Trying to meet all your book preview and review needs.
to e-mail us:
support the site
buy us books !
- Return to top of the page -
B+ : well-presented personal account, but limited perspective
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
- Return to top of the page -
The complete review's Review:
On 10 April 2000 Thomas Munch-Petersen killed three people (one of whom was pregnant; the foetus also did not survive) and seriously injured a fourth -- a tally one suspects only a handful of others British citizens exceeded that year.
For his actions he eventually served forty-five days in jail -- just over two weeks per life snuffed out.
Fatal Error is his account of these events, from the fatal day through the trial and then his brief stint of incarceration.
It is possible that harsh sentences have a deterrent effect in relation to drink-driving, but no motorist will drive more carefully himself because he reads of imprisonment for momentary misjudgement or inattention.Indeed, a common theme returns throughout the book -- printed in bold letters on the back cover, for example: "IT COULD HAPPEN TO ANYONE...". Similarly, his barrister's final appeal to the jury at his trial is described as: "visceral -- this could be you in the dock."
This is, perhaps, the most contentious point. Munch-Petersen makes much of the mere 1.96 seconds he wasn't paying attention. It sounds like it is just an instant, barely the blink of an eye. Surprisingly (or not) he never describes it in other terms: travelling at 70 mph he would have covered over 200 feet (over 60 metres) in that time -- an enormous distance to drive blindly.
There are accidents and there are accidents. An astonishing number of people do die in household or workplace accidents -- slipping in the shower, falling off a ladder, and the like. But these can be put in a different category from motor vehicle "accidents" -- specifically because most of them only cause direct physical harm to the person having the accident. In the case of motor vehicle "accidents" the victims are usually innocent bystanders (and passengers, etc. -- though drivers often also cause themselves grave injury).
Nevertheless, society gives a special dispensation to motor vehicles. Despite the fact that these are inherently dangerous devices -- projectiles weighing a ton and more that can move at extremely high speeds -- there are very lax licensing requirements to operate them, and there is even laxer enforcement of traffic laws. To cite only the most obvious example: as we understand it the basic and easiest to comprehend traffic law (even we get it !) is that one stops at a red light (and goes at a green light); nevertheless, most jurisdictions will not suspend the license of drivers who "run" a red light (much less make them take a remedial driving course) -- despite the fact that their actions clearly show them to be unfit to operate a motor vehicle. (The example is not trivial: a 1 September 2002 article in The New York Times cites a study by the New York City Comptroller's Office that found that in 2001: "drivers run red lights in New York some 1.2 million times each weekday" (emphasis added). The worst intersection was found to be that of 79th Street and Madison Avenue, where, during rush hour, there were an average of 56 violations per hour (i.e. practically one a minute). Need any more be said ?)
Drivers of motor vehicles kill and injure a phenomenal number of people -- a fact Munch-Petersen never mentions (perhaps because it is indeed so widely taken for granted and accepted). Some of these do involve genuine accidents (a properly maintained tire nevertheless blowing, a child running after a ball darting into traffic etc.), but most occur because of at least some driver fault. Motor vehicle accidents dwarf almost all other non-disease-related causes of death. Nowhere near as many people are murdered as are killed by and in motor vehicles; even the far more popular (in most countries) suicide doesn't claim as many lives -- and neither do all other sorts of accidents combined. No, the car is by far the most popular modern instrument of death.
The numbers are absolutely astonishing: the USDOT reported 2002 Highway Fatality Statistics of 42,815 (we're a bit unclear on the "highway" definition here, and hope dearly that that includes absolutely all roads and not just the federal highway system) -- "the highest level since 1990". Injuries numbered a mere 2.92 million. In Britain, in 2001, there were apparently 313,046 casualties of all types on Britain's roads, including 37,094 serious injuries and 3443 fatalities. And both the US and the UK actually have (relatively) miniscule rates of deaths per mile travelled or similar measures (rates that in much of the so-called developing world are often several orders of magnitude greater).
Munch-Petersen thinks tough sentences might have a deterrent effect on drivers who drive while intoxicated, but one wonders: in the US, despite (supposedly) tough driving-under-the-influence laws one finds that: "Alcohol-related fatalities remained at 41 percent of the total with 17,419 deaths in 2002". This doesn't mean that the deterrent-effect isn't there -- if laws weren't so tough alcohol-related fatalities might be several times worse. What it suggests instead is that there's a fundamental problem of lax laws and lax enforcement. (The US is, of course, particularly nutty regarding its love of the automobile -- there are still a few states where it is legal to drink while you drive (as long as your blood-alcohol level remains below the legal limit).)
