Blame drivers for 94% of crashes or find fault in the larger system

Are drivers responsible for 94% of accidents? That is just one way to look at the issue:

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In 2015, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Transportation, published a two-page memo declaring that “the critical reason, which is the last event in the crash causal chain, was assigned to the driver in 94% of the crashes.” The memo, which was based on the NHTSA’s own analysis of crashes, then offered a key caveat: “Although the critical reason is an important part of the description of events leading up to the crash, it is not intended to be interpreted as the cause of the crash.”…

Seeking to find a single cause for a crash is a fundamentally flawed approach to road safety, but it underpins much of American traffic enforcement and crash prevention. After a collision, police file a report, noting who violated traffic laws and generally ignoring factors like road and vehicle design. Insurance companies, too, are structured to hold someone accountable. Drivers aren’t the only ones who face such judgments. Following a crash, a pedestrian might be blamed for crossing a street where there is no crosswalk (even if the nearest one is a quarter mile away), and a cyclist might be cited for not wearing a helmet (although a protected bike lane would have prevented the crash entirely). News stories reinforce these narratives, with stories limited to the driver who was speeding or the pedestrian who crossed against the light…

With responsibility falling on those directly involved in a crash, it’s unsurprising that so many highway-safety efforts revolve around education campaigns, assuming that if people were just more careful, we’d all be okay. Officials at the NHTSA and state DOTs pour millions of dollars into these programs, but their benefits seem modest at best. Officials “see their role as trying to cajole people on the roads to make smarter decisions,” Seth LaJeunesse, a senior research associate at the University of North Carolina’s Highway Safety Research Center, told me. “Wear a seat belt, don’t be drunk when driving, and signal appropriately. I think it’s misguided. After all, who’s going to address structural problems, if it’s just people being stupid out there on the road?”…

With the infrastructure bill now signed into law, the federal government has a chance to rethink its approach and messaging. Dumping the dangerous 94 percent myth would be a good start; deemphasizing pointless traffic-safety PR campaigns would help too. Encouraging state and local transportation agencies—not just law enforcement—to investigate crashes, which New York City is now doing, would be even better. What we need most is a reexamination of how carmakers, traffic engineers, and community members—as well as the traveling public—together bear responsibility for saving some of the thousands of lives lost annually on American roadways. Blaming human error alone is convenient, but it places all Americans in greater danger.

Put together a society based around driving and a cultural emphasis on individualism and you have this situation. Is the individual operator responsible or a system that puts people in large vehicles traveling at fast speeds?

It is less clear from this piece how to view the system as a whole in order to improve the safety of roads. There are a lot of pieces that different actors have highlighted over the years. Fewer vehicles on the road? More room for pedestrians and bicyclists? More safety features in vehicles? Lower speeds? All of these could help but they would each threaten the current system which attempts to move as many vehicles as quickly as possible.

The approach many government and business actors seem to take at the moment toward this are attempts at incremental progress. Who would put all of these pieces together in a short amount of time, especially if individual drivers are willing to take responsibility? Americans seem fairly content with traffic fatalities and pedestrian deaths.

Americans continue to move from one address to another less and less

By one measure, American mobility is down to its lowest level since 1948:

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New data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows just 8.4 percent of Americans live in a different house than they lived in a year ago. That is the lowest rate of movement that the bureau has recorded at any time since 1948.

That share means that about 27.1 million people moved homes in the last year, also the lowest ever recorded.

The number of Americans who move from one home to another has been falling for decades, said Cheryl Russell, who authors the Demo Memo blog on demographic trends. In the 1950s and 1960s, about one in five Americans moved homes in a given year. That dropped to 14 percent by the turn of the century, and to 11.6 percent a decade ago.

The more sedentary population is a product of a handful of demographic factors that have grown as the American population gets older, as fallout from the Great Recession a decade ago continues to play out and as the pandemic put the brakes on many people’s plans.

The postwar era was one of a lot of mobility, particularly as those who could moved to the growing suburbs. The car and expanding networks of highways made it possible to access many destinations and workplaces did not necessarily have to be near homes.

Since then, mobility has declined for the reasons cited above. People can still move about on a daily basis but they are not moving addresses as much. Even as parts of the United States are growing in population and others are not, fewer people are moving overall.

Even as I have watched reports on this trend in recent years (see earlier posts here and here), I have seen little discussion of what this means or whether reduced geographic mobility is desirable or not. In a society that often celebrates mobility more broadly – social, economic, geographic – does this trend signal something troubling? Or, does this mean more Americans have an opportunity to develop roots and relationships within their communities?

