drink and drive. I chalked up the misadventure to luck: bad luck to have been in a crash, good luck to have survived.
Three years ago my wife, our young son, and I moved from the urban center of the Quad Cities — a post-industrial sprawl along the Iowa-Illinois border — to a riverfront village fifteen miles away. The move brought a number of changes in our lives, including the end of my run as a bicycle commuter. When time and weather permit, I still like to throw my bike onto the rooftop carrier, drive across the I-80 bridge (which has no pedestrian or bicycle access), park on the other side, and ride eleven miles along a bike path to work. This is a pleasure and a privilege but certainly not practical to do every day.
Even before the move, between my job, my wife’s job, childcare, shopping, and the never-ending errands of contemporary life, we’d already had to buy a second car. A few times, before capitulating to car number two, I’d towed our son to day care in a bike trailer. The seven-mile round trip wasn’t particularly dangerous by cycling standards, though I cringed at every car that blew by us going fifty. Including getting ready and dropping my son off, the round trip took more than an hour, but I was stubbornly determined to sacrifice time, ease, and even a sense of safety for the opportunity to bike — until the morning we got caught in an unexpected thunderstorm. For twenty minutes we hunkered under an overpass near a homeless camp. Finally I secured the nylon trailer cover as best I could and slogged through the deluge to the day-care facility. I got home so wet my toes were wrinkled. It was late morning, and I still hadn’t started work.
It’s not that my wife and I couldn’t, strictly speaking, have survived with one car, or even none. The poorest among us do it all the time. (Indeed, the lack of good transportation options is a big part of what keeps the poor poor.) It’s that the Quad Cities, like most of this country, are so perfectly designed for automobiles that to live there without one is to be excluded from much of economic, social, and civic life.
A few months after Greg’s accident, four of us climbed into my friend Sue’s luxury sedan and drove to San Diego. We parked on the border outside Tijuana, Mexico, and crossed on foot at 11 AM. For the rest of that memorable day we floated through steaming streets that smelled of charred meat, sewage, spilled beer, and the faint tang of vomit. We sat in cantinas with creaky floors, thirty-five-cent Coronas, pickled rattlesnakes floating in jars of mezcal, jukeboxes without a single familiar song, and Marlboros that were somehow stronger than the ones across the border. We passed strippers, beggars, prostitutes, and little kids selling gum. We saw burros painted as zebras and iguanas on leashes.
That night, bone tired and content, we crossed back over the border, hopped into Sue’s car, and headed home to Redlands. Immediately the tangled spaghetti of freeway junctions leapt at us, complicated and aggressive. In the center of San Diego, orange signs and the flashing lights of road construction funneled us onto a tight exit ramp. Sue, a drunk teenager behind the wheel of a powerful car, took the curve too fast, panicked, and stomped on the gas instead of the brakes. We flew off the road, down an embankment, and into a ditch.
The crash was followed by a now-familiar stillness, quiet except for the distant traffic and the whimpers of my friends. This time I felt no pain, and I quickly got out of the car, thrumming with adrenaline. I yanked open Sue’s door, and she turned to me, a dripping gash over one eyebrow. “Hang on,” I told her. The boy in the back sat upright, as expressionless as a mannequin. My friend in the front passenger seat was bent forward with both hands over his mouth. “Something’s hanging from my lip,” he lisped, catching the blood drooling from his jaw into his open palms. What I’d taken for a thick stream of bloody mucus was in fact his bottom lip, sliced away but still attached at the corner of his mouth.
“They’ll fix it,” I assured him.
A man came running down the embankment toward us: “Is everyone OK?”
The ambulance arrived, and I led the EMTs to the wreck, hopping around like a junior-cadet first responder, babbling all the while. After the others had been packed into the ambulance, an EMT asked if I was injured. Shrugging, I pointed to a shallow, inch-long cut on my arm. “Only this superficial laceration on my bicep,” I said in my most officious voice.
After we got home, the boy in the back seat hired a lawyer and went around in a neck brace for several weeks, though everyone said he was faking it. Since this was the second car Sue had totaled in the last year, her parents replaced the luxury sedan with an inexpensive compact. My friend’s lip healed but remained puffed up with scar tissue, giving him a permanent pout. For me the crash reinforced the lesson I’d taken from Greg’s accident: that I was lucky, the type of person who survives for no good reason.
