When is an “accident” not “unintentional?”

Published 2010-01-26

So I’ve been thinking a lot about the recent sentencing of Antonio Cellestine in the hit-and-run death of Gordon Patterson. Mr. Cellestine was, by his own testimony and subpoenaed cel phone records, texting at the time (and smoking a cigar). He was also driving with a suspended license, and had previously been arrested twice for driving without a license and driving without insurance. Mr. Patterson, a popular high school teacher, regular church-goer, father of three, and by all accounts swell guy, was riding his bike home in Vancouver, Washington, just across the Columbia River from Portland. Judge Roger Bennett sentenced Cellestine to 5 years in prison, with a special plea bargain to ensure that this doesn’t count as Cellestine’s “first strike” in Washington’s Three Strikes system. He also has a special dispensation for early release, meaning he’ll likely be out in two years. He’ll never be able to buy a firearm in Washington, but — and this is galling part — he’ll be eligible to renew his driver’s license a year after his release.

As a fun parenthesis, consider Cellestine’s girlfriend — a wonderful piece of work in herself — who held a carwash fundraiser for the victim’s family but may have used the money to (try to) post bail for Mr. Cellestine.

I pay pretty close attention to all the cyclist-involved collision around Portland, for reasons of self-interest as much as advocacy. But this one really struck a nerve. The discussion around this case, and its outcome, suggests a peculiar myopia in regards to the moral weight of killing someone with a car.

On Tom Vanderbilt’s How We Drive blog, Vanderbilt relays this bit of drama from the courtroom:

The text-messaging motorist who struck and killed his former high school teacher told the court: “This was not intentional. It was an accident. I’m so sorry.”

Clark County (Vancouver, Washington) Superior Court Judge Roger Bennett didn’t buy it.

“I’ve heard the term ‘accident’ used quite a bit today. But this was no accident.”

This led to an interesting discussion where famed bicycle framebuilder Dave Moulton, one of my personal cycling heroes, objected to Vanderbilt’s insistence that car crashes aren’t “accidents:”

I’m generally uncomfortable with the hijacking of language for the purpose of demonization. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, an accident is “an unexpected undesirable event,” “an unforeseen incident,” “lack of intention; chance.” Seems to me that the crash described probably fits this definition, as well as the definition of a crash (the two are NOT mutually exclusive). I have no opinion about whether or not the judge was right to convict, or whether the sentence is appropriate. I do have an opinion about the judge’s apparent lack of literacy.

I joined the dogpile on Mr. Moulton (who, I must say, has a certain point about the “intentionality” aspect of “accident”):

There’s a lot about this “accident” that was eminently foreseeable. Like Mr. Cellestine driving with a suspended license. And driving without insurance. And he had two previous convictions for driving without a license. And surely his license was suspended twice for reasons of some sort (I don’t know what) — in Washington that pretty much means repeated convictions for reckless driving, or Minor in Possession, or drug offenses. And consider that he was only 18 years old, so he had only two years in which to generate this sparkling record.


But there are more people culpable in this instance than Mr. Cellestine. This was not an “accident” on his part, because he knew the dangers of driving while severely distracted. And it was not an “accident” on the part of the State of Washington, who damn well knew he was a menace but failed to keep him off the road, and will fail to do so again in 2-5 years. So not only was Mr. Cellestine’s “accident” completely foreseeable, I’ll go one better and foresee his next potentially fatal “accident”, unless Washingtonians get their crap together, pass some tough laws and tighten up their licensing requirements.

Mr. Moulton had a rejoinder (“an event can be both an accident and negligent”)...but this seemed lacking to me. I tried to get the last word in, something I usually loathe:

It’s interesting that one seldom hears the phrase “airplane accident.”

People believe that when a plane crashes, someone is culpable — designers, flight crew, maintenance crew, traffic controllers, weather monitoring systems, terrorists, terrorist-minded security personnel, etc. This attitude — “there are no ‘plane accidents’” — has led to a situation where the most potentially dangerous form of transportation is actually the safest.

But somehow car crashes “just happen.” “It was an accident.” Y’know, just like knocking over a glass of milk.

Everything about Mr. Cellestine suggested he was a menace and incapable of safely driving a car, thus his suspended license. Simply getting behind the wheel that night was an intentionally hazardous act. That he no longer had a valid driver’s license was his signal not to drive, yet he disregarded it. Even by Mr. Moulton’s conservative definition of “accident” this was no accident.

I see Mr. Moulton’s point here — Mr. Cellestine had no intention of murdering anyone. But he committed the legal equivalent of pointing a gun in the air and pulling the trigger. This was Judge Bennett’s whole point. That bullet was gonna land somewhere, and it had the bad fortune of landing on a nice guy like Mr. Patterson.

(All of which, of course, leaves aside the “running away” part of this crime. Mr. Cellestine, upon committing a fatal crime, failed to own up to it. If that doesn’t negate the sense of “accident” as “unintentional” here, I don’t know what does.)

If government — if laws, and police, and courts — have any fundamental purpose at all in a free society, it is to protect the weak from the predations of the strong. It is to keep Swell Guys like Mr. Patterson safe from Raging Menaces like Mr. Cellestine. If Antonio Cellestine had indeed fired a gun into the air and “accidentally” killed Gordon Patterson, I doubt anyone would find fault in this logic. A Raging Menace killed a Swell Guy and deserves harsh punishment, after all that’s what laws are for, right? But somehow, when the weapon is a car, that logic gets turned off.

Mr. Cellestine might be a Swell Guy in some other fashion, but in regards to his abilities and judgement related to driving a car, he has amply demonstrated that he is indeed a Raging Menace. If stuff like “laws” and “morality” and “personal responsibility” have any meaning to our society, those meanings should be clear in this very case. That Mr. Cellestine could be back on the roads — our roads — inside of six years suggests that, in regards to cars, “laws,” and “morality” and “personal responsibility” have very little meaning.

On the bikeportland blog, I tried to express this notion a bit more pithily.

Everyone who ventures off their own property — by foot, bike, motorcycle, or car — ought to consider how easy it is for someone like Mr. Cellestine to keep getting back behind the wheel. In 2-5 years he’ll be back there again.

It's far too easy to get, keep, and regain a driver's license, and we are far too lenient on those who thumb their noses at the law and common human decency.