Thursday, August 19, 2010

Not so fast!

This past Sunday eight people were killed and more than a dozen injured at an off-road race in California’s Mojave Desert. One of the competing trucks crested a hill, became airborne and lost control, then rolled into the crowd. Definitely a tragic Sunday for all involved. So, who’s to blame?

Let me be clear, I’m not asking, “Who’s to pay?” Lawyers will have a field day with this one, and damage awards will easily be in the tens of millions. Our tort system of legal liability dilutes our sense of personal responsibility, replaces it with a culture of victimization, and fuels blame for tragic incidents like this. Most likely those with the deepest pockets will pay, because that is the system of laws we have developed. But who is really responsible for the deaths and injuries?

The main players are: (1) The Bureau of Land Management who approved the race on federal property, (2) Mojave Desert Racing, who organized the event, and signed an agreement that they’d be “responsible for the safety of participants and spectators,” (3) Brett Sloppy, the driver, whose racing rules included “slowing to 15 mph when passing within 50 feet of any social group,” and (4) the hundreds of spectators, who ignored the 100-foot safety setbacks and stood within touching distance of the racing vehicles.

Watching the amateur video of the crash reveals this was a senseless tragedy. There was no evil terrorist intending to kill and maim people. Just typical human craziness. Off-road vehicles bouncing across desert terrain at high speed, combined with crowds pressing into the race course, seems like a recipe for disaster.

Seeing this, the event organizer likely sensed the risks. Calling off the race would have been the smart move. Why wasn’t it called? At the moment, that would not have been an easy decision. The promoter would have incurred the wrath of the racers, the spectators, and any live television coverage. And he would likely have faced personal financial losses in the six-figure range. Moreover, this type of situation had been occurring at many off-road races and had squeaked by without incident. Poor judgment – definitely. Contributory responsibility - certainly. But somewhat understandable.

The driver certainly knew that loss of control is common in such races. Why did he continue to push the limit when crowds were lined on both sides of his path? In the heat of competition race drivers tend to focus on one thing – winning. Slow down, even for a moment and you become the loser. Besides, other vehicles had passed through here in front of him. Poor judgment and contributory responsibility – definitely. But also understandable.

I really have to wonder, though, about the hundreds of spectators who willingly walked past the safety barriers and stood arm’s length from 2-ton chunks of iron hurtling past in uncontrollable conditions. Aren’t they ultimately responsible for their own demise? The lawyers seeking damages will portray these people as innocent victims. But if one ignores all sense of self-preservation is he still innocent? Doesn’t putting oneself into clear and present danger mean taking responsibility for the possible outcome? Certainly there was mob mentality at play: “Everyone else is doing it.” And I’m sure the adrenaline rush was extreme. But it seems that the spectators demonstrated no judgment at all, had the most immediate control over their own fate, and thus are ultimately responsible for the tragedy.

The Bureau of Land Management announced yesterday it would no longer permit this race in the future. In a world where we increasingly need to guard ourselves against liability for the dumb actions of others their decision is understandable.

If you take to the streets in the annual running of the bulls should you expect to blame the event organizers when you are gored by a bull? I suppose sooner or later that tradition will be eliminated as well. At one time or another we all seek thrills. And once in awhile we all do dumb things. Too bad we just can’t accept the outcome when it happens. I guess the option is to live in a totally padded, protected, and monitored world where all risks are systemically eliminated.

1 comment:

  1. I agree that it's a tragedy but I believe the blame is that of the spectators. If you watch any type of motor sports, even that with good guard rails, accidents happen, people are hurt and killed each year at NASCAR, INDY and Rally events.

    One other tragedy is the loss of income each year for the local businesses, reduction in sales tax income, hotel tax income and so fall the dominoes. All due to an accident, our screwed up lack of liability regulation and "get rid of it to fix it" attitude when something goes awry.