Social Issues

The Parable of the Automobile

by Encephalon (From Bulletin 21.2 2000)

Rewind to a time when automobiles were very new and few people had much experience operating them. Let’s suppose you are a legislator or a magistrate, and the officers of the watch presented reports that four people had been found driving under the influence of alcohol and had caused damage to property and injury to people.

Now you don’t own an automobile and have never driven one. You may have never even seen one. But the ones you see have been remarkable — great fast-moving machines with noisy motors and horns that scared your horse and frightened the chickens. And they roared down the street in front of a huge cloud of foul-smelling exhaust. You call the injured parties before your court and take their statements. They’re clearly traumatized. In fact, they’ve had problems before with these couple of motorists and have organized their friends into a sort of campaign.

This campaign has done a pretty good job of reaching those citizens who haven’t yet encountered an automobile and has thoroughly frightened them about the dangers of those machines. And they have photographs of the damage caused by the few ill-behaved motorists, and recount their lurid horror stories at public events.

Well, in your district there is an automobile club with about 45 members. They generally keep to themselves, and they’ve drawn up a sort of code of conduct for the safe operation of their automobiles. They know about the small handful of renegades. They sometimes attend the meetings and are polite, but they believe their automobiles are their property and if they want to race them down the county streets that’s their business.

The majority of motorists in the club are very nice people. They are regular members of the community. They generally stay away from the roads where there is a lot of foot or horse traffic. In fact, they’ve even considered building their own roads. They use their automobiles to pull out stuck wagons and to give rides to some people who don’t have any means of transportation.

But the vociferous minority of those injured parties and their friends is not impressed. After all, they have evidence that automobiles are dangerous. And so you decided to put the matter to a vote: should your county allow automobiles? The automobile club tries to tell their side of the story, but the injured people have been there first. When a member of the club shows up to someone’s door and introduces himself as a motorist, he’s called a thrill-seeking monster and indifferent and insensitive to the dangers of what he’s doing. In some cases the motorists are even physically assaulted.

The majority of the vote is cast against the motorists and automobiles are outlawed in the county. Those possessing automobiles are viewed with extreme distrust. The public fears they will be operating their vehicles anyway. Perhaps at night, or away from the center of town. That scares you, because you “know” that automobiles are dangerous, and their owners are reckless fools.

Privately a group of (former) motorists come to you and say, “We believe you haven’t seen the whole story.”

I’ve seen enough,” you say. “I’ve seen the damage caused by these four people, and I’ve heard the testimony of the people who were hurt. Do you think I’m going to allow that sort of thing in my district?”

But those four people are isolated cases.”

Perhaps,” you answer. “But I haven’t seen anyone operate an automobile safely.”

That’s because we generally go on the outskirts and stay away from town. We don’t want to scare the people or the horses. But it means that most people don’t see us driving our cars.”

Ah yes,” you say. “There was a case this morning of a person operating on the outskirts of town away from any kind of traffic. I had to fine him, though. Automobiles are illegal in this county.”

But he wasn’t causing any real harm,” protest the motorists.

Yes he was,” you say. “Anyone operating a car puts people at risk. Besides, it’s against the law. How am I supposed to believe that someone who breaks the law in order to operate a motor vehicle is an honorable person? Besides, I know what you’re after. You just want to be able to race your cars up and down. You’re arguing in your own self-interest, and I’m not going to hear such obviously biased testimony.”

But those four people you brought before you were drunk at the time,” says one of the motorists. “Now that’s unfortunate I realize. That’s why our club has a rule against operating an automobile when you’re intoxicated. I know those four motorists, and when they’re sober they’re just as careful as anyone else.”

No matter,” you say, dismissing them. “They drove their cars and caused damage. That’s good enough for me.”

But don’t you remember three months ago when Mr. Smith got drunk and rode his horse through the general store?” says a motorist. “He caused $100 damage and hurt the poor clerk badly.”

Yes, so what’s your point?”

My point is that you can cause damage also by getting drunk and riding a horse. Would you also outlaw horses?”

