Noblesse Oblige and Checking One's Driving Privilege

Can the very act of driving, of experiencing that superiority of position in relation to our surroundings and to other people, lead us to be less empathetic, less careful in the moment?

By Michelle Martin
Published February 13, 2017

The concept of "noblesse oblige" began as the idea that those who hold a noble rank in society have an obligation to fulfill social responsibilities toward those who lack privilege.

It evolved over the centuries to refer more generally to the duty of anyone who is in a position of power to act responsibly, if not generously, to others. Because it is a French phrase about nobility, it may remind us, along with Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell, of "the worst excesses of the French Revolution."

Funny thing - I was reminded of the worst excesses of the French Revolution reading the letters page in The Hamilton Spectator this winter, where one writer argued that pedestrians are to blame for pedestrian fatalities:

It is those people who need more consideration of the 'tons' of plastic and metal. Pay attention, put your phone in your pocket, walk and cycle with care and wear whatever personal protection is available. Hamilton isn't dangerous, the people are. (Letter, December 16, 2016).

I'm not really sure what possible personal protection a pedestrian could wear to prevent injury when hit by two tons of glass and steel at 50 miles an hour, so we'll leave the particulars aside and instead consider the author's overall approach to the issue.

Where had I read similar sentiments expressed? Oh, yes:

"With a wild rattle and clatter, and an inhuman abandonment of consideration not easy to be understood in these days, the carriage dashed through streets and swept round corners ... At last, swooping at a street corner by a fountain, one of its wheels came to a sickening little jolt, and there was a loud cry from a number of voices, and the horses reared and plunged.

But for the latter inconvenience, the carriage probably would not have stopped; carriages were often known to drive on, and leave their wounded behind, and why not? But the frightened valet had got down in a hurry, and there were twenty hands at the horses' bridles.

"What has gone wrong?" said Monsieur, calmly looking out ...

... "Pardon, Monsieur the Marquis!" said a ragged and submissive man, "it is a child."

"Why does he make that abominable noise? Is it his child?"

"Excuse me, Monsieur the Marquis-it is a pity-yes," ...

... "Killed!" shrieked the man, in wild desperation, extending both arms at their length above his head, and staring at him. "Dead!"

The people closed round, and looked at Monsieur the Marquis ... Monsieur the Marquis ran his eyes over them all, as if they had been mere rats come out of their holes ...

... "It is extraordinary to me," said he, "that you people cannot take care of yourselves and your children. One or the other of you is forever in the way." (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities)

When we drive, our car separates us from those who either cannot or choose not to travel the same way.

I'd wager that a good number of those on the other side of our windshield are not there by choice, but because there is some barrier, financial or otherwise, preventing them from attaining either the privilege of driving, the material advantage of vehicle ownership, or both: children, students, seniors, people of limited means, and people whose medical condition or disability precludes motor vehicle operation.

When I was a young mom, with an infant and a toddler in the double stroller, a preschooler and a kindergartener by the hands, and bags of stuff to schlep, I would have preferred the luxury of an automobile some days. But we didn't have the money.

Crossing King Street East and Ottawa Street was nerve-wracking. No doubt if one of the little ones had wriggled free of my grip and ended up killed or injured by an inattentive left-turner, some of those reading about it in the Spectator the next day would have found fault with me and commented, like Monsieur the Marquis above, about my lack of care, while shaking their heads about the terrible "accident."

If you follow Twitter accounts like Vision Zero. you may know that there is a movement to stop referring to car crashes as "accidents", and to refer to the driver, rather than the inanimate vehicle, as the culprit.

Proponents of this idea object to reports, for example, that a car "jumped the curb," or that someone was killed in a drunk/careless/distracted driving "accident."

They point out that most automobile collisions are caused by some degree of fault on the part of the driver. Calling them "accidents" obfuscates this, in a misguided attempt to make everybody feel better about it, like the way Jay Gatsby looks out for Daisy's delicate feelings after she's mowed down Myrtle Wilson with his yellow roadster:

"Did you see any trouble on the road?" he asked after a minute.


He hesitated.

"Was she killed?"


"I thought so; I told Daisy I thought so. It's better that the shock should all come at once. She stood it pretty well."

He spoke as if Daisy's reaction was the only thing that mattered. (F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby)

There's a neuroimaging finding, from 2015, that a group of male drivers with a history of traffic violations showed less neurological activity in the sections of the brain associated with empathy than another group with no such history.

But can the very act of driving, of experiencing that superiority of position in relation to our surroundings and to other people, lead us to be less empathetic, less careful in the moment?

I know that I sometimes have to make a conscious effort to be careful behind the wheel, to not run through on the yellow, to wait until a pedestrian has cleared the lane before I move forward to turn left. On a busy day, I have to be quite intentional about it: to check my driving privilege.

I don't want to let that absolute power corrupt me absolutely.

Michelle Martin lives in Hamilton. The opinions she expresses in Raise the Hammer are her own.

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By Deleted User (anonymous) | Posted February 15, 2017 at 21:48:34

Amazing article. Maybe my favorite one ever posted to RtH. I agree completely.

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