All posts by Andrew Pottkotter

Teen Driver Safety Week – A Practical Interlude

Notable advocates of teen driver safety argue compellingly that teenagers drive unsafely because they lack experience. To protect teen drivers–and everyone on the road–therefore, authorities have stipulated rules intended to mitigate the effects of inexperience. In theory, deferring to these rules, rather than acting on impulse (as experienced drivers do), will make teenagers safer drivers. –Until they have experience, that is, whereupon they will supposedly drive safely anyway.

Of course, we would never discourage teen drivers from following the rules, nor dissuade parents from insisting on them before handing their teenaged children the keys. They are good rules, absolutely, based on experts’ sound assessments of empirical fact. Nonetheless, we would suggest that the rhetoric of “inexperience” oversimplifies the situation in a potentially counterproductive manner. Namely, it undermines parents’ ability to communicate the rules’ value to their teenaged children–which parents should want to do, since internalizing that value would enable their teenaged children deftly to intuit serious dangers on the road. That’s how one develops wisdom, after all: by intuition. And, wisdom is what teen drivers really need. That’s what experience is for; it’s simply a reliable (and intersubjective) means to wisdom.

Sympathy, then, is the key to effective communication–authentic sympathy–which oversimplification precludes. But, how do we sympathize with teenagers, if we suppose them to lack experience, the only ground on which separate subjectivities can possibly meet? Consider the following: Teenagers are actually quite experienced–only that their experience is not conducive to safe driving. One must study the experience they have (not the experience they could or should have) in order to sympathize authentically.

Qualities of fiction color teenagers’ experience, which, therefore, wrongly (or impractically) conditions their expectations. Rather than pertaining to what we might naively call “reality,” the experience they have pertains to a construct, which we expediently call the “teenage aesthetic.” In lieu of practical schemata whereby to interpret sensory information, nevertheless determined to act with purpose, teenagers act to realize an ideal of beauty according to this aesthetic.

They expect certain performances to issue in certain tropical narrative patterns. They expect structure in life, but structure aligned with convention, not causality. For example, driving fast characterizes a boy as a rebel. Naturally, being a character of that type affords him to seduce a particular girl. Even when the girl isn’t watching him drive, yet he must drive fast–indeed, he must be a character of that type in order to live the dramatic arc conventionally associated therewith. He must act out his role, as if begging the applause of some all-seeing, if tasteless, deity.

As an experienced driver, no doubt, you put away such fantastic notions long ago. Remember, though, that the teenage aesthetic really does affect teenagers’ behavior. They actually believe life unfolds (or should unfold) by the logic of poetry. And, if you think about it, that belief isn’t so strange: before the advent of science, the generality of mankind believed similarly.

You don’t have to be a teenager to know something about the teenage aesthetic–and, most important, to predict how it will condition a teenager’s expectations. Watch The Wonder Years or read something by S.E. Hinton and you will get a fairly good conception of it. Ask yourself, “What would someone who sees beauty herein believe he should do to realize that ideal himself?”

Above all, though, the next time you tell your teenaged children to “drive safely,” consider why they might drive unsafely to start with, and understand that it’s not just a matter of inexperience; rather, it’s a matter of aesthetics. Sympathize: Try to work traffic safety into the framework of the drama in which they believe they are acting. Make traffic safety a thing of beauty. If they perceive traffic safety as beautiful, they will accept it in principle; if they accept it in principle, they will value it; if they value it, they will follow the rules; and, if they follow the rules, they will stay safe.

Our Traffic Safety Community – At Home in Safety City

Safety City Entrance

These words will reach few ears. —But you hear them, because you and I share in community life.

Communities gather about ideas. Before we ever met, something about traffic safety attracted us. Individually, we valued the idea. Then, our values inspired us: we resolved to interact. The idea brought us together. Now, it impels us toward richer interactions, for which reason we say our community, the Vision Zero community, lives.

Community life—fragile—is perpetuated, but with difficulty. Surviving requires sustaining the idea that brought us together. Like a neglected egg, that idea’s vital goop could easily dry up, leaving only a hollow shell. Hollow ideas inspire no one. And, about hollow ideas, one never finds community life thriving.

Of course, to abandon traffic safety, forsake our community—unthinkable! Too many lives are at stake. Traffic safety is too valuable. As a hen tends her egg, therefore, to preserve the idea’s substance is our duty. We must ensure that traffic safety can be valued—that, for a long while yet, people will consider it, advocate it, glorify it. Only if the idea is sustained will the Vision Zero community live on.