That’s preposterous!” you bellow. “Horses are a necessity. Without them we couldn’t run the town. Besides, we all know how Mr. Smith gets sometimes. We’ve run this town for generations using horses and we’ve had a very small percentage of accidents and injuries involving horses.”

And isn’t that true for automobiles?”

No,” you reply. “Just look at these reports. Six infractions this year!”

Yes,” says a motorist, leafing through the pile. “But there are also two dozen horse accidents this year also.”

That’s different,” you say. “Horses are a necessity. Automobiles are just a diverting toy. Horses can be skittish beasts. You know that. You have to look at this in perspective. Two dozen horse accidents over a year in a county with hundreds of horses is an acceptable risk.”

But six complaints isn’t much compared to the amount of time we safely operate our automobiles,” responds a motorist. “We take great care —”

I don’t believe you,” you say. “I’ve never seen an automobile being operated safely, and neither has anyone else I know.”

Well,” responds a motorist. “Automobiles are a little different than horses. Yes, they’re faster and louder, but you can quite easily learn to control them. In fact, they’re sometimes easier than horses. Automobiles don’t have a mind of their own.”

Yes,” agrees another. “And you haven’t seen us operating them safely because we drive out in the country, or on the back roads where there aren’t as many people to see us. It’s safer that way, and we like it. But that means that you don’t see any of the majority of the good behavior from motorists.”

I’m supposed to believe a bunch of motorists?” you say. “I’m just supposed to take your word for it that you’re great people? I have sworn statements here from people who say otherwise.”

I’d like to get back to the alcohol issue again,” says one motorist. “You say that Mr. Smith is an excellent horseman when he’s sober.”

That’s right,” you say. “He even teaches riding.”

So the problem then is alcohol. If someone is drunk, he can ride a horse and cause lots of damage. But if he’s sober, it’s all right. Couldn’t the same be true with automobiles?”

I don’t follow,” you say.

I mean, couldn’t someone who is normally a safe driver become a dangerous driver when he’s drunk? If that’s true, the law should forbid driving when you’ve had too much to drink. That way the safe drivers can still enjoy their automobiles while the rowdy drivers are punished.”

Look,” you say. “As far as I’m concerned there are no safe drivers. You’ll have to provide proof for it.”

But you have no proof that we’re all dangerous!” says a motorist indignantly.

All the reports I have indicate that you are,” you say.

But we can’t prove that we’re safe because we can’t drive at all now! We’d have to break the law to demonstrate that we’re safe. How do you suggest we proceed?”

That’s your problem. Good day, gentlemen.”

A few weeks pass. No one sees any automobiles on the county roads, although there are occasional reports of people who say they hear motors in the distance.

One clear day Mr. Jones walks out to his barn. He keeps his automobile in the barn under a tarp, lest anyone see that he is a motorist. For a few days after the law was passed, the motorists continued to wear their scarves and driving caps in town, even though they walked or rode horses. But people recognized them as motorists and scorned and berated them. So instead they had to wear spurs and chaps so no one around them would suspect they were motorists.

Mr. Jones’ nephew Tom is visiting and asks what was under the tarp. He is surprised and delighted to find it was an automobile.

Can we go riding?” asks Tom.

No, I’m sorry,” says Mr. Jones. “The law doesn’t allow it.”

Why not?” asks Tom.

They say it’s unsafe.”

It can’t be that dangerous, uncle. You’re a very kind and careful man. Surely you could drive the car without danger.”

Yes, I know I can. But it’s not that simple. Because some drivers are unsafe, the county people believe that all drivers are unsafe and so they will not let us have automobiles.”

But it isn’t any of their business if you drive it on your own property, is it?”

Well, not as such...”

Then,” says Tom excitedly, “let’s take those new gateposts up to the pasture. You can’t take them on a horse, and Auntie has the wagon.”

I suppose it would be okay. The road is broad and straight, and it’s all my property along it. There won’t be any horses or people on it.”