Is there another possible explanation? Technological change, particularly smartphones and the ability to work from home, reduces the need for moving locations. More and more can be experienced and interacted with from anywhere with Internet and data access.

The value of highlighting Starbucks, since 1971

In a Starbucks TV commercial, I noticed the company notes it was founded in 1971. Here is a logo from their website that highlights 50 years of business:

Starbucks.com

The company’s website highlights their heritage:

Our story begins in 1971 along the cobblestone streets of Seattle’s historic Pike Place Market. It was here where Starbucks opened its first store, offering fresh-roasted coffee beans, tea and spices from around the world for our customers to take home. Our name was inspired by the classic tale, “Moby-Dick,” evoking the seafaring tradition of the early coffee traders.

Ten years later, a young New Yorker named Howard Schultz would walk through these doors and become captivated with Starbucks coffee from his first sip. After joining the company in 1982, a different cobblestone road would lead him to another discovery. It was on a trip to Milan in 1983 that Howard first experienced Italy’s coffeehouses, and he returned to Seattle inspired to bring the warmth and artistry of its coffee culture to Starbucks. By 1987, we swapped our brown aprons for green ones and embarked on our next chapter as a coffeehouse.

Starbucks would soon expand to Chicago and Vancouver, Canada and then on to California, Washington, D.C. and New York. By 1996, we would cross the Pacific to open our first store in Japan, followed by Europe in 1998 and China in 1999. Over the next two decades, we would grow to welcome millions of customers each week and become a part of the fabric of tens of thousands of neighborhoods all around the world. In everything we do, we are always dedicated to Our Mission: to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time

Fifty years is likely a safe point to highlight a founding date as it is a nice round number, a half century. Sure, 49 or 51 years gets at the same idea but it does not have the gravity of 50. Yet, I could imagine two sides to whether promoting this date is helpful.

On one side, fifty years is a long time. Many businesses do not make it this far. Even fewer companies are so long for so many years. Highlighting the date implies permanence, tradition, stability. Starbucks is not just a passing trend; they are good at what they do, they have been around five decades, and hope to be around for many more.

On the other side, Americans tend to like upstarts and novelty. Does fifty years imply old age and lack of innovation? Starbucks is established while other successful companies are offering new models and products. There are Starbucks locations everywhere but once companies like Sears or Woolworths also thrived.

Even as the company celebrates 50 years, companies are not permanent. Perhaps there is a time when fast food in general no longer exists or people can get similar food products at home. Or, Starbucks does something internally that causes issues. Or who knows what. Does it reach 75 years or 100 years, other round milestones worth celebrating? It is hard to know now; Starbucks will keep going until it doesn’t.

An ongoing American antagonism toward big cities

As noted in a recent opinion in the New York Times, the divide between cities and other kinds of communities in the United States has a long history.

From the beginning, Americans have differed on whether to uphold as ideal the urban life or the rural life. Should the model be New York, Boston, or Philadelphia or the plot of land in the country? These differences became more pronounced as urbanization picked up in the 1800s. With the majority of Americans now in the suburbs, the issue still is ongoing as many Americans say they prefer small towns (the suburbs?) while enjoying proximity to urban centers (jobs, cultural opportunities, transportation, etc.).

This is not just a geographic distinction or a set of preferences that some people have compared to others. These choices and systems that push people one way or another (with a lot of social actors and forces involved in encouraging uburbanization) also include a moral dimensions or a set of values and meanings. These are not just spaces; Americans have processes of meaning-making in all of these contexts.

With that in mind, there are several ways one could think about this ongoing contrast:

  1. A binary between city and country. This encourages each side to praise the traits of their option and denounce the other. Very black and white, one is better and one is worse.
  2. The suburbs are an attempted solution to this ongoing binary: some of the country, some of the city (or, as critics of the suburbs might say, none of either).
  3. Connected to different political battles. In the early days, this was part of the issues between Jefferson and Hamilton. Today, this is an issue between Republicans and Democrats. This is also about local/state/regional politics where urban interests go against those of other locations.
  4. A superfluous debate for a long time as we should think about regions with cities as anchors for wide territories where economic, social, and political activity is all intertwined. Think of Boston in the Northeast.
  5. A reaction to the rapid urbanization of the last two centuries that has upset much of human history where most people lived in small communities. Perhaps we are still figuring out how everything works with megacities where so much – population, economic activity, political power, globalized activity – is so concentrated.

In short, this divide is probably not going away soon. Hopefully, the conversation is more productive than denigrating other kinds of communities but rather seeking ways of working together since many of the issues Americans care about would benefit from cooperation across geographies.