The basic problem, as we see it, is that the standard for operating a motor vehicle is far too low. Operating a machine that is so easily capable of mass-slaughter is -- or should be -- an enormous responsibility, but instead citizens take it as a god-given right. The motor vehicle is clearly something the operation of which requires strict government control, in particular as it is a device that so readily (and incredibly frequently) causes serious damage to those other than the driver. If it were just motor vehicle operators getting themselves killed there might be a case for allowing such personal assumption of risk, but since so-called motor vehicle accidents tend to cause more harm to other property and persons the state has both an interest and a duty to protect its citizens; it has obviously failed in this regard.
People appear to believe that easy access to driving privileges (and lax laws and enforcement allowing driver to remain licensed even if and when they fail to obey the most basic traffic laws) is a right they deserve. This seems a highly questionable assumption - but certainly those behind the wheel want to keep their hold on it, if for no other reason than they (probably correctly) feel safest there.
Much of the problem stems from the fact that traffic laws are considered essentially unobeyable: almost no driver doesn't speed on occasion, and a few minutes of observation at any city intersection are almost guaranteed to yield several drivers who don't signal properly, don't yield properly (as well as probably drivers who exceed city speed limits (our favourites are the ones who floor the accelerator when the light turns yellow) and run lights). Almost no one drives according to the letter of the law, considering it almost impossible to do so -- a disconnect costing, worldwide, hundreds of thousands of lives and billions of dollars in economic losses. These people obviously should not be permitted to operate motor vehicles -- and yet no one seriously argues for such a position. In addition a vast number of drivers are simply unfit to drive -- the staggering number of cases of drivers (generally of a more advanced age) who mistake the accelerator for the brake (or at least who claim to) and plow through pedestrians and the like suggests something is very wrong -- but most simply accept these incidents as accidents -- oops ! another dozen dead, oh well.
Airplane pilots are held to much higher standards; not surprisingly airplane-related fatalities are much lower (no matter how one calculates them, whether my passenger-mile travelled or otherwise). The argument is perhaps that planes can cause much greater damage and affect more people, and the pilot has a duty to his passengers, but most of this applies to motor vehicles as well. Admittedly the per-vehicle possibility of carnage is greater with commercial airplanes (though not small private planes, which generally cause no more damage to passengers and on the ground when they crash than many motor vehicle accidents), but given the total destruction motor vehicles wreak (and how little, in fact, airplanes do) there is no reasonable explanation why regulations governing the operation of motor vehicle aren't brought into line with the much tougher standards for airplane-operation.
Another factor at play is that while society generally claims to value the preservation of life above almost all else this is clearly not true. For the greater good of being able to drive cars as one pleases society is willing to sacrifice a huge percentage of its own. The comparisons to homicide are illuminating. Murder, it is generally agreed, is a very bad thing. There's little debate about that, and punishments are appropriately severe for those who commit this act (whether for deterrent effect or otherwise). But murder is the cause of far, far fewer deaths than motor vehicle "accidents" (the majority of which are far from true accidents, involving considerable driver contribution -- whether through drink or carelessness or other actions). So clearly it's not life that's valued above all else -- and not even the right to avoid having your life taken by another (since that's usually what happens in motor vehicle "accidents"). (Munch-Petersen killed more people than most murderers; he did not do so on purpose, but those were the results and, since his crash was not truly accidental (there's no doubt he caused it -- and did so by behaving incredibly foolishly) it isn't clear why he should not be punished like anyone else who takes three innocent lives.)
Surely, one of society's great ambitions should be to insure the safety and welfare of it's citizens. Allowing people to kill other people -- by any means -- is something that should be thwarted by any means possible. A different attitude towards those who drive carelessly, negligently, or in a manner that is not within the bounds prescribed by the law is called for -- and they should be punished appropriately. (There have, admittedly, been great strides in punishing those who drive while intoxicated or under the influence (of something they shouldn't be), but obviously these drivers are just the tip of the iceberg -- and equally obviously an astonishing number haven't been dissuaded of pursuing such activity despite the rather harsh penalties involved.)
Munch-Petersen argues that there's little point to jailing someone guilty of an offence like his. Possibly so. But it's an argument that applies to many interred criminals.
Munch-Petersen believes that there would be no deterrent effect if the likes of him were jailed for greater lengths of time. This seems unlikely. There continue to be a very large number of people who commit murder -- and who drive while intoxicated -- despite the relatively severe punishments they face if caught. Nevertheless, it seems safe to assume that the punishments do have a deterrent effect, and that larger numbers of people would murder and drive drunk if the punishments were of the slap-on-the-wrist sort Munch-Petersen received (in addition to which it gets those who have proven themselves capable of these actions off the street, preventing them from committing these acts (at least among the general population -- murderers can still murder behind bars)).
