GENERAL ARTICLES

MOTOR MURDER

VICTOR LAURISTON August 1 1933
GENERAL ARTICLES

MOTOR MURDER

VICTOR LAURISTON August 1 1933

MOTOR MURDER

VICTOR LAURISTON

A

SUBOFFICIAL of the Motor League called on me a few months ago. He is a nice chap. I like him. Most motorists are nice chaps. I like them all.

This man invited me to fill out a ballot. Did I want the speed limit of thirty-five miles an hour increased? Or wiped out altogether? Or—as a casual afterthought— did I want it retained?

My friend was so easy in his mind about me. I decided to break the bad news gently: “I’m afraid I can't help you much.”

Quite nonchalantly he rejoined that one motorist working for a “no speed limit’ law couldn’t get very far; but that by all pulling together . . .

I finished breaking the bad news by marking an emphatic "Yes” on the retention of the thirty-five mile speed limit.

“Who observes the speed limit anyway?” he challenged. "Can you name one motorist who does?”

I am, in fact, a charter member of the Canadian Speed Limit Club. The Club, whose entire membership is pledged to drive within the legal speed limit, has been in existence since the fall of 1929, when I tried to pass a slow-moving truck and had to take to the ditch to avoid a collision with a fifty-five miles an hour motorist coming wildly from the opposite direction.

So far, the Canadian Speed Limit Club has only one member, but for my purposes that is sufficient.

The Tale the Figures Tell

I N THE last fifteen years, motor fatalities in the United States have totalled some 325.000. i In all Canada there were, in 1930. some 1,297 deaths due to motor accidents. And, despite reduced tourist traffic and the widepsread inculcation of Safety First ideas, in 1931 the total crept up to 1,307.

At the moment of writing, figures for 1932 are fragmentary. In Ontario, fatal accidents declined from 571 to 502, which was encouraging; but non-fatal accidents went up from 6,582 to 8,231 indicating that while all driving had decreased, careless driving continued to increase, showing considerable disproportion.

In British Columbia, registrations of motor vehicles dropped from 96,498 to 89,658, with an encouraging drop in all accidents from 4.353 to 3,144, while fatal accidents decreased from ninety-two to seventy-eight a gtxxl showing. Nova Scotia, where registrations declined from 43.758 to 41.013. showed a drop in all accidents from 1,368 to 1,245 with fatal accidents unchanged at forty-eight.

On the other hand, Quebec showed a decided upturn in its traffic toll. Accidents

increased from 4,583 in 1931 to 7,538 in 1932, and fatalities from 219 to 280. In Prince Edward Island, where registrations dropped from 7,740 to 6,950, accidents increased from fifty-two to 100. Fatalities, however, dropped from five to one.

Sufficient unto the year are the statistics thereof. They make plain that, in spite of widespread and diligent preachments on the subject of Care, Courtesy and Common Sense; in spite of financial conditions that have eliminated a lot of cars from our highways; in spite of loud threats and gentle pats on the wrist from law-enforcement authorities, we have not yet struck at the root of the evil.

Why do motor accidents continue?

The answer is: “Because a lot of people concerned do not really try to stop them.”

The fault doesn’t lie with motorists as motorists. It lies with motorists as human Ixdngs.

It is often stated that gripping the wheel of a high-jxnvered car seems to change entirely a man’s nature. But is this so? Or doesn’t the fault rather lie in the fact that human nature,

still clinging to the mental attitudes and prerogatives of the horse and buggy era. obstinately shuts its eyes to the menace of the high-powered car?

For instance, take the most tragic type of motor accidents - those affecting children in the streets. A motorist drives along a residential street between two rows of parked cars. As a rule, he drives slowly, because l.e realizes the inherent danger and is on his guard. Sometimes he drives fast.

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A youngster toddles aimlessly or rushes heedlessly from behind a parked car.

Even the most alert driver in the slowest moving car hasn’t a chance to avert a tragedy.

The coroner’s jury finds a verdict of “Accidental death.” But in an age like ours, when such tragedies are duplicated day after day, when such stories are reiterated in the newspapers morning and evening, when on the quietest residential streets motor cars are continuously coming and going, can such a tragedy be termed an accident?

In other words, isn’t it a case of eyes being unconsciously or deliberately closed to the actual conditions? The child doesn’t realize the danger. The grown boy or girl forgets it. The parents know it, but take chances with a situation which demands action as drastic as would occur if the children ventured too near a house quarantined for black smallpox.