Do Americans actually like to drive or do they say this because much of American life requires driving?

Do Americans actually like driving? Or, do they just do it a lot?

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Many Americans must drive on a regular basis. They need vehicles in order to get to work, obtain groceries and other goods, take advantage of recreation opportunities, and get to school. Many communities are designed around roads and emphasize moving large numbers of cars through areas at fast speeds. Americans have a system that privileges driving.

Americans might cite numerous aspects of driving and cars that they like. Driving is its own unique challenge requiring skill and attention. The driver is responsible for maneuvering a several ton vehicle. There are rules to be followed and ways to make driving more interesting. The average person does not have many other means to match the feeling of speed that a car can offer. Vehicles themselves can spark interest, ranging from their styling to their upkeep to their different features.

Additionally, driving has cultural meanings attached to it. From the beginning of cars, Americans loved the mobility and freedom they offered. Cars are more individualistic than mass transit. Vehicles represent progress with people behind the wheel. Cars and driving skills say something about their owners.

With an infrastructure that emphasizes driving and features of driving that Americans like, perhaps these two are simply intertwined today. Cars and driving are just part of the American way of life. Perhaps American drivers do not need to even like driving; they just have to tacitly support the structure that keeps driving as the primary mode of transport. Liking driving could then a resignation to the status quo or finding joy in what they are going to do anyway. Or, it could genuine joy at sitting behind the wheel. Changing this love of even or even acceptance of driving would take significant time and/or effort given how Americans feel about driving.

Materialism and religion in the clothes pastors wear

An Instagram account highlights the expensive wear of ministers:

On his feed, Kirby has showcased Seattle pastor Judah Smith’s $3,600 Gucci jacket, Dallas pastor T.D. Jakes’s $1,250 Louboutin fanny pack and Miami pastor Guillermo Maldonado’s $2,541 Ricci crocodile belt. And he considers Paula White, former president Donald Trump’s most trusted pastoral adviser who is often photographed in designer items, a PreachersNSneakers “content goldmine,” posting a photo of her wearing $785 Stella McCartney sneakers.

As the Instagram account grew, Kirby started asking more serious questions about wealth, class and consumerism, including whether it’s appropriate to generate massive revenue from selling the gospel of Jesus.

“I began asking, how much is too much?” Kirby said. “Is it okay to get rich off of preaching about Jesus? Is it okay to be making twice as much as the median income of your congregation?”

This is a long-standing issue within Christianity, let alone in American Christianity where money and status have existed alongside religious fervor and practices for a long time. In a society that emphasizes consumption, even conspicuous consumption, plus celebrity, is it a surprise that ministers would want to wear expensive items?

Counterfactuals to these observations might help. Two come to mind:

  1. Are there mainstream religious groups or leaders who actively shun or downplay status? I can think of famous pastors who are not as well dressed. But, are they necessarily poorly dressed? How much does presentation of self matter compared to other noteworthy factors like particular religious doctrines or practices? I assume there is some limit where a pastoral presentation has to fit some parameter or the lack of style or flashiness will be a negative. Is the nature of American religion with its religious economy of competition inextricably tied to status and presentation?
  2. Some evangelicals have raised questions about materialism and consumption for decades. Historian David Swartz’s book Moral Minority highlights how evangelicals in the early 1970s questioned the consumption patterns of Americans. If you want to go back further, Max Weber argued in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that a particular ascetic approach to spending wealth on oneself helped spur on capitalism. How far did this critique go? By the 1980s, evangelicals largely became associated with conservative economic policies and reside in suburbs where appearances and keeping up with the Joneses matter to some degree. At the same time, evangelicals often claim they do not want to be too flashy or that they are middle-class even if they have the resources to be above that.

Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” as the ultimate expression of American individualism?

A while back, I encountered Frank Sinatra’s song “My Way” two different ways. In one instance, a radio host closed out an eight year run by playing the song and reflecting on the years of conversation. In the second instance, another person thought about their life thus far and used some of the words from the song to wonder what life might hold by the end.

Here is my sociological question: does this song represent American individualism in the twentieth century?

Americans are known for their individualism. For example, the sociological study Habits of the Heart examined how individualism plays out in the realm of religion and spirituality. President Donald Trump played “My Way” for the first dance at the Inauguration Ball and the song played when he left Joint Andrews Base in January 2021.