If Munch-Petersen got a token stiff penalty, to set an example, it probably would have little deterrent effect; but if the law cracked down on drivers who "accidentally" kill (with mandatory jail sentences of say at least a year (i.e. at least two years in Britain, where one apparently gets out at half-time)) that would surely begin to weigh on some drivers' minds.
Munch-Petersen makes a good deal of his clean driving record -- but that hardly seems worth much when he was still willing to act in such an incredibly irresponsible manner while behind the wheel. It was bad luck that he took out so many people -- and incredibly good luck that he did so little harm to himself -- but certainly the final body tally seems a good point at which to start deciding how severely to punish him. It bears repeating: he killed three people, which is more than all but a handful of people manage to (on purpose or not) in any given year -- indeed, it's a pretty impressive tally for a lifetime.
Maneuvering a one or several ton object at speeds of 70 mph is not something to take lightly -- though, of course, most drivers do. Punishing the likes of Munch-Petersen severely -- removing them from society for a considerable portion of their remaining natural lives -- seems an excellent first step to sending a message that driving a car (in practically any manner one pleases) is not a near-automatic right of every citizen, but rather that it involves incredible responsibility, and that failure to live up to that responsibility will be appropriately harshly judged.
In some ways it would be a waste to send Munch-Petersen to prison for say a decade or two -- but it would be the same waste were he sentenced for the same term after having gone out and strangled three strangers, just for the hell of it (or, say, for a mint). (Funnily, far fewer people would protest a long sentence in the latter case than the former.) The point is he did something so terrible and literally wrecked so many lives that he is worth being made an example and sacrifice of. He did not set out to kill -- which does make him considerably better than a murderer -- but he acted with such callous indifference to life and so recklessly in a situation where catastrophic consequences were at the very least foreseeable and, in fact, likely (try closing your eyes as you drive 200 feet on a crowded highway at 70 mph while leaning over to one side and see what happens). To put him in prison is a waste, but that's part of the point of the legal system too. And it doesn't compare to all that he wasted, due to his actions.
In the so-called developing world it is not unusual for crowds to attack cars and pull drivers from them after fatal motor vehicle "accidents" (which, on a per-mile-travelled and per-vehicle basis are far more frequent occurrences there than in the US and Europe), and for the crowds to lynch the drivers. This is, of course, entirely unacceptable, but it is a demonstration of the citizens' frustration with the local legal systems that they know will not provide any sort of justice under these circumstances otherwise. (In the so-called developing world, as everywhere, the car is holy and the law bends over backward to protect it and its operators.)
In the so-called developed world almost of society has become so beholden to the personal motor vehicle that the imposition of any sort of real punishment for even the most heinous motor vehicle-related "accidents" doesn't even seem to occur to anyone (an exception being driving while intoxicated -- though even here definitions are fuzzy (driving while a bit intoxicated is generally still considered okay and, as we mentioned, in the US there are still states where it is legal to drive while you drink alcohol)). A slap on the wrist is the most that citizens expect to be handed out for even the most egregious mass-killings such as that for which Munch-Petersen was responsible. Part of that may very well be due to the very fear that Munch-Petersen expresses throughout Fatal Error, the notion that: it could have happened to you. It's an outrageous attempt to absolve himself of his guilt (and to push some on his readers). It could happen to you -- if you drive in an irresponsible manner and take your eyes off the road for 1.96 seconds at a time while travelling at 70 mph -- but anyone willing to do that has no business being behind the wheel of a car in the first place.
Far too many people who shouldn't drive are allowed to, and far too many people take driving far too lightly. In addition, law enforcement of even the traffic laws that are on the books is a joke. Munch-Petersen doesn't appear to see any of that -- and neither, one fears, do most of his readers, who quite possibly really will just think (and who will, sadly, be correct in thinking that): it could have been me.
Maybe Fatal Error will give readers enough pause to think twice before they take their eyes off the road next time they're on the M1 (or I-95, or wherever). On the other hand, given how lightly Munch-Petersen got off, maybe they'll just think: what the hell ? and lean over to go through the pockets of the jacket lying on the passenger side (or on the backseat) at a leisurely pace, not worried about the accidents they might cause and the people they might kill.
- Return to top of the page -
- Return to top of the page -
Thomas Munch-Petersen teaches at University College, London.
- Return to top of the page -