St. Christopher unavailable for comment

Elsewhere the Vatican’s issuance of a tepid “Ten Commandments for Drivers” is garnering praise. The church hasn’t gotten along so well for thousands of years by challenging the dominant institutions of the day. I’m reminded of St. Paul’s exhortation to slaves to obey their masters, and to masters to be kind to their slaves. The church’s prescriptions for a guilt-free embrace of a violent institution that by its own admission kills more people per year than the Nazis did recalls another shameful acquiescence in church history. It refers to the annual 1.2 million killed and 50 million injured as “victims of accidents,” hedging “the number of accidents in which pedestrians bear a grave responsibility is also worrying.” It proposes that drivers recite the rosary while operating their heavy machinery, the better to incline them to stop at roadside memorials, shrines and other church properties. You can’t make this stuff up.

The complete document is long enough to contradict itself on many points, providing everybody with at least a straw. At one point it even concedes “it is a good idea to call for a commitment to avoid unnecessary car use.” The church is proud to claim pensiamo in secoli — “we think in centuries.” I do not understand how conveyances so fast and heavy as not even to have existed more than 5% of the church’s history, or 0.5% of homo sapiens‘ time can be understood as anything but unnecessary. Food and water, shelter and love, but 40 MPH?

Monsignor Ivan Illich said it best:

A people can be just as dangerously overpowered by the wattage of its tools as by the caloric content of its foods, but it is much harder to confess to a national overindulgence in wattage than to a sickening diet. The per capita wattage that is critical for social well-being lies within an order of magnitude which is far above the horsepower known to four-fifths of humanity and far below the power commanded by any Volkswagen driver. It eludes the underconsumer and the overconsumer alike. Neither is willing to face the facts. For the primitive, the elimination of slavery and drudgery depends on the introduction of appropriate modern technology, and for the rich, the avoidance of an even more horrible degradation depends on the effective recognition of a threshold in energy consumption beyond which technical processes begin to dictate social relations. Calories are both biologically and socially healthy only as long as they stay within the narrow range that separates enough from too much.Energy and Equity

I wanted to work this in somehow, but instead append for your reflection this poignant indicator of the freedom we’ve ceded to motoring. How many generations will it take to recover?

9 thoughts on “St. Christopher unavailable for comment”

  • Erik Sandblom

    Very witty and important blog entry.

    Regarding "accident statistics" it's always good to look for a breakdown of how the "accidents" happen. I've found that 20% of "cycle accidents" in my town involve cars; and that fully 40% of "rail deaths" in Sweden also involve cars. Cars are always obliged to give way for vehicles following a track, because the vehicle following the track can't swerve. So many a "train accident" is in fact a car slamming into a train. Kind of like a "telephone pole accident" is where a stationary telephone pole collides with a moving car...

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  • Paul

    Hi Todd,

    I think about the freedom to roam quite a bit. When I was growing up -- I was born in 1966 -- I had a great deal of freedom, and, like most children, I took a good deal more than I was offered. I would bicycle across town to the zoo when I was supposed to be in my neighborhood for instance. I also had a large forest near my house which I could wander at will. When I had a little incident involving sitting too close to a rattlesnake -- my brother and all his friends when to get help while I sat next to it with it rattling away -- my mother merely told me to watch out for them before sending me back out into the woods the next day.

    I sooooooo want to treat my children the same way. I really don't believe the world is any more dangerous than it was when I was a child, except, perhaps, if I sent my children out on their own they would be the only children out there. We live near two parks, a small arroyo, a larger one with a long bike path. My kids are five and seven and take very good care of each other. They are no fools when it comes to traffic. I should be able to kick them out the front door in the morning just like my Mom did me. But .. I .. just .. can't .. quite .. do .. it.

    I know that one of the factors is just the fear of social disapproval. In all my soul-searching, I find it even more disturbing that I would worry about social disapproval if my children vanished or had a crippling accident. Would people blame the victim? Would they say, "what the hell was that man doing sending his kids out to the park?" Why yes, I think they would. That's the kind of society we live in. Are other parents out there holding back not so much because they're afraid their kid will be hit by a car if they send them out to ride their bicycle, but because they'll be blamed for not being with them?