Take these two paragraphs from the song:

Regrets, I’ve had a few
But then again, too few to mention
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption

I planned each charted course
Each careful step along the byway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way

This is a man reflecting on a full life. He planned it, he executed it, and did it “my way.” Later in the song:

I’ve loved, I’ve laughed and cried
I’ve had my fill my share of losing
And now, as tears subside
I find it all so amusing

To think I did all that
And may I say – not in a shy way
Oh no, oh no, not me
I did it my way

Similarly, thinking about the emotional aspects of life, the singer notes that he was not shy and “I did it my way.”

It would be hard for any single cultural work to stand in for an entire people or country. Yet, at the same time, there are certain works that become popular, stand the test of time, and embody particular values and practices. Is “My Way” one of these songs or does it fit a particular subset of Americans better than others?

The rise of a sermon phrase – “a city on a hill” – to explain American exceptionalism

An English professor describes how a sermon by John Winthrop in 1630 came to describe the United States:

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In 1630, John Winthrop, the first Puritan governor of Massachusetts Bay, declared that “we shall be as a city upon a hill.” When President Ronald Reagan used Winthrop’s words to describe America, he helped transform “A Model of Christian Charity” into a foundational text of American culture. In its own day, Winthrop’s sermon went unrecorded, unpublished, and almost entirely unnoticed. It was found and first published in 1838—at which point it continued to be ignored for another century…

Winthrop’s sermon is a communal statement of love—a “model of Christian charity,” exactly as it is called. The question behind his sermon is simple: What do we owe each other? And Winthrop’s answer is the same as Paul’s: whatever redemptive love requires…

The phrase “city on a hill” also has a fascinating and largely unknown 17th century context. The phrase comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (specifically Matthew 5:14), and in the 1600s, it was Roman Catholics, not Puritans, who loved it most. They used Matthew 5:14 to prove Protestantism false and Catholicism true. The Catholic Church, they said, was the only one visible church since the time of Christ (Jesus “set it on a hill”). Protestants, in contrast, described the true church as small or hidden, turning to Luke 12:32 and Revelation 12. When it came to Matthew 5:14, they had to reinterpret this verse to pry it from Catholic hands. Instead of the universal church being a “city on a hill,” Protestants like Winthrop claimed that “city on a hill” applied locally, to this place or that, wherever the true light of the gospel shone. Because the phrase did not refer to one universal church, it could be reapplied to individual congregations, towns, cities, and eventually—as we have come to see—a nation…

My book moves from the 1600s through the American Revolution and the making of the first national history textbooks in the 1800s to the claims and impact of the influential German sociologist Max Weber in the early 1900s. But for me, the most enjoyable chapters to write were on Perry Miller, a Harvard scholar who had a giant influence on the way we understand the Pilgrims and Puritans today. It was Perry Miller, an atheist, who above all made John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” sermon central to the American story. He did so not just to set the US apart from the USSR, but also to challenge American society, which he saw as having fallen from its Puritan origins. Just a few years before Miller died, the Harvard-educated John F. Kennedy became the first president to use Winthrop’s “city on a hill” sermon in a speech. When Reagan picked it up, it became famous—a linchpin in larger narratives of American exceptionalism.

Another example of how civil religion develops: several centuries after a sermon is given, it is picked up and interpreted by political leaders and others who want to tie several strands of social life together. Implied above is that another politician in another time period – say Grover Cleveland in the late 1800s – may not have been able to prompt the spread of this connection in American life. Ronald Reagan, who tried to be optimistic about American life, helps give the quote, which had some public airing because of John F. Kennedy, new life in a particular context.

The 17th century context of the meaning of a “city on a hill” is fascinating given what the phrase came to represent. If Winthrop meant to use the phrase in contrast to Catholic interpretations, the fact that the phrase came to represent a powerful America is a twist. The Protestant interpretation discussed above applied to a small context. When Americans use the phrase today, they tend to mean a powerful city on the hill, casting light on the countryside below or holding a fortified position or occupying the high ground. The American bastion of freedom and Christendom has replaced the prior holders of this title.

This phrase also gives more credence to cities than Americans have over the course of their history. Even with some important cities on a global stage, Americans are generally anti-urban and instead embrace suburban life. Updating the phrase, perhaps Americans would rather say “the suburban megachurch on the hill” or the “quiet yet stately suburb on the hill.”

Aiming “to bring spiritual richness to corporate America”

Spiritual consultants look to bring spiritual practices and approaches to the American workplace:

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In simpler times, divinity schools sent their graduates out to lead congregations or conduct academic research. Now there is a more office-bound calling: the spiritual consultant. Those who have chosen this path have founded agencies — some for-profit, some not — with similar-sounding names: Sacred Design Lab, Ritual Design Lab, Ritualist. They blend the obscure language of the sacred with the also obscure language of management consulting to provide clients with a range of spiritually inflected services, from architecture to employee training to ritual design.