Not long ago my neighbor James surprised me by harshly criticizing another parent he knew. He told me the man had installed a swimming pool in his backyard without first having bought his high-school-age son a car. James, a live-and-let-live sort in most matters, asserted that “a vehicle is independence to these kids. Without one, how are they going to grow up?”
I tensed at this. Though high school was years away for my son, I’d never imagined I might be found lacking as a parent if I failed to buy him an automobile by his senior year. Until that moment, I’d never even pictured him behind the wheel, and the image horrified me. I recalled a podcast interview with self-described “rational urbanist” Steven Shultis, who, decades earlier, had reversed the standard migration pattern by moving from the quiet suburbs into the noisy downtown of his midsize city. His suburban neighbors had not hidden their disapproval. One had characterized the move as “child abuse,” condemning him for plucking his school-age kids from safe suburbia and dropping them into the crime-infested center; for transferring them from “good” white schools to “bad” brown schools.
Shultis countered with statistics. Suburbanites, he observed, were forever exaggerating the danger of “inner-city” crime while ignoring — or, at least, downplaying — the actual leading cause of death among teenagers: traffic accidents. Living downtown, where traffic was slowed by urban density, his kids would walk and take the bus wherever they needed to go. Shultis also pointed out that the number-two cause of death among teenagers — suicide — correlated with social isolation, a primary feature of suburbia.
To my friend James I said none of this. I just meekly suggested that not everyone felt the way he did about kids and cars. He registered my position with a shrug, and we moved on.
In 1985 I caught a ride in the back of another small truck, this time up the face of the San Bernardino Mountains, along a twisting four-lane highway to a lookout point where teenagers like us partied. A couple of hours later my new best friend, Scott, and I climbed into the truck to head back. The driver was part of Scott’s crowd: stringy-haired guys who were into souped-up cars, motorcycles, and off-road racing. Wildly drunk, he tore out of the parking area and sped down the highway, sliding around each hairpin turn, certain-death cliffs mere feet from the squealing tires.
“Motherfucker!” I yelled in terror.
Scott leaned over to grab my arm, smiling maniacally. “Do not fear death!” he shouted.
Unlike me, Scott never drank more than a single beer in an evening. I’d always wondered what got him high. Now I knew. Expecting the truck to flip over at every curve, I white-knuckled the side of the bed all the way down the mountain, silently cussing the driver and waiting to die. Back on flat ground, I relaxed — too soon. As we entered the lonely outskirts of Redlands, we drifted to the right and jumped the curb, sliding to a stop sideways, the front passenger tire blown. The driver tumbled out, laughing at the comedy of it all, but I hopped out of the bed and showered him with every curse in my vocabulary. His face clouded with confusion, then anger. Without a word he ducked into the cab, emerged with a tire iron, and came stumbling after me in the street, swinging the tool like a sword and roaring incoherently. I backed away to the opposite sidewalk, and we shouted at each other across the road for a few minutes before I turned and walked several miles home.
A couple of days later Scott called to report that his friend was really sorry. He’d been drunk. I was right to be mad. I told him his friend could shove his apology, and Scott and I stopped hanging out after that. A few months later Scott plastered his motorcycle into the side of a city bus, doing ninety at the point of impact. He died instantly, the paper reported, on a sunny morning, on a residential street nearly devoid of traffic. The coroner found no intoxicants in his body.
I heard that hundreds attended the funeral. I didn’t go, didn’t want to think about my friend, dead forever, his crushed body. I didn’t want to imagine the moment he’d decided to chance it, twisting the accelerator instead of squeezing the brakes, leaning into the turn to blow through what, an instant earlier, had been a clear intersection. I didn’t want to picture the bus appearing like God come to pass final judgment, bearing the message of some stupid advertisement that would be the last thing Scott would ever see.
A protected bike lane runs through one of the half-dead industrial zones that line the river in the Quad Cities. A mile long, the lane is separated from traffic by a high concrete curb topped by orange plastic warning signs. In my hundred-plus bike rides along this lane, I’ve never once seen an automobile.
