Prose Header

Drive Safely!

by Vera Mont

It can be a pretty decent existence, driving a rich man and his family wherever they all need to be. Take him to the airport, business meetings; her, to dress fitting or DAR luncheon; the children, to oboe lessons and rugby practice. Find the place, keep the passenger comfortable, get there on time, wait outside — simple. My favourite destination is a dude ranch, where they go for family bonding some weekends.

Horses and cows haven’t much conversation, but the dogs are friendly. They like cars. Anyway, those have always been easier trips than city driving. There is so much to be aware of in the city, so many obstacles and dangers to watch for. Still, I always did good work. The boss was satisfied and I was happy enough.

Now everything’s changed. The job’s become so stressful, I don’t know how I can keep on doing it.

For instance, look there: a stout woman walking a dog. The dog is on leash; odds are 25 to 1 against it running out into the road. The woman is even less likely to, and I estimate her top speed no more than 3 kph, in a sprint. Not too hard to calculate her trajectory and avoid a collision. No problem with the ethics, either: if I can’t avoid both, hit the dog. Those are my orders; I don’t get a choice. Okay so far.

Now, look over there. Three males in their early twenties, bumping and shoving one another as they walk along, laughing and honking as they do when inebriated, not paying attention. They may suddenly change course and lurch into the crosswalk up ahead, or even jaywalk anywhere. I have to watch out for that possibility.

I must try to anticipate a new direction and estimate their velocity. I have to calculate the variables for each possible scenario: if they split up, one or two change course and one or two either continue on or stop. See what I mean? If I were unprepared and couldn’t stop in time to avoid running them over, I’d have to decide which way to turn. On the left is oncoming traffic.

Moving at or below the speed limit, a head-on collision would not kill my passenger, though it would surely injure him. I can’t tell who’s in the other vehicles, whether they’re wearing seat belts, whether they’re alert enough to brake or veer off, whether they have infants on board, or what. So I’d opt for the sidewalk. It’s clear just now, because who wants to be anywhere near those louts?

There’s a comfortable 15-meter gap between lampposts, but they’re actually safer to hit at this speed than a cement wall; my passenger would suffer airbag bruises and seatbelt abrasions; at worst, a fractured clavicle or nose. Hitting a parking meter is preferable; one of those can stop a car, all right, and leave a big dent in the hood. Pricey bodywork, but the insurance company will spring for it. Not a lamppost collision, though; they’ll write off a vehicle for that.

A mailbox is a safer alternate target, but those things will go flying. There’s a 47% probability of a pedestrian coming from the opposite direction, and a 14% chance of causing that person serious injury. Fatality is down around 1% or 1.5%. Even so, try not to hit mailboxes.

Now, if there are more pedestrians on the sidewalk, the risk depends on how many, how far apart and their speed of approach. It might not be possible to avoid all of them and still keep my passenger safe. If I have to choose between an executive carrying a briefcase and a matron carrying a baby, the woman has a higher priority rating; I would hit the man. A couple with a child, that’s three people, just like the three young men, only more valuable, so I’d spare them and hit the drunks instead.

Three old people, on the other hand, are worth less than three young people, even if they’re sober, unless one or more has a socially significant occupation. How can you tell a neurosurgeon from a loan shark? A pregnant woman takes precedence over a flat woman of the same age, but not a child under 12... Or is it a child under 6?

Oh, crap, I’ll never get the hang of my new ethical subroutines!

Copyright © 2016 by Vera Mont

Synthetic Minds, by Richard Ong

Synthetic Minds, by Richard Ong

Home Page