another's tragedy

i've had this thought a few times recently: in our world, one person's tragedy has become another person's inconvenience.

i first came to this realisation (or, at least, expressed it to myself) while driving home from work on the freeway. there'd been an accident - this happens a lot. traffic was backed up and i knew it'd be a long trip home. this time i was actually passed by the fire engine going to attend the scene.

as i crawled past the accident i saw the wrecked cars and shocked faces of the people involved. everyone out of their cars, thankfully. it's bad when they don't leave the car. this time i think nobody was hurt.

as soon as you get past the accident, it's a clear road and you see how people react. some floor it, racing back up to 100km/h hard as they can go. others crawl along at about 60 for a while. it seems some people find themselves considering mortality, while it doesn't so much as enter another's mind.

but what's terrible is that i've probably already passed an accident that resulted in death; and not known it. to me it was an inconvenience, an annoyance, a petty hassle added to my day... and i resent the fact that i could be so unknowingly callous.

a lot of the time, you don't even see the accident. you sit in traffic for a while; and eventually you get moving again. there are some skid marks, broken glass on the verge, maybe paint on the guard rails. some stray kitty litter on the road where they mopped up the oil. the entire thing has been nothing more than a holdup. you'll never know what happened. you just go home.

i felt the sensation again more recently. again, an accident. in the morning, this time. just around a bend; only just happened. in fact, i was lucky not to run into the few cars that had already pulled up - at 100km/h it takes a while to stop.

once i'd stopped; and other cars had started to back up around the corner (removing the threat of being rammed from behind) people started to creep forward.

i could see a small drift of smoke, or perhaps steam. then the traffic opened up and i saw what had happened. two cars, probably both written off. they'd slammed into opposite sides of the three-lane freeway (and probably hit each other as well); on a part which happened to be a concrete-sided bridge. one car's bonnet was simply gone. i didn't see it, although some workmates who passed later said it was on the median strip.

both cars looked like they'd been chewed on and spat out. radiators broken open, bodywork mashed. glass, plastic, bodywork and metal debris all over the road. steam rising out of the radiators. stunned looking drivers moving around. several other cars with no obvious damage already pulled up; people checking in the cars for passengers.

i thought at first that the whole road was blocked, but then someone ahead of me threaded their way between the two cars; crunching slowly over the glass and plastic on the road. there was enough room to pull through; quite a large gap between the places the two cars had come to rest. if everyone is careful, people can get through.

what can you do? i felt horribly callous. i felt like i was rubbing the poor sods noses in the fact that i was moving on. i wanted to open the window and say sorry, but it's the only way emergency vehicles are going to be able to reach you. that i'm glad they're ok but there's nothing i can possibly add to the situation by stopping.

but i had a whole line of cars behind me already. so i drove on, worrying a bit whether i'd get a flat tyre from the debris. much as i hated to think of it, the whole thing was becoming a minor inconvenience to me.

i wonder perhaps if we've simply deferred the worry - we have a society which pays people to attend these accidents; police, ambos, firies. towtrucks to take it all away and road crews to clean up the mess. we are unable to care for each and every other person we pass every day; so we have people to do for us, people who can in fact do a far better job than we could do.

i admire people who willingly take on emergency roles; make it their job to come to accident scenes and do what needs to be done. i don't think i could do it. who knows, maybe i could; but instead i make web pages.

i guess it's our way of coping. we simply can't care about everyone, personally. we care about the people we know; and people we come to know. but we don't have the capacity to know and care about everyone. so we have emergency services to make sure someone cares, no matter what. as a collective group, we care.

in the end, i become just one more commuter with tinted windows, crawling past the latest accident. hoping nobody was hurt. hoping it's nobody i know. hoping it doesn't hold me up too much. hoping i don't ever truly resent the minutes it has taken in my life to get past.

hoping i haven't truly lost a part of my own humanity, just because i drive through traffic.

2004.05.25

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