Their larger goal is to soften cruel capitalism, making space for the soul, and to encourage employees to ask if what they are doing is good in a higher sense. Having watched social justice get readily absorbed into corporate culture, they want to see if more American businesses are ready for faith…

Before the pandemic, these agencies got their footing helping companies with design — refining their products, physical spaces and branding. They also consulted on strategy, workflow and staff management. With digital workers stuck at home since March, a new opportunity has emerged. Employers are finding their workers atomized and agitated, and are looking for guidance to bring them back together. Now the sacred consultants are helping to usher in new rituals for shapeless workdays, and trying to give employees routines that are imbued with meaning…

The Sacred Design Lab trio use the language of faith and church to talk about their efforts. They talk about organized religion as a technology for delivering meaning.

Perhaps this is common elsewhere but this strikes me as uniquely American for multiple reasons:

-The interest in unbundling religion and spirituality from traditional religious practices

-Combining spirituality and work. Perhaps this hints the true religion in America is capitalism?

-Assuming there is a common religiosity that can work across a potentially diverse workforce. Kind of like civil religion, which attempts to unite religion and nationalism, but for the office.

-Religion being less about transcendence or encountering the divine and more about pragmatism: helping corporations succeed and individuals find or interact with their soul.

-The entrepreneurial nature of bringing religion to the workplace. This article profiles consultants and firms bringing it in. (It would be interesting to see how this interacts with more top-down approaches from CEOs or other corporate leaders who bring a strong faith or spiritual elements to their practices and aims.)

I will be curious to see (1) what kind of traction this approach gets – does it have staying power? What kinds of spirituality in the office catch on and which do not? – and (2) what the reaction might be among a range of firms and sectors – is this something limited to educated, managerial suites in particular locations?

The current social contract: we get along by leaving each other alone

A Washington D.C. resident says he is leaving the city because social order has broken down. Here is how he describes what made city life work:

time lapse photography of people walking on pedestrian lane

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All I asked in return was relative safety and to be left alone to enjoy the city. City-living in America, for decades, meant tolerating mild inconveniences so that you could be left alone, alongside millions of others. That was the tacit pact…

Gay? Black? Trans? No offense, but, so what? We are city people: we have seen it all—literally, all—our entire lives. You are our neighbors, our friends, the president of our HOAs, our coworkers. The great beauty of the city is that we come from all walks of life and we get along. We accomplish this by leaving each other alone.

This sounds similar to how sociologist M. P. Baumgartner described the “moral minimalism” pervasive in suburban social life:

A kind of moral minimalism pervades the suburbs, in which people prefer the least extreme reactions to offenses and are reluctant to exercise any social control against one another at all. (3)

suburbia is a model of social order. The order is not born, however, of conditions widely perceived to generate social harmony. It does not arise from intimacy and connectedness, but rather from some of the very things more often presumed to bring about conflict and violence – transiency, fragmentation, isolation, atomization, and indifference among people. The suburbs lack social cohesion but they are free of strife. They are, so to speak, disorganized and orderly at the same time. (134)

In both descriptions, residents want to be left alone. They want to live life as they see fit without interference or social control exerted by others. This does not necessarily mean there is no social interaction or residents dislike the local environment; the Washington, D.C. resident describes partaking in and enjoying urban culture and interacting with neighbors. In Baumgartner’s study, suburbanites might know each other or interact; they just do not get too deeply involved or try to pressure others.

At the root of this seems to be a deep seated individualism that provides space for people to make their own choices. Every space or community provides some constraints on what people can do (or can imagine doing) yet Americans often imagine themselves as solitary units. The strains of this are everywhere: as long as it does not hurt other people, people should be free to do it; what people do on their own time or in their own dwelling is none of my business; a man’s home is his castle; you do you and I’ll do me; and so on.

Even though this idea is widespread, it also has limits. If individuals are masters of their own fate and this should not be interfered with, it can be tough to rally people around particular causes that require collective effort. Indeed, I think a good argument could be made that some of our current political conflict is due to the fact that different groups would like to introduce ideas/values/legislation for others to consider and/or follow while wanting to claim that they also support individualism.

More broadly, this is an odd social contract to have considering the sweep of human history and societies. Much of what humans experienced took place in relatively small groups with strong bonds. Today, more of our world is organized around people with whom we have chosen to interact with more tenuous ties to traditional bonding agents like extended family, religious groups, and specific geographic locations and the communities there.

I do not know if this social contract will last. The individualism of the last few centuries has changed much. Yet, it is helpful to keep in mind as we consider how to do anything together.