As Mr. Jones starts the motor, Mrs. Doe on the neighboring farm hears the sputtering. She is in her pasture, which overlooks the road. Mrs. Doe is a nurse, and she treated some of the injuries from the auto accidents some time ago. She’s also treated people who were kicked by or thrown from horses. But the auto injuries stood out in her mind. She was used to dealing with injuries from animals. That was just a fact of life in the country. But injuries from fast-moving machines — that was just too horrible to think about.

Mrs. Doe sees Mr. Jones’ automobile pulling out of his gate with Tom in the seat beside him. She is mortified and hurriedly calls the sheriff. As Mr. Jones drives slowly and carefully along his property up to his pasture, the sheriff’s deputy rides up on his horse.

I’m sorry, Mr. Jones, but you are under arrest,” he says.

But it’s okay,” says Tom. “He’s just driving up to the pasture. And it was my idea.”

Never mind that,” says the deputy. “The law applies to the whole county, including your uncle’s land.”

Later the automobile club comes to your office to discuss the incident.

Do you see what I mean?” you say indignantly. “Here’s another complaint about a motorist operating his vehicle unsafely.”

What do you mean unsafely?” asks a motorist.

I mean the vehicle was being operated contrary to the law. By definition that’s unsafe.”

Not really,” says a motorist. “One can take every precaution, even when one is acting contrary to the letter of the law.”

That’s immaterial,” you say. “And to think you expected me to believe that you were safe, honorable people.”

We are. The only ‘infraction’ was the breach of the law. There was no actual harm done.”

We’ll see about that.”

Later you interview Tom.

Hello, Tom,” you say as you make him comfortable in your office. “Do you know why I’ve asked you hear today?”

I expect it’s because my uncle was arrested for giving me a ride in his car,” says Tom. “I think you’re mean, because he wouldn’t hurt anybody.”

That’s not true,” you say. “He broke the law, and he involved you in it. Would someone, who cared for you and loved you and was concerned about your safety, ask you to do something unlawful?”

But he didn’t ask me,” says Tom. “I asked him.”

That’s how he wanted you think,” you say. “He showed you what was under that tarp knowing full well you’d want to ride in the automobile.”

I hadn’t thought of it like that,” says Tom.

That’s the way they all are,” you say. “All motorists are only concerned about the thrill of driving their automobiles. They don’t care who they hurt or what damage they cause. They only want that thrill.”

That doesn’t sound like my uncle at all,” says Tom. “He’s a very kind man.”

I’m sure he appears that way. But it’s part of the act. They behave very politely and kindly when you talk to them. They do this so you won’t suspect them. But we’re smarter than they are. We know exactly what they want, and we’ll do anything to stop them from getting it.”

Why?”

Because automobiles are very dangerous,” you say, and give him all the accident reports. “Read those.”

After Tom finishes, you say, “Do you see how close you came to danger? I don’t think your uncle loves you at all if he would have forced you into that dangerous situation.”

He didn’t force me,” says a confused Tom. “I wanted to.”

No, your uncle was very clever. He invited you to his house and let you work on his farm. He knew you would go into the barn, and he knew you would ask what was under the tarp. All this was intended to make you get into the automobile with him so he would have an excuse to drive the automobile.”

But I like machines,” says Tom. “I’m going to be an engineer.”

Little boys don’t know anything about machines,” you say. “Machines are for grownups, and are to be used only for things like making furniture. It’s very wrong to make a machine to take the place of a horse. Now there’s a horse waiting outside, you can ride him back to the farm and stay with your aunt.”

As Tom mounts the horse it rears and throws him off. He is bruised and dirty, but otherwise unhurt. “Oh, that horse isn’t used to you yet,” you say. “Just be gentle with him and he’ll be okay.” Tom gets back to the farm and Mrs. Doe is there with all her friends. They take him into the house and sit around him.

Your uncle is such a filthy monster,” they say. “I can’t believe he did that to you.”

Where did you get that bruise?” asks Mrs. Doe.

A horse bucked me off,” says Tom.

I don’t believe that,” says Mrs. Doe. “I’ll bet you got that in your uncle’s automobile.”

Yes,” says another friend. “I was walking down the street and got bruised myself when a car frightened me and I fell down.”

