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Trying to Make Sense of Car Crashes

A new book by neuroscientist Tali Sharot, The Optimism Bias focuses on hope as one of the unconscious biases our brains automatically create.  Our optimistic tendencies are present, she says, because “optimism may be so essential to our survival that it is hardwired into our most complex organism, the brain.”  Optimism lowers stress and anxiety while increasing motivation to act, thereby improving the chances for a positive outcome.  “Optimists,” she says, “live longer, are healthier and happier” and are generally more successful.

(The topic was covered succinctly by Winston Churchill:  “For myself I am an optimist – it does not seem to be much use being anything else”.)

We appear to have some sort of collective ‘optimism’ about the risks we face in our highly motorized, car dependent world even though, despite the steady decline in car crashes, car crash risk still beats all the other risks we run daily.  Of course we aren’t completely delusional on this topic—hence the steady decline.  But, nevertheless, we seem to tolerate road crash fatality and injury risk that if otherwise caused—by disease, for example—would undoubtedly have galvanized dedication to eliminating that cause.

One way we have learned to live with car crash risk is by telling stories about crashes.  Telling stories connects us and helps us make sense out of events that might otherwise appear random and arbitrary.  Stories help us learn how to avoid similar tragedy.

When a car crash victim is a celebrity the story will be told.  Our response is complicated.  We pay attention; we are titillated.  But we are also frightened by the failure of success, fame, and fortune to bestow immortality.  It seems such a waste of a glorious — even if notorious — life. When a car crash victim is not a celebrity, the unusual may compel a wider telling.  Even without the ‘unusual’, story telling, in particularizing, elevates and illuminates thereby celebrating and memorializing the victim.  It builds the foundation for resilience.

Two celebrities with remarkable lives and accomplishments have died recently in car crashes.  The Canadian writer, Robert Kroetsch, aged 84, died while returning to his home in Leduc from the Artspeak Festival in Canmore, Alberta.

The award winning Bangladeshi film director, Tareque Masud, aged 54, died along with four others in a bus crash near Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Getting attention on the basis of being unusual, there is a report that in Spain recently, a 40-year-old truck driver who survived a road crash last year was hit by a car and killed along with two of his relatives while on a pilgrimage to thank the “Virgin of Miracles of Caion” for his survival.

Residents of Bathurst, New Brunswick are currently debating the right to tell the story of the tragedy their community suffered in January 2008 when seven of their teenage athletes died in a head-on crash while driving home from a basketball game.  In 2009, the rebuilt team won the provincial championship and the MVP was an athlete who had survived the crash.  Opponents say a proposed movie about the ‘aftermath’ of the tragedy is exploitative and premature and that their story is not the movie company’s to tell.  Proponents say it should be told because it is a story of determination and inspiration that helped the community.

We have to remember that aside from the stories of particular interest, about a million other people die every year worldwide, in car crashes.  One million.

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