The lack of justice in cases of automobile violence has long gone unnoticed, but a recent case has finally provoked widespread outrage. 16-year-old Ethan Couch got loaded, got into a car, killed four people, and got off with a slap on the wrist. This injustice is infuriating but far from surprising to those of us in the transpo-blogging community. This sort of story occurs on an all-too-regular basis throughout the United States.
Unfortunately, the Internet has latched on not to the broad theme of automobile violence flying under the radar of our justice system, but to a single word spoken by a psychologist testifying for the defense: affluenza. The story, as told by outraged commentators such as my tweep John Aziz for The Week, is that Couch got off easy because he was rich. While I don’t doubt that the scales of justice can be tipped by money, that’s not the story that fits both the facts of this case and the broader societal context. Sure, a rich white kid got a slap on the wrist for killing with a car, but that also happens to non-rich black kids! In an article for Streetsblog Chicago earlier this year, John Greenfield tells the story of another 16-year-old boy who killed with his car while under the influence and got off easy. Deandre Wolfe, however, was not a rich white kid, but a middle-class black kid. Greenfield contrasts Wolfe’s case with that of Prince Watson, a 17-year-old who was sentenced to 32 years for killing a woman by pushing her down the stairs at a CTA stop. The pattern that reveals itself is not one of rich privilege or white privilege, but of car privilege.
The story of affluenza does not even make sense on the face of it: a jury, even one selected from a relatively affluent community, is not going to identify with an irresponsible, spoiled brat. Even those who have contracted affluenza do not tend to think of themselves in those terms. Just about everybody in this country, however, is a driver, and hardly anybody is ashamed of it. A jury composed of drivers is more than capable of empathizing with somebody who, while driving, happened to hit a few of those pesky pedestrians. The fact that Couch was drunk is almost incidental. Indeed, drivers who aren’t drunk and stay at the scene are rarely even accused of wrongdoing; many are allowed to drive away scot-free in the very weapon they killed with.
Ethan Couch did not go free because he had affluenza. He went free because of a more insidious societal illness: autoimmune disease.