See how dangerous those automobiles are?” says Mrs. Doe.

No, really,” protests Tom. “It was a horse.”

If you say so,” says Mrs. Doe. “But would you haven been riding that horse at that time if you hadn’t first ridden in your uncle’s automobile and been summoned before the magistrate Pamella?”

No,” says Tom. “I might have ridden another horse, or I might have been here playing.”

Exactly,” says Mrs. Doe, nodding knowingly. “You shouldn’t have gotten involved in all the automobile business. It has only lead to pain and misfortune.”

I’m sorry,” says Tom.

All the ladies erupt in indignance. “Oh no, dear,” they all say. “You’re the victim. You’re the one who got hurt. And it’s all your uncle’s fault — that horrible villain!”

But I asked him to drive me,” says Tom, not quite believing that as strongly as he once did.

That doesn’t matter,” says Mrs. Doe. “Your uncle knew it was against the law, and he knew it was foolish and dangerous. You’re too young to realize the dangers of machinery. It’s his fault. He should have refused your request. Instead he indulged his own reckless fantasy of speeding all over the county terrorizing honest people.”

Tom was too tired to argue anymore.

After a few days you hold a trial.

Mr. Jones, you are charged with operating an automobile — an unsafe and reckless practice.”

I did operate an automobile,” says Mr. Jones. “But I didn’t do so unsafely or recklessly, and I believe the law against automobiles is unjust.”

That is not in question here,” you say from the bench. “Only your behavior is in question. Call your first witness, Advocate.”

Mrs. Doe testifies. “I saw Mr. Jones operating his automobile on the road that connects his barn to his pasture. The boy was with him.”

She is cross-examined by Mr. Jones’ attorney. “Was Mr. Jones operating his automobile in a reckless manner?”

What do you mean?”

How fast was he going?”

I don’t know.”

Faster than a horse?”

About as fast as a horse in a slow trot, I imagine.”

You say, “You will please confine your questions to matters pertaining to the facts of the case.”

Ma’am, I’m trying to establish whether Mr. Jones was in fact being reckless or whether he was operating it safely.”

You just heard the witness testify that he was operating a motor vehicle. By law that defines his actions as dangerous. We’ll have no more of this.”

The sheriff’s deputy testifies. “I was notified that someone was operating an automobile. When I arrived I saw Mr. Jones in his automobile driving along his farm road with young Tom in the side seat. I hailed him and he brought the vehicle to a halt. I then took him into custody.”

Mr. Jones’ lawyer cross-examines him. “Was there anything dangerous about the way Mr. Jones operated his motor vehicle?”

Yes, he was violating the law by doing so. I’m sworn to uphold the law, and when I see someone breaking it — and deliberately, I might add — it don’t sit well with me.”

May I remind you,” you say, “you are to confine your questions to the facts, not whether the law is a good one or not.”

The Advocate fingers his suspenders. “I rest my case, ma’am. As you can see, two witness saw Mr. Jones in his automobile.”

Mr. Jones next makes his case. He calls the head of the automobile club, Mr. Ford.

Mr. Ford,” begins the lawyer. “How long have you known Mr. Jones?”

Eight years.”

How long has he been a member of your automobile club?”

Two years, since he bought his automobile.”

Did Mr. Jones participate actively in the club?”

Oh yes. In fact, Mr. Jones was instrumental in helping us draw up our automobile safety rules?”

Safety rules?”

Yes, we believe that we have the right to operate our automobiles on the county roads—”

Not any more,” you interrupt.

Yes,” says Mr. Ford with a placating gesture. “That was before. Anyway, we believe that we had the right to operate our vehicles, but we realized that they could be dangerous if operated near people or horses.”

Shouts of agreement come from Mrs. Doe’s friends, who are assembled in the back.

So,” continues Mr. Ford. “We drew up a list of rules that our club members are — were supposed to follow in order to be safe.”

Give me an example.”

Rule number three says, ‘No member of the club shall operate a motor vehicle if he is intoxicated.’”

