Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Unsafe At Any Speed


I'm going to lay off my personal battle with government bureaucrats for a while.

Just as soon as I finish telling you this little story...

My dad lives in Victoria, BC, known as Canada's home to "the newly wed and nearly dead". A good proportion of the city's inhabitants are retirees and a significant number of those get around on "scooters".

These aren't the trendy Vespas made famous in "Quadraphenia" and "Roman Holiday" which are now enjoying a resurgence among the urban hip. Instead, they're mostly four wheeled tanks with sturdy names like "Gladiator", "Trooper" and "Shoprider" purchased from places that also specialize in adult diapers.

For those who have lost their drivers licenses or the physical ability to drive a car, they're a very reliable means of retaining some semblance of self-reliance, independence and a small ration of freedom in a world that can become proscribed, isolated and socially limited.

But for those who work in government and can create multiple man-years of employment by finding new ways to regulate the lives of others, the mobility scooter is an impending scourge, the next H1N1 Killer Bee menace bearing down on us as the Boomer generation approaches its final demographic.

You see these little one person coaches everywhere in Victoria, rolling along the sidewalks, chugging down the aisles at Walmart, parked at the outfield fences of ballparks where the geriatric bleacher bums are less likely to be hit up for spare change to cover the cost of umpires.

Powered by environmentally friendly electric motors, silent but for the flap of their little orange warning flags, allowed in stores and malls so there is no need to build special parking spaces for them; they are sturdy workhorses that meet and surpass every idealistic benchmark our governments insist we ought to achieve with our cars.

Never mind that they also help the local economy by ferrying grannies to bingo and shut-ins to movie matinees. Ignore how much they reduce the prescription costs of anti-depressants. Don't even think of all the lottery ticket and postage stamp revenue that would stop flowing to governments if fewer of the group who most purchase those items were riding them.

All of that apparently isn't good enough for the bureaucrats.

For it seems there was a tragic incident in one of Victoria's suburbs last winter in which a Senior tipped off a raised curb into the path of a dump truck. Apparently, said Senior (deceased as a result) had been travelling at a high rate of speed just prior to his unfortunate sudden departure from this life.

How fast was he going?

An almost unbelievable 16 Km/hour (9 mph for those unfamiliar with metric).

And as a result, moves are afoot to restrict scooters to a maximum of 12 kph (7 mph) in a campaign designed to eventually license those who sell, service and ride the machines as well as regularly test scooter owners while imposing fines and scooting suspensions on any who choose to flout the new laws.

One can only begin to comprehend the number of government agencies which will ultimately have to become involved in the crusade.

What's of the utmost import here is (of course) that we protect Seniors from themselves and the rest of us from the -- ahem -- "road rage" perpetrated by scooter riders arrogantly insensitive in their recklessness.

Those exact concerns were voiced last week by Victoria Deputy Police Chief John Ducker after describing an incident in which an elderly man on a scooter "rammed" the shins of a motorist getting out of his car with such force that he "drew blood".

Although no charges were laid and nobody required any medical attention, Ducker didn't mince words in his condemnation of the growing carnage on his streets…

"This is a new era we're coming into. I'm no psychologist, but it seems when these people use their electric scooters they develop a sense of entitlement, as if they have a right of way on the sidewalk. I see it in a lot of them, in their body language and their comments and their demeanor."

Now, speaking only from personal experience, I've been skewered by umbrellas wielded by harried businessmen on the sidewalks of Victoria. I've been bowled over by cyclists kitted out for the Tour de France who were obviously trying to catch the peloton. I once even watched a skateboarder who'd been barked at by a tiny dog threaten to butcher and bbq the animal in front of its terrified owner.

But so far, I haven't had my shins skinned by any rickety Clint Eastwood biting down hard on a Werther's and asking whether or not I feel lucky.

However, we are led to believe that the streets of Victoria will soon be aflame. And to understand where that kind of rhetoric comes from, you need to read the Deputy Chief's comments in the context of his position.

For the Victoria police have one of the country's highest per capita incidences of police brutality charges. Some of that could be the result of too many nights when the fleet's in. But a guy like me who's spent a lot of time with a lot of cops in far more dangerous neighborhoods has noticed more than once that members of the Victoria PD tend to get all G20 on many who just aren't in a position to fight back. The homeless. Teenagers. Guys like this.

