THE 'TROLLEY PROBLEM.’ Do you know it? There are several versions of this ethical paradox, but they usually involve asking us to imagine ourselves at a switch, which will divert the path of a runaway street car. Doing nothing allows the trolley to run over five workers making track repairs (Sometimes they are five people tied up on the tracks, silent movie villain style). Activating the switch diverts the trolley onto a side track, where only one person is in its path.
The Trolley Problem forces us to consider if the needs of the many do indeed outweigh those of the few, as Mr. Spock famously said, and also the difference between passive and active killing.
Some versions add another option: Push an innocent bystander onto the tracks to stop the trolley.
Last Tuesday I heard the Trolley Problem mentioned by two different people in less than an hour. Both evocations were offered in discussions of car crashes.
The first time was by Stephen G. Lowry, an attorney who specializes in product liability, during his presentation on autonomous vehicles at the Metropolitan Savannah Rotary Club. Lowry described the complexity of the algorithms that govern the behavior of self-driving cars.
For instance, if swerving to avoid a child running into the street might cause an autonomous vehicle to crash into the side of a tunnel, potentially killing its passengers, what should it do?
Less than an hour later I came across the second mention of the Trolley Problem, in a tweet from Harvey Miller, a professor at Ohio State University:
“People think the ‘Trolley Problem’ is only an abstract philosopher’s riddle. But if you buy a monster SUV or truck you are choosing protection at the expense of other peoples’ lives.”
He linked to a 2015 story in the National Post, “Big cars kill: ‘Monster’ vehicles may make Canadians feel safer, but they’re more likely to cause fatal collisions.” The story references some startling research.
For example, a University of California, San Diego study found that “every life saved in a large vehicle came at the expense of 4.3 dead pedestrians, motorcyclists and car drivers.”
And this: “In Montreal, scientists sifted through data on three million Canadian crashes and found driving an SUV instead of a car makes a driver 224 per cent more likely to cause a fatal crash.”
Last year an investigation by the Detroit Free Press revealed, “Federal safety regulators have known for years that SUVs, with their higher front-end profile, are at least twice as likely as cars to kill the walkers, joggers and children they hit, yet have done little to reduce deaths or publicize the danger.”
Some of my first driving lessons occurred behind the wheel of my grandfather’s 1967 Dodge D100 pickup. It was a challenging vehicle to operate. The clutch seemed to have two positions: in and out, with not much nuance in between. There was so much slack in the steering box, you could turn the wheel 15 degrees in either direction without altering the truck’s path.
Going the speed limit, much less speeding, felt positively reckless in the D100. My knuckles have never been whiter.
Most importantly, the truck was huge. By contemporary standards, not so much. The grill of its modern-day descendant, the Ram 1500, is at least a foot higher than the hood of my grandfather’s truck.
My grandfather’s truck was usually loaded with the tools, lumber, coffee cans full of nails, and other materials he used in rehabilitating historic buildings. While there are RAM 1500s carrying similar cargo on our streets today, many more are used for commuting to office jobs and picking the kids up from school.
The popularity of large trucks and SUVs has grown as many of us upsize in hopes of making our families safer in the event of a collision with a similarly colossal vehicle. This automotive arms race would not be possible, of course, without low fuel prices.
Some will argue that driving a big vehicle is a matter of personal choice. And that’s certainly true. However, that choice may reduce options for others.
Responding to customer preference, last year Ford announced it would stop manufacturing cars altogether — except for the Mustang — to concentrate on producing trucks and SUVs. We’ve voted with our wallets, so to speak, and the results have been tallied.
Without question, however, our appetite for big trucks and SUVs makes our streets deadlier for people who walk, people who ride bicycles and motorcycles, and even those of us who still get around by quaint vehicles called cars.