That didn’t help me at all!” yells someone from the back. You pound your gavel to restore order. “That reckless fool drove right over my tool shed!” Shouts of agreement.

Where did you typically drive?”

Outside town, mostly,” says Mr. Ford. “Occasionally we would drive into town. Rule six says, ‘When driving in town, club members shall maintain a speed no greater than a trotting horse.’”

Yeah, right!” comes another sarcastic yell. “Whizzing past my parlour at breakneck speed!”

I been run off the road by one of them contraptions,” yells another.

See,” says Mr. Ford, “This other rule says, ‘If the road becomes congested or horses or people occupying the road are frightened, club members shall choose another road or delay their travel until the conditions improve.’”

Ma’am,” says the Advocate. “This is all very interesting, but I don’t see where it’s going.”

I agree,” you say. “Please get to the point.”

Mr. Ford, was Mr. Jones at any time observed breaking these rules?”

No sir,” says Mr. Ford. “He was a model motorist.” There is an unexpected burst of laughter.

Is that like a model thief or a model ruffian?” asks the Advocate, considerably amused. “Mr. Ford,” he continues. “I have only one question. Isn’t it true that the only reason your club exists is to allow motorists to associate, and to promote the practice of motoring?”

Well, yes.”

And isn’t it true that this activity is now deemed unlawful because the public believes it’s dangerous and harmful?”

But it isn’t dangerous—”

Answer the question,” you prompt.

Yes,” says Mr. Ford crestfallenly. “It’s now currently unlawful.”

You turn to Mr. Jones’ lawyer and say, “I wouldn’t do too much of this if I were you. It’s pretty lame to base your case on the testimony of people who advocate an unlawful activity.”

Next Tom is asked to take the witness chair.

Tom,” you say. “This man’s going to ask you some questions. Answer them truthfully. Then another man will ask you some more questions. Answer them just as truthfully.”

Tom,” says Mr. Jones’ lawyer. “Did you ask your uncle to give you a ride in his automobile?”

Yes.”

And did he?”

Yes.”

Has your uncle ever asked you to do anything dangerous?”

Well, nothing more dangerous than normal when you’re running a farm.”

Do you trust your uncle?”

Yes.”

Do you believe he would try to hurt you?”

No, he loves me.”

Do you know about machines?”

Yes, where I come from we have big machines that saw wood, grind grain, and even push boats against the current without sails.”

Were you scared of the automobile?”

No. I’ve heard of them, but I’d never seen one.”

Do you believe they’re dangerous?”

No.”

Did you get hurt while you were riding in it?”

No.”

Then the Advocate stands.

When your uncle showed you the automobile, did he mention that it was against the law for him to drive it?”

Yes.”

So he did something illegal even after he told you it was illegal, and got you to go along with it.”

I guess so.”

Did he mention it was dangerous?”

No.”

You said you asked him to give you a ride. Did he object?”

Yes.”

What did he say?”

He said it was illegal.”

Did he say why?”

He said some people thought it was dangerous.”

Did he say if he thought it was dangerous?”

No.”

He kept that from you?”

Yes.”

So you don’t know if your uncle thought it was dangerous?”

I guess not.”

Did it take a lot of persuasion for you to get him to drive you in it?”

What do you mean?”

You asked him, he said no, and five minutes later you’re riding in the automobile, right?”

Yes.”

So it must not have taken much effort on your part.”

No, I suppose not.”

Mrs. Doe said you hurt yourself. What happened?”

I was thrown from a horse. I didn’t get hurt in the automobile.”

But you wouldn’t have been on that horse if you first hadn’t been with your uncle, right?”

Right, I guess so.”

So in a way, it’s your uncle’s fault you got hurt, right.”

In a way.”

So a minute ago when you said you didn’t get hurt riding in the automobile, that wasn’t entirely true, was it?”

I didn’t get hurt —”

Answer the question, son. If it’s your uncle’s fault you got thrown from that horse because you rode in his automobile, then you weren’t quite telling the truth.”

No, I suppose not.”

There’s no need to lie to protect your uncle,” you say to Tom. “This is a court. It’s where we try to find out the truth. It’s important that you tell the truth, no matter how much it hurts.”

