Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Book Club: Driven to Kill

Book Club: Driven to Kill
Vehicles as Weapons
J. Peter Rothe
University of Alberta Press, 2008

I stumbled across a description of this book that piqued my interest while browsing the U of Alberta Press website, having been directed there by a book more directly relevant to my work. I was feeling slightly bored of the books I was reading at the time, so I started googling the book's details to see if it was worth purchasing. Rather than buy it, however, I realized it was available at the University of Saskatchewan library and I checked it out the next time I had an excuse to visit the main branch (there's a Starbucks in the lobby of the main branch, and my frequent cravings for froofy, psuedo-Italian coffee beverages brings me there on a somewhat regular basis, in addition to the useful change-of-place I need for some of the more creative parts of my work).

There was little I could find regarding this book through Google - though I admit my Google-fu may be weak. In any case, beyond the U of A Press description and a few photographs of the cover and of the author, I found the praising blurb by a public health physician, a very short book review on a blog that spent almost as much time talking about the recycled paper used to print it as the contents, and an archived discussion thread on a cycling forum that seemed to include no people who had actually read it.

I like cars. I have a fairly strong personal interest in pretty much all things automotive (aside: my first word as a baby was "car"), I'm quite happy with my car and I enjoy driving. And I like to read, and generally feel like I don't read enough - lately I feel like my reading has seriously dropped off. So I was pretty excited to get this book, in the hopes of diving into a serious discussion of the dark side of our current widespread association with cars - after all, it's trivially obvious that there are risks, hazards, dangers, and other unpleasantness associated with piloting two tonnes of steel at cheetah-to-falcon speeds.

SD 054 Stuck Near Fenton Ferry (1 of 4)
Photo unrelated.

This book is a disappointment. In a word, it is sloppy. Sloppy writing, sloppy referencing, sloppy statistics, and analysis that would be complimented by being called sloppy. The author is an associate professor at the University of Alberta, and might describe himself (in some contexts) as a social scientist - clearly, the man can write. So why are his (presumed) skills not evident in this book? I can only speculate, but I suppose it is the vaunted mix of academic and popular audience and tone he adopts that ruins it most thoroughly.

There are two major flaws with this book. The first is the shallowness of the coverage. The work skips along the surface of the large and unwiedy topic of vehicle-associated violent crime. Most chapters, loosely organized by topic such as "State-Sponsored Violence" (Chapter 5) or "Sexual Assault" (Chapter 10) merely skim along, describing in minimum detail each subtopic within the overall chapter heading. Occassional anecdotes, almost always with names and other details changed to protect anonymity are used to illustrate key points, which is good, but the key points are so simplistic - on the order of "cars get stolen! that causes the owners considerable distress!" that the anecdotes feel tacked on, like Dr. Rothe had a pile of interview notes he didn't otherwise know what to do with.

The second major flaw are the pervasive errors throughout. Errors of fact, errors of omission (of detail, of implications), errors of importance, occur in every paragraph on every page of this book. I know relatively little about these topics, but because of the shallow coverage (see first flaw, above) I'm usually at least as familiar with the subject of each chapter as the author appears to be. There are no surprises at all to me, all I am learning is the author's view of how such concepts as "Dominating Social Issues" (Chapter 2) and "Vehicle Theft, Robbery, and Vandalism" (Chapter 7) fit together.

Honestly, almost every paragraph contains at least one significant (in my mind) error. I'll pick three paragraphs at random, by choosing a random page number and then quoting the first full paragraph (more than one sentence) on that page.

Page 76 (in Chapter 6, Violence Against Nature):
"In a Louisiana experiment, game wardens placed a deer decoy near the side of a road at different times of the day and for different time spans. Officers monitored the number of motorists who stopped and shot the decoy. Different time segments produced similar findings: drivers shot the decoy from moving and stopped vehicles. All actions were illegal. In the first day, the authorities issued twenty-four citations to ten people for hunting from a road, hunting from a moving vehicle, and hunting deer during illegal hours. On another day, seven hunters shot at the decoy. Again, citations were handed out for hunting from a road and for hunting from a moving vehicle. This trend continued for at least another month until the decoy was taken down (Outdoor Central News Network, 2003). The experiment illustrates the extent to which illegal shooting from vehicles happens on a regular basis. If left unchecked, it would undoubtedly increase significantly."
Actually, I don't have a problem with most of this paragraph. Chapter 6 starts with a condemnation of all hunting, a brave position for a man living in northern Alberta to take, and one I don't agree with. Poaching, as in the described cases of people shooting at what they think is a live deer from a moving vehicle (!!) or simply from the public road, is widely detested among responsible hunters. A discussion of the relative numbers of honest hunters (i.e. non-poachers, shoot in a safe and responsible manner) and poachers and other criminals would have fit nicely in this chapter, but does not appear. Getting back to the quoted paragraph, the description of events is fine, but the last two sentences are weak. How regular is "a regular basis"? and where does that "undoubtedly increase" come from? Sure, unenforced laws would presumably be broken more often, but how many regular hunters are simply waiting for the chance to blast away from their cars, afraid only of the lurking conservation officer?

