Viewing vehicular violence through a wide angle lens: contributing factors and a proposed framework.

Author:Carroll, Linda J.

Introduction to vehicular violence

Violence is a permanent and pervasive feature of our society (Foucault 1980). In accordance with the WHO's report on violence and health, we use the term violence to mean "the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, disability, death, psychological harm ..." (Krug, Dahlberg, Mercy, Zwi, and Lozano 2002: 5). This definition includes violent acts directed toward oneself (e.g., suicide), toward specific others (e.g., homicide) and toward more general targets (e.g., acts of terror); and the violent acts can be physical and/or sexual.

A subset of violent acts, seldom discussed in public health, traffic safety or criminology, is vehicular violence. This can be defined as violent incidents where the vehicle is (a) intentionally used as a weapon--for example, intentionally hitting a victim with a vehicle; (b) becomes a supporting environment in which violent behaviour occurs--for example, sexual assault in a car; and/or (c) is a platform from which violence is initiated--for example, the base for "drive-by" shootings (Rothe 2008). The vehicle is not just a weapon in search of a finger for the trigger (like a gun), nor does vehicular violence involve only drivers and passengers. Rather, violent acts happen through the entire motor vehicle transportation system. The motor vehicle can be involved in many types of violence, such as carjacking, armed robbery, physical assaults against targeted victims, road rage, sexual assaults, premeditated "drive-by" shootings, bombings, or suicides (Law Reform Commission 1991). In fact, vehicular violence can be thought of as any purposeful episode that involves a vehicle and is directed at harming someone, including oneself.

The mass media seldom highlight the role that a motor vehicle plays in a violent act. Where the act is clearly criminal, vehicular violence is generally classified into categories like homicide, sexual assault, or kidnapping, without specific reference to the use of the vehicle in carrying out these violent activities. In other situations, the intentional violence behind the act is often overlooked in the classification process. For example, an enraged driver who purposely runs a red light and enters the intersection at high speed to hit another car might be charged with dangerous driving or being in violation of obeying traffic signals; while a suicidal driver intent on a head-on collision with a semi trailer truck may (if he or she survives) be charged with inattentive, dangerous, or fatigued driving.

Vehicular violence is caused by the same factors as other forms of violence. These include gender (predominance of young males perpetrating the violent acts), poverty, family dysfunction, gang rivalry, alcohol/drug abuse, social exclusion/isolation, and personal or social stress, such as death of a loved one, loss of a job, jealousy and revenge, or mental illness (Krug et al. 2002). However, another series of contributing factors relates directly and specifically to the driving situation. These include the actions of other drivers on the road, interactions with other drivers, poor conditions of the roadway, and traffic flow (Mizell 1997; Joint 1995). These factors can contribute to situational stress and feelings of anger, rage, and revenge, and can thereby increase the propensity for violence on the roadway.

The goals of the present article are to highlight the concept of vehicular violence, to outline some of the typical environmental and psychosocial factors that contribute to vehicular violence, and to propose a general framework for understanding the use of vehicles for violence. It is critical to recognize vehicular violence as a specific type of violent act because, although under-reported, vehicular violence puts roadway users at risk of harm. An examination of vehicular violence has important and specific implications for social policy, traffic safety research, and criminology.

Common targets and types of vehicular violence

Although anyone on the roadway is a potential target of vehicular violence, some roadway users are at an elevated risk. Available quantitative findings and qualitative accounts indicate that common targets for vehicular violence are police officers and taxi drivers.

Vehicular violence directed toward the police

The FBI routinely collects information from law enforcement agencies throughout the United States. According to their records, one out of every eight police officers is subjected to assault and over 10% of these assaults have occurred when police officers were conducting traffic pursuits or stops (US Department of Justice 2004). Among the list of "dangerous weapons" used against these police officers were motor vehicles. Mizell (1997) reported that from 1990 to 1996 in the United States, 221 drivers purposefully used their vehicles to attack police officers, resulting in the deaths of 48 police officers. Vehicular violence against the police is typically a "spur of the moment" event, happening when a motorist is stopped for a breach of traffic laws but is suspected of other crimes, such as breaking and entering or car theft. Suspects attempt to run down police officers or ram police cruisers with their motor vehicles in order to escape arrest (Rothe 2008).

Vehicular violence directed toward taxi drivers

Statistics Canada (2005) reported that nearly one in five workers has experienced workplace violence. Among these, persons who earn their living in traffic-related occupations (e.g., professional drivers, bicycle couriers, parking lot attendants) are at particular risk, and none are at higher risk than taxi drivers, who ply city streets at all times of the night, allowing total strangers, intoxicated, aggressive or otherwise, into their cars and transporting them to sometimes unsafe parts of the city. Taxi drivers have up to 15 times the average exposure to occupational violence, and they have the highest rate of work-related homicide of any occupational group (Chappell and Di Martino 1998). In many cases, the driver's own taxi is used as either the indirect instrument of violence (e.g., being robbed and locked in the trunk) or the direct instrument (e.g., when the taxi is used to run over the taxi driver).

Use of the vehicle in sexual assault

Over the past decade in Canada, almost 80 sexual assaults per 100,000 people were annually reported to the police (Statistics Canada 2005). Startling as this number is, it is estimated that only about 6% of sexual assaults are actually reported to the police. The motor vehicle plays a significant role in these cases: one quarter of all sexual assaults occur in motor vehicles (Ontario Women's Directorate 1995).

Use of vehicles for terrorism: Ideology and bombs

Car bombing has become a common mode of spreading terror. A sensational example of car bombing occurred in the United States in 1995, when Timothy McVeigh, a leader of the "True Believers" drove a van into the Alfred P. Murray Federal Building in Oklahoma City. He killed 168 people and injured more than 500 others. Another sensational example of a car bombing occurred at the Glasgow airport in June of 2007. This terrorist act had a chilling effect on airports around the world and resulted in widespread tightening of airport security (Bell 2007). Car bombings have become an increasingly common hazard in the western world and are a formidable source of violence and urban insecurity. In the past, motorcycle gangs like the Hells Angels, the Rock Machine, and the Outlaws have taken their disputes to the streets and have used car bombs to "settle scores." Professional killers have used vehicles booby-trapped with bombs to blow up their targets (Eikel 2000). There are increasing reports of religion-motivated car bombings in the western world. Whatever reasons there are for car bombings, the...

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