So if your uncle deliberately did something that hurt you, he’s probably not thinking about your safety.”

Huh?”

I mean, he takes you along with him when he’s doing something illegal, and you get hurt as a result. Don’t make a lot of sense, does it?”

I guess not.”

Did your uncle enjoy driving the automobile?”

Yes, I guess so.”

Was he smiling or laughing?”

Yes.”

Did he honk the horn?”

Yes, a couple of times. There were some chickens in the way. He stopped to let them cross the road.”

Why did those chickens cross the road?”

To get to the other side, I expect.”

Or maybe they were terrified of that loud, fast automobile. Tell you what, let’s just say your uncle was having a good time. Do you agree with that?”

I suppose.”

So if your uncle really enjoys driving his automobile, would he do anything to get the chance to do it?”

I don’t know.”

Do you think he’d put his automobile in the barn, where you’re sure to see it? Do you think he’d cover it up so you’d be curious? Do you think he’d give his young nephew — who’s interested in machines — some excuse to ask him what it was?”

I guess so.”

And do you think he might have done all that so it would look like it was your fault he drove the automobile?”

He might have. I don’t know.”

But it’s possible.”

Sure, I guess so.”

That’s all I want to know.”

Tom leaves the chair. He looks at the floor, and not at his uncle. He believes now that his uncle tricked him into wanting to ride the automobile.

The Advocate makes his closing speech. “Ma’am, this is a clear-cut case. We got two witnesses who saw him break the law. We got a young kid — too young to know better than to ride in them infernal machines — and he’s now got a bruise on him from it. And we’ve got Mr. Jones dang near confess he drove his automobile.”

Ma’am,” says Mr. Jones’ lawyer. “I know it isn’t the question at hand, but I believe Mr. Jones is being made guilty by association. Mr. Ford says Mr. Jones is an impeccably safe motorist. And the majority of the club is just as safe —”

Sir,” you say, proffering a stack of affidavits. “I have here seven reports of damage, injury, and unlawful activity arising from automobiles. This is scientific data, not some vague handwaving by motorists. In fact, sir, no one here has seen any of these motorists obeying all these safety rules. This, not your bedtime stories, are what counts.”

But I beg to differ,” says the lawyer. “I’ll bet people have seen them go safely. They’ve just forgotten about it. Because if they’re being kind and polite about it, they’re not noticed. It’s only the very few loud obnoxious ones that people remember. Besides, lots of these people haven’t ever seen an automobile at all. But they like listening to the stories of people who’ve been hurt or injured. And so that’s where their sympathies lie.”

A nice story, but hardly factual,” you say. “You can’t prove any of that. I find Mr. Jones guilty and order him to pay a fine of $10.”

There is great rejoicing among Mrs. Doe and her friends. But a few people leave the courthouse not quite sure that justice has been done. One of them is Dr. McCoy. He’s been trained as a scientist, and he’s also been around machines before. He knows that machines can either be operated responsibly or recklessly. And he knows all about how a few bad apples can make the whole barrel look bad.

A few days later he comes to your office to examine the public records. He spends days there. He also interviews many people in the county, asking them about automobiles. Not about what they believe, but about what they know. Then he comes to see you.

Mrs. Pamella,” he says. “I believe there’s been a mistake in this new law. I don’t believe automobiles are as dangerous as some people say they are.”

Did those motorists put you up to this?”

No ma’am, although I did talk to them and collect some data.”

Then your results can hardly be reliable. Who would listen to a bunch of reckless outlaws trying to satisfy their thrills?”

That’s just it. I don’t think they’re reckless by nature. Sure, a few of them are. But most of them aren’t.”

How do you know?”

I’ve spent time talking to them. I’m convinced they’re genuinely concerned about the safety of their automobiles.”

Maybe,” you say. “But that’s biased testimony.”

Well, I have some more information. I talked to some of the people who live on the outskirts of town. They say they’ve seen the motorists out driving, and they’re very polite and careful. In fact, some of them even gave people rides where they needed to go. To my office, in some cases. They say Mrs. Doe and her friends tried to convince them that automobiles were dangerous, but their personal experience was very different.”