What can parents expect of children when we see the performance of adults? Stand at a downtown Toronto street crossing and count the pedestrians rushing across against the red light.

The motorist is merely a child grown up. a pedestrian promoted to the wheel of a powerful and deadly piece of mechanism. Like the child running heedlessly into the street or the pedestrian defying the red light, he refuses to see conditions as they are.

If a new disease should arise in Canada that in a year swept 1.300 people to sudden and painful death and left thousands more maimed and mangled, would we treat it as a commonplace? Or if an epidemic of crime burst forth that in a year took toll of 1,300 lives and inflicted incalculable personal and property damage, would we regard it with bland complacency?

Here we have the identical result—but because the epidemic is both crime and disease, we let it run on and on.

In 1926 Government control of liquor sales was an issue in Ontario. Probably the strongest potential argument against legalized sale was that booze and gasoline wouldn’t mix.

In the course of that campaign, Hon. G. Howard Ferguson stated his policy on this point quite explicitly. No mercy would be shown the drunken driver. His lot would be the jail, without alternative.

The law says the same thing. If you doubt, look at the Criminal Code.

But how is the law enforced?

Quite frequently a Supreme Court judge charging a Grand Jury, or a magistrate sentencing a prisoner, will declare that the drunken driver is a potential murderer. The phrase is as resonant as the bark of any other dog that isn’t allowed to bite.

Suppose a man, full of the purest joie de vivre, grabbed a repeating rifle, ran into the middle of a crowded street and commenced firing at random. He would be a potential murderer. Even if he didn’t do any damage, he'd be promptly caught and caged for a time; if, indeed, an investigation into his sanity didn’t result in caging him until his mentality became normal.

But the man who tucks several drinks under his belt, gets behind the steeringwheel of a modern juggernaut and similarly shoots at random may. if caught and convicted—a potent “if”—be sent to jail for not less than seven and not more than thirty days.

As I said—if.

Loopholes in the Law

IT IS WHEN we get down to enforcement of that law that the quibbling and evasion begin. The man staggers, he smells strongly of booze, there are empty bottles in his car, he is driving erratically in traffic—but how do you know he is drunk? Can you prove it? Did you have a physician examine him? And is a jury of motorists going to believe the physician?

A typical case occurred in Alberta recently. Two cars collided and a young

lady was injured. The driver of one car was arrested. He had been driving erratically.

A medical man examined him shortly after the accident and testified that at that time he was intoxicated. The accused stated that he had only two glasses of beer three hours before the accident, but after that time had partaken of garlic. The jury, in the face of medical testimony, found the accused not guilty of being intoxicated while driving the car.

Enforcement officers do not bring men into court on this charge unless they feel they have a pretty sure case. If a man is convicted under the code of driving while drunk, there is no alternative but imprisonment. But there is apparently a difference between drinking and being drunk. A man may imbibe in the hour before his arrest anywhere from a glass to half a dozen bottles of alcoholic liquor and still be sober enough to drive the biggest motor car through the original plain intent of the criminal code. And if the charge of drunk driving is reduced to something less—but let us examine a few more instances.

In Toronto a man with no lights on his car narrowly avoided a collision. Police testified he had been drinking. Instead of imprisonment without option, he was fined : $10 and costs or ten days and his liquor permit was cancelled.

In another case a man doing forty-ttiree. miles an hour in a city and who smelled \ strongly of liquor was fined $10 and costs | or ten days.

An auto mechanic, while testing a car’s steering-wheel, ran over the curb. “I think he had had a drink,” testified an officer. Nevertheless, the man was let off with $10 and costs or ten days.

In an Ontario city a few weeks ago two men were charged with consuming beer in an auto. A case of beer containing several empty bottles was found in the car. “One more drink and both would have been drunk,” testified the motorcycle officer. The men were fined $20 each or twenty-one days.

Taking the provinces by and large, the number of charges of drunk driving is small; the number of accidents reported as due to drunk driving is surprisingly small. To some people this may be gratifying; to others it raises the question: “Do all the

An accident occurred in Western Ontario in January, 1932. A car driven by a Toronto man, accompanied by a young woman and two other persons, collided with a stalled truck. The woman was badly injured. She spent some months in hospital. Minor charges were laid and disposed of. Later in the fall, when the young lady recovered, she sued for damages. Then for the first time it was disclosed that the driver had been drinking.

The motorists who mix booze and gasoline are a minority. They constitute a menace to the vast army of motorists, pedestrians and children. Yet more concern seems to be shown for finding loopholes of escape for the drunken driver than for eliminating him.