By contrast, Highway 67, a scenic riverfront road that connects the tourist village where I live to the Quad Cities, has no such bicycle protections. Still, cyclists occasionally brave the ten miles between Bettendorf and Le Claire by riding on the four-lane highway’s shoulder, dodging gravel, illegally parked cars, and the ubiquitous corpses of deer. The speed limit along that stretch is fifty-five, which means the usual speed of traffic is sixty-five.
I’m one of the fools who ride the Highway 67 shoulder. It typically goes like this: I’m pedaling along, alert for broken glass, potholes, roadkill, rocks, branches, and assorted trash when I hear the next cluster of cars start to approach from behind like a distant swarm of bees. The approaching swarm grows in volume into a stampeding herd, and the muscles along my shoulders clench tight. The herd becomes a squadron of fighter jets bearing down on me. As the noise hits its apex, I’m certain I’ll die. Finally the first car shoots past, dragging a strong wind like icy-hot water splashed over my body. The shock repeats, diminishing with each car, until the group has passed, and I begin to relax. Then I hear a new growl behind me: a tractor-trailer rig leading the next charge.
After ten miles of this I reach the separated bike path at the edge of Bettendorf, just in time for the speed limit to drop to thirty-five. For the decade I’ve lived here, a proposed designated bike lane between Bettendorf and Le Claire has been stalled in some government-planning limbo. The highway, which has never experienced traffic congestion, is plenty wide enough to accommodate a bike lane without any inconvenience to drivers. Construction — a simple matter of concrete barriers and paint — could be completed in a week, at insignificant cost compared to the overall highway budget in the area. No policy expert of any political affiliation disputes the economic benefits of bicycle lanes, especially for small business districts like Le Claire’s downtown. So what’s the delay? Nothing more than the old habits formed by a hundred years of automotive transportation.
Four years after Scott’s death I drank margaritas on a friend’s hillside deck, celebrating the spectacular ocean view from his tiny new apartment. After several pitchers our small party decided to hit the bars in the California resort town of Laguna Beach, seven miles up the coast. I invited everyone to climb in my pickup truck, and we took off along a stretch of road so familiar I could have driven it practically unconscious. All went well until we entered the city, where I ignored the drop in speed limit, and red and blue lights flashed. After a sobriety-test performance described in the police report as “slow and deliberate,” I was arrested and charged with driving under the influence.
In court I accepted a plea deal of several thousand dollars in fines, two weeks of mandatory counseling, twenty Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and participation in the brand-new Youthful Drunk Driver Visitation Program, which consisted of a late Saturday night at an emergency room, a tour of a long-term-care facility for the permanently disabled, and a day at the county morgue.
Though I hadn’t had a drink since my arrest, I felt like an intruder at the AA meetings, the youngest person in a stale basement full of shell-shocked-looking men who chain-smoked and chugged coffee. Sitting in the back, I said nothing, and they ignored me. After each session the group leader would sign and date the court’s sheet. Five meetings in, he told me I could stop showing up; they didn’t really want anyone coming to meetings against his will.
“What am I supposed to do?” I asked, pointing to the sheet. “This is a court order.”
He stared at me for a moment, clicked his pen, and began to sign his name on line after line. “You can write the dates yourself,” he said.
I stopped him. “You can’t use the same pen for the whole page. The judge’ll never buy it.”
He shook his head, sighed, and gave me what I needed: twenty signatures written with a variety of pens, dated at plausible intervals. Thus ended my stint in Alcoholics Anonymous.
The ER nurse kept apologizing for how slow my Saturday night was. A few drunks stumbled in with minor injuries — one had a hand smashed from punching a brick wall — along with the usual elderly patients in distress. She did show me to the room of a “very sick” man who’d been there a few days already. I saw no human in the bed, just a wall of machines sprouting tubes and wires that disappeared beneath a shroud of sheets. The patient had been in an accident, and the doctors had to remove his sternum to get to the smashed organs inside. He probably wasn’t going to make it.
After the 2 AM bar closings failed to produce any drama, the nurse signed my paper and sent me home.