Why didn’t these people speak up at the trial? I asked for exactly that opinion.”

They’re afraid. Mrs. Doe is a very dynamic woman. And so are her friends. They make a big noisy mob, and that scares people. They would have stood up and said they thought automobiles were safe, but they were afraid of what Mrs. Doe and her friends would say about them.”

I don’t believe that. If they really felt that automobiles were safe, they would have said something.”

It’s not that easy, ma’am. Most people just don’t want to get into confrontations. But they’ll talk to me when it’s just a nice chat. And look at these testimonials. These people have ridden in automobiles and they say they weren’t hurt and that the motorists were kind and careful.”

No doubt the motorists have brainwashed those people into say that. They want to have their thrills, and it makes it sound legitimate if other people say it’s a good thing and not dangerous. Maybe they really did get hurt—”

No, I’m the doctor. I would have seen them in my office. And I haven’t.”

But look at these reports, Doctor. Here are people who have been thrown out of automobiles, struck by them, frightened by them. Here’s a poor woman who was even hit by one. Am I supposed to ignore all that? Here are more reports of property damage. This is a very compelling case.”

You’re looking at it all wrong, ma’am. You’re studying only the problems; you’re not studying the phenomenon itself. Sure, people come to you when they’ve been hurt or frightened or had their property damaged. But they don’t come to you when everything’s okay. So you never see that, and no one else does either. Now that automobiles have such a bad rap, a motorist can’t show his face in town with his automobile to behave either well or badly.”

I still can’t ignore these complaints.”

No, but put them in perspective.”

What do you mean?”

I’ve looked at the records. We have two hundred horses in town. And I’ve treated about twenty-five people for horse-related injuries.”

That’s the nature of horses, Doctor.”

Yes, I agree. One accepts a certain degree of risk working with horses. But bear with me. I’ve treated four people for automobile-related injuries. Mrs. Doe remembers them, she took care of them.”

I don’t see the point. Automobiles are dangerous. We know that.”

But there are forty-five automobiles in the county. There are fewer injuries per automobile than there are per horse.”

So?”

So it shows that automobiles aren’t more dangerous than horses. People are just made to think that way by those who oppose automobiles.”

Immaterial, Doctor. A horse is a natural, time-honored conveyance. It’s a necessity of life. An automobile is a toy. We have to have horses. We don’t have to have automobiles.”

With all due respect, ma’am, that’s a personal bias. To those who own automobiles they are just as useful and necessary a conveyance as a horse.”

That’s still not the way we do things around here. I still believe automobiles are merely a toy with no redeeming value.”

Let’s agree to disagree on that point then. I’ve made some other discoveries. In three out of the four cases of automobile accidents, the driver of the automobile had been drinking. And in eighteen out of the twenty-five horse accident cases, the riders had been drinking.”

Your point?”

It’s the drinking that’s the problem. If people didn’t drink, they’d operate their automobiles and ride their horses more responsibly.”

Maybe so, but whether the driver is drunk or sober those automobiles are simply too dangerous. What’s your point?”

We shouldn’t forbid automobiles entirely, just the specific practices that make them unsafe. And while we’re at it, we should make a law against riding a horse while intoxicated.”

You rummage around the desk. “Actually I think we already have a law against that. Yes, right here. In fact, many of those eighteen people paid a fine for breaking it. You still have a problem. There were seven cases this year, not four. For automobiles, I mean.”

But look at them,” says Dr. McCoy. “Four were outright cases of injury. Either someone fell out of the automobile or was directly injured by the automobile. Look at this case, though. A car frightened a horse and the horse kicked a water trough over.”

Yes, damage caused by an automobile.”

No, by a horse.”

The horse was frightened by an automobile. Same thing.”

Not at all. If someone slammed a door and frightened a horse into doing the same thing, would you blame the door?”

Of course not, but it’s not the same thing. Doors aren’t dangerous. Automobiles are.”

