The location of this conversation was a motorcycle discussion forum-- the Usenet newsgroup ba.motorcycles to be precise. The topic of discussion was a motorcyclist who had been killed by a red-light runner South of Market in San Francisco. He entered the intersection, an SUV ran the red-light and plowed into him, and he died instantly. As expected, the newsgroup was abuzz with how horrible this was, how the SUV driver was a horrible person, etc. It was unanimous.
I was exceedingly unpopular when I pointed out that while the SUV driver was very clearly at fault, the motorcyclist could have saved his life by the simple expedient of checking cross-traffic before he entered the intersection. It was well-known at the time that red-light-running was very common in the SOMA area, and the biker in question was only a few blocks from home. It's clear that he was not at fault in any conventional manner, but it's also pretty clear that he made one poor decision that cost him his life.
A few years before this, I was in a car accident. The circumstances were quite similar-- I began making a left turn on a green arrow. An oncoming car failed to stop for the red light, and plowed into me at around 50MPH. Had I been on a motorcycle at the time, I'm sure I would not be writing this today.
Immediately after the accident, once I'd done a physical assessment and figured out that I was hurt but that it didn't seem life-threatening, my brain went into a one-track loop. "Was this my fault? Oh my god, was this my fault? No, I'm sure the light was green. This wasn't my fault. But what if it was my fault? I'm sure the light was green. OK, I'm pretty sure the light was green. Maybe this was my fault?"
Shortly before the ambulances arrived, the police officer who witnessed the accident came over to talk to me. He asked me what happened. "My light turned green and I started to turn left, and I got hit."
"Your light was green?"
"I believe my light was green."
He wrote something down. "I was right behind her at the light, and I saw her light turn red. I believe that you did have a green arrow." That brief conversation turned off the endless cycle in my head, and instead I focused on my current medical needs. I could stop worrying about whether I was responsible, though I did still have a tiny nagging voice. The next day I talked to her insurance company from the hospital.
"Is there any question as to whose fault it was?"
"Our driver was cited for failure to obey a traffic signal. That pretty much removes any question of liability." Whew.
Sometime after the accident, I called bullshit on myself pretty hard. I fucked up. At the time of the wreck, I'd just completed a two-hour drive home from Eugene, and I was turning into my condo complex. I didn't get much sleep the night before. I was tired and distracted, and happy to be getting home so that I could take a nap. I dropped my guard, and failed to pay attention to the oncoming traffic. If I'd done my normal check of the intersection before I started turning, I would have just slammed on the brakes and watched her blow through the light, then cheered as the cop pulled her over and ticketed her. Instead, we both got a ride in the meat wagon and the full trauma center hospitality.
If I describe this accident to somone and ask them to assign blame, almost everyone will say that she was at fault and I was the victim. If the only choices are her or me, then it's very clear that the finger gets pointed in her direction. That's a false dichotomy, though. The real answer is that the responsibility is shared, and while her share is clearly larger, a big ole piece of it is mine.
And there you have it-- my first installment in my ramblings on responsibility and victimhood. More to come.