Next I visited the county long-term-care facility, a Soviet-looking building whose hallways echoed with howls, shouts, and weeping. The woman assigned to be my guide didn’t tell me her name, just brusquely showed me around. She introduced me to a balding, bearded man who pushed his wheelchair in a tight circle with the one leg he was able to operate, the rest of him twisted on the seat. He spent all day, every day, like this. I was shown a woman encased in a full-body cast, her legs spread as if for a gynecological exam, with a thick metal bar attached to each knee to stabilize the arrangement.
“It hurts! It hurts!” she screamed, moving her head side to side.
“I know it does,” a caregiver petting her shoulder kept cooing, somehow sounding both sympathetic and bored.
For the remaining three hours and forty-five minutes of my visit, I sat in a windowless room organizing a drawer full of files. (The facility was understaffed.) My guide signed my paper and told me I could leave once I’d finished the filing. She made no attempt to connect what I had seen to drinking, driving, or anything other than the general horror of existence.
This all led up to the main event: the morgue. Entering the building early on a Saturday morning, I found myself in a group with a dozen other offenders in the “youthful drunk drivers” program, many of them not particularly youthful. The deputy coroner, a hale, coach-like Latino man, framed our visit as a lesson in consequences. “Our bodies are fragile,” he told us, and if we made the decision to drink and drive, we might very well end up there in the morgue with his other “clients.” I’d heard this message so many times since Greg had crashed his pickup into a tree that it barely registered.
A television crew and local news reporter arrived to do a story on the drunk-driving program, and the deputy coroner led us into the autopsy room, where two men and a woman in scrubs attended the corpse of a thickset, middle-aged man. The deputy apologized that they didn’t have any victims of drunk driving that particular Saturday. The “loved one” on the table had hanged himself after a lifetime in and out of mental-health and substance-abuse programs. “Be respectful,” he said to us perps. “We refer to everyone who comes through here as a ‘loved one,’ because someone out there loves them.”
The woman in scrubs spoke into a microphone attached to her shirt about what she found in the corpse, all while removing organs and passing them to one of the men, who proceeded to slice them into sections for the other man to place into containers for the lab. The technician’s knife technique, I noted, was the same as that of the cooks at the restaurant where I worked.
I was not much impressed by the presentation so far. In fact, I was feeling almost disappointed when the deputy dismissed the news crew and led us into a carpeted room set up with chairs and a movie screen. Then came an onslaught of full-color, close-up photos of fatal traffic accidents, with a few murders thrown in for variety. After fifteen minutes of smeared, pooled, and splattered blood, jagged bones poking through skin, crushed skulls, and misshapen bodies, my mouth went dry, and the room began to quiver. Don’t puke, I told myself, breathing deeply and holding it in while the deputy narrated the slides, one after another.
Though some of the accidents had involved alcohol or drugs, most of them, the deputy reluctantly admitted, hadn’t. They were just accidents: The demented woman who wandered out of her care facility and onto a highway. The T-bone collision that crushed the high-school girl. The head-on impact that killed four. The sleeping driver who drifted into a pole. A horrible but bracing revelation cleared away my nausea: Adults and authorities had been lying to me, and perhaps to themselves. Drinking wasn’t the real problem. Cars were.
The deputy coroner tried his best to deliver a message of personal responsibility, to convince us that it was within our power to decide whether we lived or died in automobiles, but the pictures told a simpler, more visceral story: cars are grinders, and we are meat.
Government statistics show approximately thirty-seven thousand traffic deaths in 2017, a typical year of the last decade. Of these fatalities, around eleven thousand — fewer than one-third — were caused by “impairment.” Which means more than two-thirds are not attributable to alcohol or drugs. If we were somehow to eliminate all impaired driving, we would still have sacrificed twenty-six thousand people that year in exchange for the convenience of cars.
Whenever a mass shooting explodes through our lives, our reaction is painfully predictable. Those who identify firearms as the problem will recite a list of arguments for better gun regulation, like prayers muttered by rote in a dead language. Others, who have a special attachment to guns, will place the blame on mental illness or video games. But all of us — those on the Left, those on the Right, and those who fancy themselves beyond Left and Right — will continue to live without much complaint in spaces built not for us but for our tools, our conveyances. The servant has become the master, and no sacrifice is too great for the magical chariots we love. We have given them our wealth, our land, our air, and our children.