That’s a preconception. In fact, anything can frighten a horse into kicking. A gunshot, a crack of thunder. Do you plan to outlaw everything that might frighten a horse?”

No, that’s silly. But it still wouldn’t have happened if the automobile hadn’t been there.”

Maybe, maybe not. Look at this case now. Mrs. O’Leary complained that an automobile ran through her chicken coop.”

Yes, she lives on that sharp curve near the edge of town. The automobile was going too fast and ran off the road. This is a clear-cut case of automobile danger.”

Yes, but if you look at the complete record, Mrs. O’Leary has made no fewer than eight complaints this year about people running into her chicken coop. One complaint was about an automobile, but the other seven complaints were about horse-drawn carriages and wagons.”

So, it’s a sharp curve.”

Yes, and it’s the curve that’s at fault, not the vehicle. In fact, vehicles of all kinds go too fast and run off the road.”

Are you suggesting I outlaw sharp curves?”

No. I’m suggesting you look and see where these problems really lie. You and your assistants stop looking for causes as soon as you see that an automobile was involved, because you’re now predisposed to think of automobiles as dangerous. And because automobiles are new and strange to most people here, cases that involve them attract more attention. In fact, Mrs. O’Leary’s chicken coop is just as flat whether it’s been run over by an automobile or a stagecoach.”

Okay, okay. But I still have to deal with these complaints. You don’t. Besides, you have one more case to account for.”

Yes, the case of Mr. Jones.”

That was a clear-cut case as well.”

A case of what? The only reason you have a complaint before you is because he broke the law.”

That counts.”

Yes, but only in your magisterial role. In terms of actual danger, there wasn’t any. The sole reason for Mr. Jones’ fine was that he broke the law. He didn’t actually do anything inherently dangerous. At least according to my figures here.”

He still broke the law. I have to maintain order in this district.”

Yes, but he broke a law predicated on the notion that what he was doing was inherently dangerous. I’ve painstakingly showed that it’s not as dangerous as we’ve been made to believe.”

That doesn’t make any difference.”

But it does.” Dr. McCoy picks up two of the complaints. “Here you have a young ruffian who gets drunk, drives through the center of town on a busy evening at great speed and knocks down the barber’s porch.” He indicates the other complaint. “Here you have a respected, responsible adult who operates his automobile carefully on his own property at the request of his young nephew. No actual harm was done.”

Harm was done. The law was broken and Tom got hurt.”

Balderdash. An overly broad law was broken and Tom’s injury had nothing to do with the actions of Mr. Jones. That was all legal trickery and we both know it. You folks got poor Tom in here and got him so tongue-tied he didn’t know which end was up anymore. Tom’s a good boy, and he’s been taught to respect his elders. So what is he going to do when the magistrate and the advocate both tell him his uncle is a monster?”

I’m not sure I like your tone, Doctor.”

My apologies, Magistrate. I get carried away. The point is that you can’t indiscriminately lump together these two cases and say they’re the same thing. One is truly a bad situation that ought to be remedied, but the other is just a case that was manufactured out of fear and ignorance. Now you’ve got good people who are afraid to show their faces in town just because they own automobiles. Is this a recipe for a happy county?”

Doctor, I can and will lump together what I choose to lump together. In my book — and it’s the only book that counts — those are two cases that illustrate just how dangerous it is to operate an automobile. I have no intention of subjecting our town to the dangers of automobiles just to satisfy the idle and intemperate urges of some of the more reckless elements of this county. In fact, I’m certain we can do without them altogether. You’ve shown me nothing but a bunch of cold, unfeeling numbers. I’m talking about real people here, people I need to protect from danger. Plus, how do I know those motorists didn’t put you up to this? How do I know you’re not on their side? In fact, I have a good mind to bring you up before the assembly for advocating such a dangerous and unlawful activity. I’m surprised at you, Doctor. You’re trying to tell me that my study of these serious complaints is worth nothing. Get out of my office, Doctor. You’ve wasted enough of my time.”


From the NAMBLA Bulletin, Vol. 21, No. 2, 2000.
Copyright © NAMBLA, 2010


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