Meanwhile, if Victoria's police department is anything like the ones in Toronto and a lot of other cash strapped Canadian cities, you know that more and more of their time is spent raising revenue than fighting crime.

So, if your police department is made up of guys who aren't allowed to do the real job and also seem the type who get a woody watching episodes of CTV's "The Bridge", what better way to have them appear really effective and respectable than by turning them loose on another group who can't put up much resistance?

And bureaucrats are always eager to get behind that kind of enterprise.

In Ontario, the deaths of three seriously drunk teenagers who came from extremely wealthy and influential families has led to one incarnation after another of laws designed to make sure such a tragedy never happens again. The current zero tolerance approach just passed could see anybody under 21 jailed if even their mouthwash causes a breathalyzer needle to quiver.

So far, the Victoria chapter of the "We need a new law" brigade have supplied recommendations to change mobility scooter regulations to:

Health Canada

Federal Transportation Minister John Baird

BC's Superintendant of Motor Vehicles

The Executive Director of BC Municipalities

All BC Mayors and Administrators

The impending avalanche of studies, reports and regulatory amendments coming from all this will make anything Nature does in the Rockies this Winter pale by comparison.

Imagine how many millions will be spent -- because one guy zoomed off a sidewalk.


There's a little more to that story.

For it seems the Senior who ignited this frantic need to fix the death scooter problem hadn't just gone with throttle up. According to the Coroner's report, the gentleman suffered from physical paralysis, poor balance and often acted impulsively because of several previous strokes.

He was also traveling along a snow and slush covered sidewalk, appearing (according to the driver who struck him) to be moving "haphazardly" -- y'know, like you do when somebody hasn't shoveled the sidewalk or plowed the road…

What's more -- according to the mobility scooter industry, there is only one current model even capable of 16 kph, the Shoprider SE (Sports Edition?). And the vast majority of scooters only reach speeds of 8 or 9 kph. In other words, they couldn't achieve the proposed speed limit no matter how anti-social the driver might be -- let alone exceed it.

So what's this really all about?

Frank Furedi, a Sociology professor at the University of Kent and author of "The Politics of Fear" has long studied the impulse of bureaucrats to impose new rules to solve perceived problems, likening it to the Medieval belief that every natural phenomenon was rooted in either witchcraft or divine retribution. Professor Furedi calls the process "Intrusification".

It's a way to bring meaning to ordinary tragedies and assign blame -- even if the whole process is based on bias or superstition. As long as the only ones being pilloried or tied to a dunking stool don't have the power to fight back, the bureaucratic intrusion on the lives of others succeeds.

"They think their job is to save people from themselves" he says, describing an institutionalized contempt for "people who cannot be relied on to manage their everyday existence" -- or just are unfortunate enough to have shit happen to them.

Like the new teen drinking law in Ontario, the proposed scooter regulations in BC are opportunistic attempts to modify behavior in the false belief  that it will make life better for those affected instead of worse.

Mostly it keeps the bureaucrats employed at managing other people's lives instead of being out doing something worthwhile like, oh I don't know, shoveling the snow and ice off a city sidewalk?


Anonymous said...

Well, have to disagree with you a bit here. I hate dumb laws as much as the next right-thinker (and most of them are dumb, for the dumb).

But those fucking things are a menace. And, with all honest respect to the elderly, many of the people here in Toronto I see on them are of the "too fat to get fit" crowd, or the "mysterious illness that can't be diagnosed" cohort. Maybe if they cut down to two packs a day they could make it half a block to the Country Time on their own.

I'm sure the over-reaction will start some dialog, but in the very least, if there isn't a speed limit on sidewalks, there damn well should be. Its weird just having to bring that up, isn't it?

Oh, and those electric bikes have to get the fuck off the pedal bike paths. Came close to getting T-boned by one the other day on the Don Valley Trail. Most human-powered cyclists ride decently, as hitting someone else will ensure pretty much equal damage. One of those electric bikes? Not so much...

DMc said...



Great piece Jim.