Fairness and Justice 2

My last post had to do with how people instinctively move to minimize their losses, to seek a scapegoat, to even out the experience of reality so that there are no nasty bumps or surprises.  However this is not to say that we are not right to expect a certain modicum of fairness and justice in our interactions with the world.  We may expect it, but we also may be disappointed in it when it isn’t there.

Last night my wife was struck by a drunk driver as she was driving home.  She’s ok, and she was the only one in the minivan at the time.  Without a doubt, this is the most important thing of all.  She’s safe.  Uninjured.   The drunk driver was attempting to make a turn when they apparently lost control, struck and jumped the media separating my wife’s vehicle from theirs, slammed into the side of our minivan and bounced off and down into the car behind her.  The driver immediately leapt out of the car and ran on foot.  He was too fast for anyone to see him, since everyone was still in shock at the accident.  He left behind a passenger in the car who was quite drunk. 

When the police arrived to being sorting things out, it wasn’t long before they indicated that they had found the owner of the car about a block away at a 7-11, extremely intoxicated.  However, since nobody was able to positively identify him as the driver, they couldn’t charge him with anything.  They couldn’t prove that he was the driver, because nobody was able to assert that he was the driver.  Conveniently enough, his passenger refused to identify who was driving the vehicle either.  Which means that the person responsible – while their vehicle may be mangled – has no other legal encumbrances upon them.

Firstly, for the purposes of this post  I’m assuming that the owner of the vehicle who was found at 7-11 shortly after the accident was the driver.  I’m assuming that the passenger knows that this person is the driver, and is intentionally withholding information that might incriminate the driver.

This means that the driver – despite being too drunk to drive safely – was savvy enough to know that if he fled the scene and nobody could identify him as the driver, he wouldn’t be held responsible for the accident.  He was coherent enough to know how to evade responsibility for his actions.  He was coherent enough to understand what was necessary for the preservation of his own well-being. 

He had no idea if there had been anyone else in our minivan.  The other car he struck had only minor damage, but our van was hit pretty solidly.  The driver was more concerned with his own situation than with seeing whether or not his negligence had caused anyone serious injury or worse.  The fact that he was able to engage in the necessary thought processes to get him out of his car and away from the scene of the accident before he could be positively identified tends to demonstrate not simply remarkable mental acuity under pressure, but more likely a conditioned response.  He’s been in this situation before, and has internalized the appropriate actions to preserve his own well being so thoroughly that he can execute them even while extremely inebriated, and even though there are potentially injured people nearby. 

More astounding still, is the fact that the passenger, though also very drunk, was coherent enough of what was necessary to save his buddy that he refused to say anything to the police, despite himself being in handcuffs after the accident – at least briefly.  He didn’t simply refuse to identify the driver, he was so drunk and belligerent that he nearly got himself into an altercation with the officer questioning him.  Again, clearly this guy has internalized the right things to do so thoroughly that he can do them even while drunk, even while under pressure, and even though several other people have been severely impacted by his complicity. 

This certainly is not fair.  And most people would see as legitimate the desire to have the appropriate party held accountable, that restitution be made, that this person be held responsible for their negligence in driving drunk, if only so that they don’t do the same thing tonight. 

What’s the difference between my congregation being stuck with a financial loss for a seminar we hosted, and my family being stuck with a financial loss because of the willful negligence of two other people?  Focus on the Family didn’t intend to hurt my church financially.  And I’m willing to bet that the driver and passenger didn’t set out on their drinking last night, or on their trip during or after their drinking, with the intent to get into an accident.  Intentionality is the same in both these situations, yet in the first situation I don’t see any unfairness, but in the second situation I do.

If the difference isn’t the actual loss, or the intent of the other party, what is the difference?  Is there one?  Is it simply a matter of whether or not the loss is corporate vs. personal?  Do I see unfairness at play only when my pocketbook is directly affected, instead of indirectly affected? 

Or is it a matter of my role in the situation?  In the congregational situation, I entered into the arrangement knowing that there was financial risk involved.  Ought we be held accountable to the same level of active involvement every time we get behind the wheel of a car?  After all, we know there are risks.  We know that we could get into an accident every time we get into a vehicle.  The odds are truly frightening that we will get into an accident not just once in our lives, but multiple times.  This is the third time in less than three years that my wife has been struck by another driver while she was at a complete stop or otherwise not at fault.  The first time totaled a beloved Toyota Echo.  The second time damaged the car we got to replace the Echo.  And this time, our minivan – which is the replacement for that intermediate second vehicle – was damaged. 

So we ought to realize that there are very real risks when we choose to ride or drive a vehicle.  Does this mean that we shouldn’t view being struck by someone else who evades responsibility for their actions as unfair?  What constitutes fairness or unfairness, and what is our appropriate response? 

Hopefully this makes you pause to think about this issue.  It seems like a  no-brainer, and yet it’s difficult once we start examining it to accurately identify what stands out and makes one situation different from another – if indeed there is any difference at all. 

2 Responses to “Fairness and Justice 2”

  1. Marie Says:

    I’m glad your wife is all right and I’m so sorry you have to deal with the mess of it all. I hate that kind of grind. We all take a chance when we drive. I often wonder about how we’ve distanced ourselves from that. Sure, some driving is necessary, but let’s say (and I don’t know the numbers) there’s a one in a thousand chance of getting in an accident each time we get in the car. Would it not make sense that we would structure our lives to minimize time in a vehicle? Each time we get in, should we consider whether the reason we are doing so is worth the risk? When we take jobs or sign up at schools, etc., that require daily commutes, should we factor that in as being as dangerous a health choice as smoking? Especially when you look at populations with low illness and death rates — children are more likely to die in car crashes than of heart attacks, frankly — by driving kids around, we are actually dramatically increasing their chances of being seriously hurt or killed unnaturally early in their lives, and little other in our world has that effect. But as for your questions on culpability and drunk driving, when you get in the car sober you are calculating a risk based on the way the world is. I am walking into a tiger den. The drunk driver takes the tiger in with him. I’m willing to concede a lot to the misery of the man behind that wheel — what kind of a life must he be living to have internalized so thoroughly that instinct to preserve self and disregard other? But as for blame, it’s all his, baby.

  2. Paul Nelson Says:

    Hi Marie – I think this is such an important response that I’m quoting you for a blog entry on the subject!  Thanks as always for your observations and insights!

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