If we fulfill our duty, the phrase “traffic safety” will mean more than the words that constitute it. The idea will produce real effects, real changes in people’s lives. That is our goal—but, are we doing it right? “Don’t drink and drive,” “buckle your safety belt”—do these familiar maxims sustain the idea? Was any of them the something that initially attracted you?

If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that traffic safety, as it sits before us in its nest of twigs and string, needs something more—elaborate. The problem, precisely, concerns the idea’s capacity to penetrate into people’s everyday thoughts and feelings, to connect discrete experiences that, when connected, make the logic of safe driving intuitive. If “don’t drink and drive” and “buckle your safety belt” scarcely prick the surface, can we yet sharpen them?

At the North Carolina State Fair, from October 12th to the 22nd, one can find an exhibit designed with just that intent: Safety City.

Safety City is, foremost, about community. Like a city, Safety City incorporates different communities. Functioning as a sort of traffic safety hub, it facilitates new interactions. NC Vision Zero, MADD, Safe Kids, BikeSafe, BeRailSafe, Watch for Me, the Governor’s Highway Safety Program, and various law enforcement organizations all unite there, not to bore people with dry, moralizing speeches, but to demonstrate, tangibly, the meaning of traffic safety.

Put a boy in the Seat belt Convincer—he learns the meaning of prudence; give him a pair of alcohol impairment simulation goggles—he learns the meaning of temperance; show him the inside of a B.A.T. mobile—he learns the meaning of justice; call him to sign the Vision Zero pledge—he learns the meaning of fortitude. At Safety City, a boy can learn all these virtues good citizens display and—what’s most important for our goal—their relation to traffic safety.

As he grows and, eventually, learns to drive, he will connect new experiences with the ones he had at Safety City. Making those connections, he will naturally display the virtues he learned as a boy. Then, as he continues to grow, the idea will incubate in his mind. He will begin to consider it, advocate it, glorify it as we do—and, on that day, our goal will have been achieved. The Vision Zero community’s continuance will have been secured.

Sustain the idea! Come to Safety City!


Passenger Ethics: Sit By Not Idly

If you employ a chauffeur, then you’ve fairly bought the privilege to criticize his performance as harshly as you please. But, the rest of us ride gratis, so we bite our tongues. Occasionally, we witness our friends, family members, co-workers, and classmates behaving irresponsibly behind the wheel. We feel with them; no one appreciates a back-seat driver. They aren’t our chauffeurs, and we can’t very well treat them like servants, can we? To criticize an equal’s every little fault would be—indecent.

And, anyway, their errors are mostly forgivable. They pass on the right, they merge across a solid white line, they devote both hands to fiddling with their cellphones while “steering” with their knees…No, wait! Stop! That’s super-dangerous! Even riding with friends, family, members, co-workers, and classmates, situations like the latter do arise that positively demand criticism. Where is the line? It’s probably closer to everyday life than most would suppose.

Plenty of facts and statistics support passengers intervening to dissuade drivers from behaving irresponsibly behind the wheel. For example, “distracted driving” caused 3,459 deaths in 2015. Of all those who died in automobile crashes that same year, 48% were not wearing their seat belts. The truth is plain enough: If we would speak up, we’d have no lack of things to say.

None of this evidence is really relevant to the question, though, is it? We all know how dangerous distracted driving is. We all know we should wear our seat belts. We all know we should obey the rules of the road. Like smoking in the presence of a baby, the question is really one of the limits of propriety: How serious an offense should one permit before protesting? How much smoke is it worth exposing a baby to before enough is enough, and any decent person would break that silence? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) offers some good guidelines for passengers in a variety of situations and—what’s most helpful—relationships to the driver. This graphic also suggests a few polite ways passengers can encourage safer driving, as does this one aimed specifically at teenagers.

The bottom line is this, though: the limits of propriety exist not to hinder and confuse but to assist living-together. If you know something makes living-together more difficult, like behaving irresponsibly behind the wheel, is it not right and proper to speak up? Even as passengers, we have that power—and no rational system of ethics denies the exercise of power to those who would use it justly. On the contrary, all of the best ones insist on it.

NC Vision Zero aims to empower North Carolina’s passengers. You can assist in their mission—and win an enviable prize to boot—by participating in the Empowered Passenger Video Contest. For more information, look up

Empowered Passenger Contest Poster
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