On the afternoon of August 4, Nicole Linton blazed through a red light into the intersection of La Brea and Slauson in South Los Angeles. She was, by highway-patrol estimates, doing 90. After smashing into multiple cars, the Mercedes-Benz she was driving eventually crashed into a pole at a gas station and blew up. The smoke from the fireball could be seen for miles. Six people were killed, including an 11-month-old and his pregnant mother, whose 8-and-a-half-month fetus was torn from her body by the force of the collision. Linton survived with only a few broken bones. She appeared in court the following Monday in a wheelchair, an elastic bandage wrapped around her elbow, and cried several times during the hearing, where she was charged with six counts of murder.
The crash was a convergence of overlapping crises: a nurse who had spent the pandemic traveling to different states for work, the growing prevalence of speeding on U.S. streets during those two and a half years, and a correlating increase in the number of traffic deaths nationwide. But in this instance, prosecutors also said, Linton had a history of driving dangerously. They allege that she had been involved in 13 prior crashes, including one in 2020 that had totaled two vehicles and left someone injured, after which she was required to take a defensive-driving course. With this kind of record, she simply shouldn’t have been behind the wheel. So why was she?
The social contract that Americans enter into every time we use a U.S. street relies upon a system of regulation and enforcement that is, in theory, supposed to protect us from the dangerous act of driving. State motor-vehicle departments license drivers and register vehicles; federal agencies like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ensure that those vehicles are, ostensibly, safe. A web of overlapping departments, from federal to municipal, designs the streets, which are patrolled by law-enforcement officials. The requirements for getting and keeping a driver’s license vary from state to state, but the general rules are the same: Break the law too many times, and that license is taken away. In reality, however, this system is designed to fail in places that all but require the use of a car. In a lot of the U.S., you can’t work without driving, can’t make money, can’t see friends and family. Taking away that privilege, for whatever reason, can seem supremely unjust — but in a country where over 40,000 people are killed annually by cars, so is the fact that so few drivers lose that privilege at all. “So much of what is incentivized in politics and policy is rooted in our car culture,” says Josie Duffy Rice, a criminal-justice expert and writer. (Full disclosure: She is married to my New York colleague Zak Cheney-Rice.) “Our political structure is just very bad at implementing true solutions to the problems that we face, and very good at implementing consequences to the problem.” As she watched the video of the La Brea crash, prevention rather than punishment was on her mind. “How do we avoid something like that from happening? And can we? Can we totally eliminate the possibility of someone doing something like that in the future?”
During the pandemic, speeding and drunk driving — which account for two-thirds of traffic deaths — have surged, mirrored by an uptick in the number of fatal crashes. Federal data out this week shows a 7 percent increase in traffic deaths for the first quarter of 2022 over the same period last year, and a 22 percent increase over 2020. During these same two years, enforcement of dangerous driving has plummeted in major U.S. cities. In New York City, the number of dangerous-driving tickets issued by NYPD in 2022 is down by half since 2019. Even automated enforcement programs are not working as designed. The city’s plan to impound vehicles that receive five red-light or 15 speeding infractions via camera in a 12-month period has taken only five cars off the road. In San Francisco, an in-depth report out this week shows similar data trends with an even more troubling takeaway: “SFPD is ticketing San Franciscans, especially from marginalized groups, who are committing minor traffic infractions, while doing an ineffective job of enforcing the most dangerous driving behaviors on our most dangerous streets.”
If enforcement isn’t effective, what about focusing on stricter suspensions for people based on demonstrated incidents, like crash histories? Thanks to an agreement made in the 1970s, it should be easy for DMVs to share information about collisions and infractions across state lines. But those systems are out of date — some databases date to that same era — and bad drivers often slip through the cracks. Just last week, a jury acquitted Volodymyr Zhukovskyy, a truck driver with a horrifying driving record who killed seven motorcyclists in a 2019 New Hampshire crash. A federal investigation had determined that Zhukovskyy was impaired by heroin, fentanyl, and cocaine on the day of the crash, and added, “At the time of the crash, [Zhukovskyy] had a suspended license in Connecticut, which was entered into an electronic system that alerts other states and should have led the Massachusetts RMV to revoke his license.” The crash was the subject of a Boston Globe investigation and documentary that demonstrated how such simple data-tracking failures are keeping thousands of drivers on the road who shouldn’t have licenses. This piecemeal system is unlikely to improve; there is political resistance to a true federal database, similar to the fight against a federal database for firearms and their owners. And as Zhukovskyy’s acquittal demonstrates, driving is deemed so essential a privilege that even the judges and juries in dangerous-driving cases are less likely to wrest it away.
Curiously, a lot of people do lose their licenses — for reasons that have nothing to do with driving. Because the license to drive has become this country’s de facto identification card, the system is as unjust as traffic enforcement, says Miriam Pinski, an urban-planning Ph.D. and research analyst at the Shared-Use Mobility Center, who is writing a book on the history of driver licensing. Because governments have no other way to track information like court records, license revocation has become a punishment for things like failure to pay child support. “There are all these broken-windows statutes on the books that we use driver’s-license suspensions for,” she says. “We’ve shifted focus for what the DMV actually does.” Some reforms are happening. California recently reinstated licenses taken from people who had them suspended for reasons completely unassociated with dangerous driving, like a missed court date or overdue parking tickets. New York passed a law last year that no longer allows license suspension for the inability to pay a fine.
The La Brea crash that killed six people, more than just the deadly consequence of a single driver’s actions, was a product of its environment. The car lacked an in-vehicle speed governor, a simple intervention U.S. automakers could add tomorrow which would stop drivers from going over the limit. Two roads that look and function like freeways were repeatedly widened into channels of swift-moving traffic in the quest for auto-dependency. Skid marks that traced jagged circles in the street — not from the crash itself but from previous incidents of street racing — offered evidence that the intersection was already a problem. A punitive measure like revoking a driver’s license can’t keep up without preventive investments in auto manufacturing and street design, says Pinski. “We created these vehicles and built these cities that make it so easy to speed,” she says. “And now we’re punishing people for using the system we designed?” There does need to be some system in place to hold drivers who break traffic laws accountable; they are putting people’s lives at risk, she says. “But what we should really be asking for are alternatives for people so they don’t have to drive.” And even taking away someone’s license doesn’t guarantee that they won’t get behind the wheel, she adds. About three-fourths of people who lose their licenses continue to drive, often because they have to use their vehicles to get to work or school. They don’t have a choice.