Page 126 (in Chapter 9, Vengful Driving and Road Rage):
"Julio's case [this paragraph immediately follows an anecdote about an otherwise apparently well-behaved young man named Julio who assualted an older man in "a classic display of road rage"] illustrates how an average citizen can become enraged and lash out through the car. We cannot consider the perpetrator's transformation of social nice guy to aggressor as being unique or occassional. Thousands of aggressive drivers or motorist who have snapped and committed major violence are supposedly "good community citizens" with no histories of crime, violence, or alcohol and drug abuse. the media often reports descriptions by the perpetrator's friends and family that he is "the nicest man," "a wonderful father," or "he must have been provoked." Louis Bethesda (1997) publicized this claim after he directed a study on aggressive drivers for the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety. The research team discovered that there were 10 037 extremely violent incidents in the United States for a period of six years between January 1, 1990, to September 1, 1996. At least 218 persons were murdered and 12 610 individuals were injured, keeping in mind that aggressive driving often results in more than one person being injured or killed (Bethesda, 1997). Of the people injured, ninety-four were children under the age of fifteen. Such incidents of road rage increase about 7% per year (New York Governor's Traffic Safety Committee, 2000)."
The part about "enraged and lash out through the car" followed by "cannot consider... nice guy to aggressor as being unique or occassional" seems contradictory if one's argument is that violent acts would not occur without the vehicular catalyst. All those quotes about nice guys suddenly committing crimes are exactly the same as what the neighbours say when a serial killer is captured. It's meaningless fluff - how does one person's opinion of their relative, spouse, neighbour or friend provide any insight into the causes of crime?

The numbers provided in the above-quoted paragraph are fine examples of the use (and abuse) of statistics in this book. I am under the impression that statistical analyses are front-and-center for social scientists. These collections of numbers are meaningless, though. OK, 218 people were murdered - is that a lot? How does that compare to murders not associated with road rage? Are there trends through time? Can we associate those trends (if any) with other factors? As I said before: shallow - and sloppy.

Page 172 (in Chapter 14, Carjacking and Kidnapping):
"The Front de LIberation du Quebec (FLQ), a Quebec-based terrorist group, claimed that they had kidnapped the two statesmen in order to draw attention to the social injustice of the country. The group had demanded a ransom of $500 000, the release of seventeen political prisoners, dropped charges for six more interned individuals, and the broadcast and publication of the FLQ Manifesto. As a result of the dangers posed by the FLQ, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act, giving the police extensive powers.
The motor vehicle was instrumental in this crisis, and it is still a primary tool for politically motivated kidnapping throughout the world."
I included that last sentence to provide the link to vehicles; the preceeding paragraph describes how James Cross had been forced into a taxi, and later released, and how Pierre Laporte had been shoved into the back seat of a car, and later found dead in the trunk of another car.

As seems to be the pattern in this book, descriptions of events are done competently, but the editorial commentary that immediately follows is weak. A blanket statement about kidnappings involving cars is trivially obvious - what better way to spirit a victim away is there? - and not particularly well-supported by events that occurred 40 years ago.

The reliance on multiple-decades old events, trends, and references is another weakness of this book. Weirdly, some references are used to support arguments or lines of evidence that occured after the publication date - for example, a sentence discussing a major crime that occurred in 2005 will end with a reference dated 2002. Somewhat to the opposite of this, a major justification offered for this book's existence in the introductory chapters is an argument that general rates of violent crime are increasing, an argument supported by a single reference to The United States Preliminary Semiannual Uniform Crime Report, "publicized by the U.S. Department of Justice (2006)". What of the massive volumes of criminology reports that clearly indicate declining crime rates? I simply do not believe that rates of violent crime are steadily increasing in North America. Much more evidence than is presented in this book would be required to convince me.

I'll wrap up with a positive note. This book is organized in a very interesting way, with a three-domains structure of "Zones of Relevance" going from mediate - "perpetrators who use motor vehicles in a tangential way to produce violence" to intermediate - "the vehicle plays a major role in the facilitation of violence but still falls short of being the blunt instrument" and finally to immediate - "The motor vehicle, akin to the smoking gun, is the instrument of terror." This is a comprehensive way to approach what must be a difficult and nebulous topic, that of all violence (including such disparate themes as environmental destruction, road rage, state-sponsored violence as by authoritarian regimes, and suicide) somehow associated with motor vehicles. The mediate zone, exemplified by such crimes as selling drugs (from a car) or vandalism (of a car) is perhaps the largest and loosest category, and the author at least makes a valiant attempt to gather together the various disparate threads. It further supports the underlying argument that motor vehicles are not simply a part of modern cultures, they are central and firmly within modern cultures. It's just too bad his description of "The Car Culture" (starting on page 12) is so weak and, to be honest to my own first impressions, insulting.

I'm not finished reading this book. It's quite frustrating to read (you might have gathered that from my tone in this Book Club entry) so I don't normally get through more than a chapter at a time. It's possible (though I am doubtful) it will improve dramatically in quality as I move into the second half; should that be the case I will certainly update this post.

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