Do Speed Laws Mean Anything?

I HAVE ALREADY quoted the comment I of my good friend, the motor league official, on the speed limit and its observance.

I recur to the subject, not because a speed limit is vital to safe driving—probably it isn't—but because the attitude of most motorists toward this item of the law is characteristic of the attitude of some motorists toward all restrictions, moral, legal or otherwise.

A fellow motorist a few months ago de! claimed with great vehemence against an obnoxious “speed trap.” A lot of his friends had been caught and fined as a result of the j activities of a certain local police chief.

“Do you mean,” I asked, “that this police chief prosecutes people on fake evidence or no evidence at all? Does he swear that a man

I was exceeding the speed limit when he wasn't? Why not set a trap for the trapper? Drive through that place with a magistrate or a county court judge on the seat beside you to keep an eye on the speedometer?”

j “But,” argued my friend, “when a fel! low drives through one of these little hick i hamlets, be doesn’t exj>ect to slow down to twenty miles an hour. Nobody does it. And they’re financing that town out of the fines they collect from motorists.”

In other words, the ikxxl of propaganda against that town and its police chief—the persistent “riding” of the officer by motorists, the outcry against the “speed trap,” the talk of motorists being “ruthlessly victimized”was due to the fact that the police chief was merely enforcing the law as he found it. Which was his sworn duty.

Such an attitude in regard to any other law might be dubbed queer, strange antisocial. In this case it seems to be the normal reaction. Yet can we expect to reduce our ghastly traffic toll while we regard the law as something to be interpreted to suit ourselves or to be disregarded utterly? In j other words, can we hope for any better! ment in regard to traffic tragedies unless we I are, ourselves, willing to pay the price?

I am not bedevilling the motorist as such.

' In a small way, when I can afford to buy ; gasoline and pay for a license, I am a motorist myself. The motorist is usually a gcxxl fellow. So far as the s|x*ed limit is concerned, lie is a law unto himself; but there is a lot ! of care and common sense in bis make-up.

The camaraderie of motorists is a wonderful and beautiful thing. I have known deeds of sympathy, of mercy, óf helpfulness, of sheer heroism and sacrifice, that honor the great fraternity. Bui that very camaraderie is perhaps one of the obstacles that stand in the way of efficient law enforcement.

A couple of court pronouncements are significant. Hon. W. E. Raney, addressing the Grand Jury at the Ixmdon assizes, expressed the drastic view that “there had never lx*en an accident case that bad come before him that could not have been avoided by reasonable care.” Despite which, the percentage of acquittals, especially in serii ous cases, is enormous.

The Slaughter Goes On

CROWN PROSECUTOR. W. S. ¡ Middlebro, K.C., of Owen Sound, at the winter assizes at Toronto, supplied a clue. In prosecuting a particularly flagrant j case—in which, by the way, be achieved that miracle, a conviction—he touched on a fundamental difficulty in getting at that minority of careless motorists who are res|x>nsible for our tragic traffic toll.

I f people had been present at the time | of this accident, said Mr. Middlebro, they would have felt like lynching the driver. “But a mon|b or so later.” he added, “such , is the peculiar psychology of mankind, ! they say. ‘Don’t he too hard on him; he didn’t mean it.’ ”

Mr. Middlebro might have gone further. Everylxxiy, except in the most flagrant cases, loves the motorist and hates to be hard on him. Particularly is this true of his fellow motorist in the jury box. The juror, contemplating the prisoner in the dock, thinks, “There, but for the grace of God. goes myself.” The juror drives a car. He takes chances—they all do, says my motor league friend—and who can tell how soon he himself may be in the dock and some other motorist passing judgment on him?

It isa beautiful camaraderie—but it isn’t helpful toward enforcing laws and dealing with culprits in the stern and unbending spirit that alone will halt motor murders and manglings. It is refusing to punish the guilty motorist and thereby perpetuating the jx*rils that now constantly menace the innocent.

The slaughter goes on. Every Monday morning we read, but slightly varied in its details, the same gruesome chronicle of week-end tragedies. Men and women and little children die suddenly and horribly or go limping through a painful and distorted life; endless rivers of tears are shed for loved ones, enormous sorrow and loss are inflicted, world without end.

That goes on. and will go on till we experience a new realization of the cause of motor accidents, the needlessness of this terrible toll, the conditions that allow it to continue. and till we grapple with motor murder as if we really meant to put an end to it.