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Driving Crazy

There has been discussion on a Polish news site about an extreme case of reckless driving. The discussion is not about the driver – his culpability and stupidity are in no doubt – rather, the discussion is about whether the passengers in the car should be punished in some way for the role they played; their role not only in failing to calm the driver and his driving, but most importantly in their active and enthusiastic encouragement of him and it.

The video of the drive, taken from within the car and uploaded to YouTube, shows five and a half minutes of speeding through red lights, overtaking despite oncoming traffic, using the curb as a ramp to ‘get air’ and, most disturbingly, only narrowly missing a pedestrian crossing the road. All this is accompanied by encouraging whoops and shouts and exclamations of “Karol, you are my God!” (Karol is the driver.) The passengers clearly want – and ask – Karol to take more and more risks.

The author of the piece finds it astounding that the passengers had no fear for their own safety, but the main question he raises is whether they too should be punished for their role in encouraging and exciting the driver. The author draws an analogy with the punishment of those who encourage or assist in the commission of serious offences (for the UK legislation on encouraging and assisting, see The Serious Crime Act 2007).

 Roughly translated:

“In the case of burglary, the penalty is not only given to the burglar, but also to those who devise the plan and those who are on the lookout. Would it not be worthwhile, therefore, to consider the introduction of co-responsibility of passengers of crazy drivers, as they can frequently play the role of instigator? It is very likely that Karol, without his loudly admiring buddies, drives a lot calmer.”

Watch the video (towards the bottom of the page) and see if you share the author’s intuition.

How would we justify sanctions for the passengers?

Luckily for me, readers of Practical Ethics have recently been reminded by Roger Crisp of the two main sources of justification for punishment. Justifications from desert stem from the idea that the offender deserves censure for what she did, communicated to her by punishment in proportion to the seriousness of her offence – a function of the harm she caused or risked and the degree of her culpability. Consequentialist justifications look forwards to the consequences of punishment – deterrence; protection of the public; rehabilitation of the offender – and justify punishment on the grounds that the benefits to society of these consequences outweigh the penal costs.

The Polish author’s reference to the co-responsibility of the passengers suggests a desert-based justification for punishment: the passengers are partly to blame for what happened. Indeed, the author even suggests that the episode would not have happened without their encouragement: they drove Karol to it.

Of course this is an empirical claim: we don’t actually know that Karol would never drive like this by himself. Further, it could be argued that regardless of the effect of the passengers’ goading, Karol was the one who had control of the car and he should not have been so susceptible to peer pressure (the teacher’s favourite: “If they told you to jump of a cliff, would you?”). The analogy with assisting burglary is interesting. We might imagine that a particular burglary would not have been possible without the deviser or the lookout. Karol’s reckless driving, in comparison, would certainly have been possible without encouragement, but may have been less likely. The question for desert theorists would be whether the passengers were somehow instrumental in the reckless driving, even though they themselves did not have their feet on the pedals. Intuitively, there seems an important difference between the burglar who would not have been able to commit the burglary without his planning mastermind, and Karol who made the choice to drive in a way that kept the adoration coming. Justifying punishment for inchoate offences is notoriously difficult for desert theorists.

Not dependant on the necessity of the encouragement, a consequentialist justification for punishing the passengers might be that their excitement and disregard for the safety of those they almost ran over shows that they themselves may be likely to take such extreme risks when driving. Desert theorists could not avail themselves of this argument because the passengers haven’t yet driven recklessly (as far as we know) and, from a desert perspective, we cannot punish people for something they haven’t done. The consequentialist argument would be that the passengers should be given points on their licenses or even have them revoked, with a view to deterring reckless driving and protecting the public. In the spirit of rehabilitation, we might imagine them sentenced to a compulsory course vividly displaying the consequences of dangerous driving.

Testing intuitions

However, sanctions such as these could only be imposed on passengers who drive, so intuitions about the underlying justifications for sanctions can be tested: if you think the passengers should face some repercussions even if they do not drive then your intuition must be based on a notion of desert and, as such, will have to face the objection that the passengers’ roles as adoring onlookers were only incidental to Karol’s reckless performance.


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1 Comment on this post

  1. My immediate reflection on this question is that both desert and consequentialist approaches seem to be compatible here, on the side of censure.

    Not because in this particular case we can accurately second-guess what would have happened if Karol’s friends didn’t whoop with joy when he threatened others’ safety, but because we may (equally uncertainly) second-guess the impact on a society’s members if they did not use censure to uphold a set of boundaries of morally unacceptable behaviour which include censuring goading, cheering and glamorising people who threaten others’ safety. A consequentialist can surely also argue that the consequences of giving immunity to people advocating dangerous behaviour will be likely to promote worse consequences both for innocent people who are endangered by those who are successfully goaded, and for the welfare of those who are goaded and therefore may find their own lives wrecked when they are caught and punished. Other consequentialists may argue that blaming the perpetrator alone would strengthen general awareness of personal responsibility to avoid being manipulated. An empirical question, difficult to settle.

    Where it gets murkier for me is in asking who interprets whether an act qualifies for censure and how. In this case it may be intuitively obvious to most members of that society that the passengers in the car fully supported Karol’s actions, but sometimes there may be more subcultural differences or more ambiguous gestures which can be interpreted as worthy of censure or just as easily as not being supportive of endangering others. And such judgments themselves can be systematically unfair. I think this is what makes such laws more difficult to agree on. The intition I have – again from both a consequentialist and desert-based perspective – is that the danger of unpopular groups being targeted by more dominant groups by curtailments of free expression mean the general implementation of such laws would threaten to undermine both desert-based and consequentialist principles. Another empirical question, but much easier to research through examining real-world examples.

    On the other hand, stronger laws to protect such vulnerable minorities offer some degree of protection or compensation (eg hate crime laws), but there seems to me to be a limit to how much good laws can make up for culturally-mediated negative power dynamics. But this is how I would frame the larger question – can Polish society frame and implement such a law fairly: so it really does censure only those who deserve to be censured and/or it really does not result in worse consequences for vulnerable groups in that society? Maybe it can, maybe it can’t. Another empirical question!

    From your perspective, Hannah, I guess I am exposing my intuitions: as someone still ambivalent between desert and consequentialist principles.

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