“Mr. Mascarenhas, what is your dream car?” Jake, a high school student, asked me during my lesson about moral decisions. “In my dreams, I can fly and so I don’t need a car,” I answered, attempting a joke in the hopes of staying on topic during my Theology class. Jake’s question was not entirely off-topic as we had been discussing variations of the famous trolley problem in light of self-driving cars. Our discussion touched upon whether we would purchase a self-driving car that prioritizes its occupants’ safety above everything else, or a car programmed to reduce overall harm to all, sometimes at the expense of its occupants, in the event of an unavoidable accident. Most students altruistically picked the car programmed to reduce overall harm as it seemed good to desire the wellbeing of others. I wondered whether our present car purchases also exhibit the same sense of altruism towards other road users given the rising number of SUVs that are dangerous to pedestrians and occupants of small cars. I believe that as Christians, we ought to care about the safety of others in addition of ourselves.
Programming ethical choices into a car that favor its occupants over others may sound like an abstract ethical dilemma debated in philosophy classrooms far from reality. However, this problem is nearer to us than it appears at first glance. When we think about purchasing our dream car today, besides being beautiful and powerful, the car guarantees our safety at all times through airbags and sturdy metal frames. Thus, an SUV or a truck matches our criteria better than a small sedan. We have seen too many pictures of mangled sedans, smashed to smithereens by bulky SUVs and trucks. In case of a collision between an SUV and a sedan, we would want to be safe and sound in the SUV.
Besides other cars, we share our streets with pedestrians and cyclists. If you were a defenseless pedestrian that is about to get accidentally run over by a car, would you want that car to be a sedan or a truck? The obvious answer is a sedan. Not only because a sedan is lighter and so will likely cause you less injury, but also because a sedan, due to its lower profile, would strike you in the legs as compared to an SUV or a truck that would strike your torso. A hit in the legs is less likely to be fatal than a strike to the torso. The danger that SUVs pose to pedestrians has been proven by statistics that show rising pedestrian fatalities as the number of bigger cars on roads has increased. The Colorado DOT, citing a safety report, noted that SUVs “with their higher front-end profile, are at least twice as likely as cars to kill the walkers, joggers and children they hit.” Being struck by a truck or an SUV, even at moderate speeds, is a likely death sentence.
Most people when purchasing a car do not consider a pedestrian they may strike in the future. But pedestrian accidents are frequent, and even good drivers get into accidents, sometimes at no fault of the driver. Just as we buy an SUV for our safety in case we are in a collision, can we also consider buying a sedan to prevent death of a pedestrian in case we hit one? We are not morally and legally responsible for injuries caused to others in car accidents if we had followed all the road rules. However, given that SUVs cause more injuries and deaths to pedestrians, would we be partly responsible for a pedestrian death because we had purchased an SUV with this knowledge? Knowledge of a possible negative outcome through the use of a tool does not necessarily imply guilt when the negative outcome occurs by accident. Perhaps then, it is not a sin of commission, but ignoring this knowledge could come under the category of the sin of omission. We omit the option of choosing a tool less dangerous to others in case of an accident. We neglect the opportunity of caring for others and instead make decisions solely for our benefit. When we literally cannot see beyond the hood of our truck due to front blind zones, we have dismissed the concerns of the wider world around us.
It is normal to prize our safety on the road because, as Saint Thomas Aquinas writes, the preservation of life is a natural desire. We are inclined to care for ourselves because that is how God created us. However, Aquinas would also agree that God commanded us to love our neighbor. Consequently, we must ask whether we need to extend the care we have for ourselves to pedestrians and cyclists as well. In this arms race of driving the biggest and strongest vehicle on the road for our safety, we tend to forget the Christian call of loving our neighbor in the small sedan, or someone’s sister on a bicycle, or someone’s grandfather on foot. We have to discern how much of a risk we are willing to take by driving a small sedan to help lower the risk for our neighbor who shares the road with us on foot or on a bicycle. Furthermore, given that humans have the tendency to imitate others, our choice of a large vehicle fuels the demand for trucks and SUVs; thus further increasing the risk to pedestrians.
Driving smaller cars could have other positive impacts on us and society. We would feel meek and humble when we drive a modest low-profile sedan instead of a massive high-profile truck. We would drive more carefully and defensively when we know that we could get hurt in the event of a collision, thus contributing to a calmer atmosphere on our streets. We would not blind other drivers with our raised headlights. We would reduce our carbon footprint by consuming less gas, and we would occupy less space in parking lots and streets. Thus, driving a smaller car is a way to care for those who share the streets with us.
There are many good reasons for us to drive a big car. However, it is a Christian imperative to think about how we impact or may impact others with our decisions. Our love for self and family needs to be carefully balanced with a love for our neighbors as well. Last month, the U.S. Department of Transportation marked National Pedestrian Safety Month by stressing the need to protect the most vulnerable road users among us. In the concern about pedestrian fatalities, the type of car we drive merits scrutiny. Let us move towards smaller vehicles as we heed Christ’s call to love our (pedestrian and bicyclist) neighbor as our (car-driving) self.