    I experiment occasionally. I let the kids walk through the neighborhood to their friend's house unaccompanied, or I let them ride their bikes just on our street. But then, just like letting them have a little watered-down wine at dinner, I pull back, thinking maybe it's not such a good idea.

    Meanwhile, my seven-year-old is ready to take off down to the library on her own, or ride her bike all the way down the bike path on her own. And her brother, of course, wants to follow her.

    How many people out there are upholding respect for childhood mobility. I'd like to just let them go without guilt and without worry. But I don't.

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  • brian

    Todd's comments are very good, and as a parent (and one--along with his wife-- who, while not car-free, encourages our kids to think differently by walking everywhere we can) I appreciate them. It's interesting that you brought up Illich in the original post, as I think he has something to say about the current state of childhood, too, namely that is generally a modern invention. It seems that over the course of generations, parents have become increasingly more protective of their children, for good or ill. 80 years ago, our great-grandparents were often new immigrants, and their children had no choice but brave the world, often in order to help the family survive. Of course, when our grandparents had kids, they wanted to shelter them from some of things of they experienced, and so on. While our dependence on the car certainly hasn't helped matters, I'm not sure I'm ready to simply point my finger at it as the sole problem.

    Another contributing factor is the media. Even 20 years ago, our parents weren't likely to hear of news outside of their town or city. Now, the news (especially on the web on television) is full of stories of children being abducted, injured, or worse. That naturally feeds a paranoia, even when some studies tell us that our children are actually safer than 25 years ago.

    Additionally, the breakdown of communities has, in a way, left our kids more vulnerable. Growing up with my grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins in the same neighborhood, there was always someone to check up on me. And if family wasn't around, another parent wasn't afraid to steer me away from trouble. These days, that doesn't happen much. In fact, you may be chastised if you dare offer advice to a child. Our communities are generally not the same, even in densely populated neighborhoods. The ease of mobility (by that I mean how often families move) has destroyed the sorts of relationships our parents enjoyed.

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  • [...] at Clever Cycles, examines the Catholic Church’s recent document on the automobile, “Guidelines for the Pastoral Care of the Road.” I left a rather long comment on the [...]

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  • brian

    Oops...just realized the first sentence of my comment should say "Paul's comments..."

    A thousand pardons for the confusion.

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  • AllanF

    I'm very much with you, Paul. I have a 3 y.o. so haven't yet had the roaming problem, but it is something I've given thought to. And yes, it has occurred to me if mine is the only kid on the block free to roam, that's of little use. Also, I have already checked myself on occasion with what should be otherwise tolerable risks that if something ill were to happen, the blaming of the victim's parent would be unbearable.

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  • fred

    I've held the feeling that the downfall of our current society could be attributed to the automobile and television. I mentioned this in passing to a person who held
    similar opinions and he suggested (correctly, in my mind) that computers contribute as well. Another factor, particularly in the southern and western parts of our country,
    is that air-conditioning helps to keep people from interacting.

    When I'm traveling in my velomobile to my clients, I'm amused that people have to roll down the windows of their motor vehicles to shout inane comments, or even supportive
    ones.

    Someone, somewhere, said, "The United States has the greatest network of bicycle paths in the entire world..."

    "... now if we can just get the cars off them!"

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  • Mauricio Babilonia
    Mauricio Babilonia June 21, 2007 at 12:12 pm

    Commandment 11:

    "Fer Christ's sake, ride yer bike once in a while!"

    (With apologies to James Joyce)

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  • AC

    We blame and judge so quickly and with such finality. Faced with some unfortunate incident, we might ask about the parents "what were they thinking?" We ask this when talking to other neighbors, bystanders, gossips, tv pundits, etc. -- anyone but the actual people involved. Where did conversation and friendly argument go? Or an understanding of each other beyond the discourse of a bumper-sticker?

    Reply
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