Occasionally, when I tire of basking in the absurd good fortune bestowed randomly upon me, I imagine an even better, more perfect life, in a place not designed around the automobile. I recall a YouTube video of a famous author showing off his airy Toronto apartment, then leading the film crew down the bustling sidewalk to the farmers’ market, where he selects a fresh chicken breast and assorted vegetables for the evening meal. Or, if not a big city in Canada, how about an old Mexican town, built long before the tyranny of the car? Plenty of spots in Europe would do quite nicely, as well: villages with lively central squares and train stations.
The daydream inevitably ends in frustration. Barring some financial windfall, I can’t move to any of those places. I live here, tethered by my job to the muddled middle of Autolandia. I’m not going to pick up and move my family any more than a midcareer autoworker laid off by a plant-closing in Ohio is going to relocate to Silicon Valley and become a computer programmer.
The desire is persistent, though, and the dream reassembles around the place where I live. The Quad Cities could expand bike paths, build new ones, connect them up, design human-scaled neighborhoods, plant more trees. Along the riverfront the cities could add carless bridges and a ferry service. And the final ingredient: a light-rail system linking the outlying villages to the urban districts and the new Amtrak station (currently in its eighth year of “planning”) that will someday connect us by rail to the rest of the country.
Back on Earth, I’m still waiting for a bike lane from Le Claire to Bettendorf. Maybe it will be built someday, if enough people push for it. In the interim I have plenty of time to dream while I’m stuck in traffic.
Kelly Daniels’s opposition to automobiles [“No Accident,” April 2020] struck a chord. As a child, I kept missing the school bus, and I’d take my time meandering back to my babysitter’s house. As a teen I’d walk to school because I loved the quiet journey before my day.
When I attended the University of Zimbabwe, I walked the five miles to the city of Harare instead of risking a ride in the rickety hatchback taxis, which were always crammed with passengers. Hundreds of others did the same, talking to friends as they walked. I saw cars as a dividing force: by going fast, we miss out on communing with each other and with nature.
A bike is a compromise, but still far superior to a car. In my city of Anchorage, Alaska, bike trails connect most parts of town. When I ride, I say hello to people, contend with our vast array of wildlife, get a workout in the fresh air, and start my day with joy. And I don’t risk my life by driving.
As I read Kelly Daniels’s “No Accident,” I could hear the howls of protest at his claim that the true cause of carnage on the road is the car, not the alcohol. It takes bravery to fly in the face of policy that tries to control road death through draconian legislation regarding blood-alcohol content. People who have lost loved ones in accidents where alcohol was a factor often push for such legislation, but Daniels is correct. In the bulk of auto accidents, alcohol is not a factor.
What was the point of Kelly Daniels’s essay “No Accident”? Yes, there will always be motor-vehicle accidents, and these sometimes cause deaths. People die in bicycle accidents, too, however, and not just when the riders are struck by cars. Many modern conveniences can cause death; should we eliminate them all? And motorized vehicles such as ambulances and firetrucks sure come in handy.
I agree we need more bike lanes, and that the environmental impact of this car-crazy nation should be considered more often. But none of this was part of Daniels’s cavalier attitude about drinking and driving.
While it is true that roughly 29 percent of traffic fatalities in the U.S. involve impairment, alcohol played a role in 100 percent of Kelly Daniels’s accidents. After surviving three and completing a court-ordered Youthful Drunk Driver Visitation Program, Daniels concluded that “drinking wasn’t the real problem. Cars were.”
My message to my children is: Don’t drink and drive. If you are impaired, call me anytime and I will come and get you. Do not get in a car driven by someone who is impaired. Attempt to prevent your friends from driving drunk.
It will take time to remove our dependence on cars. In the meantime we can save lives by not using those cars while impaired.
To David Larson: I commend the parenting described in your letter, and I intend to do the same when the time comes for my son to take the wheel. Moreover, I am working to create a community in which we are not so frequently tempted to mix inebriation and driving. Even I, a former drunk driver and perennial bad-decision maker, believe we can do better.
To Anne Rankin: I frequently ask myself this question — What is the point? — about my writing and my life in general. I admit I am a meandering sort of essayist. For a more focused article on our reliance on cars, I recommend “What Have We Sacrificed for Transportation Independence?” by Arian Horbovetz, which is readily available online.