Five minutes of fame

Pop quiz. What did Margaret Mitchell have in common with Olson Bean?

No, the veteran actor was not in the celebrated author’s hit movie “Gone With The Wind.” Although, being 11 when it was filmed, in 1939, Bean could well have qualified for a child extra role if he had been hanging around Hollywood.

No, being in the entertainment industry is not the most intimate thing that connects Mitchell, who died in 1949 at the age of 48 and Bean, who died on Friday, at the age of 91.

Mitchell was an early causality in the autoAmerican war on pedestrians. Bean was one of the latest. They belonged to fraternity whose members risk life and limb for the singular privilege of presuming to cross American streets on foot.

Mitchell was crossing Atlanta’s Peachtree Street when she was run over by an off-duty taxi driver. She was on her way to see a movie. She died five days later. The cab driver had been drinking and was convicted of involuntary manslaughter.

Bean, a veteran actor whose credits stretch back into the 1950s, was crossing a street in Venice, Ca., when he was clipped by one car and then fatally struck by another. Too early for any talk about charges, but we live in an age when drivers are seldom punished overly much for taking another human being’s life. These days we mostly talk about “distracted walking” and shrug it off with an “oh well, accidents happen,” and then move on.

The thing that really connects Mitchell and Bean is that they were run over while being famous, which means their deaths got the requisite five minutes of fame before we all moved on.

We know virtually nothing about most of the 6,227 pedestrians who were killed in 2018 alone. If my local newspaper is any indication, the average dead pedestrian gets about three paragraphs in the next day’s “briefs” column before being consigned to old news.

What we do know is that while traffic fatalities on the whole have been decreasing for years, pedestrian deaths jumped by 41 percent in the last decade alone and now account for 16 percent of all traffic fatalities.

“There was a 30-year decline starting in 1979 in the number of pedestrian fatalities,” Richard Retting, of the National Governor’s Highway Safety Association, told “Now, the U.S. is reaching the peak of a decade-long surge. Something’s gone terribly wrong in the last ten years.”

What’s gone terribly wrong? Cell phones. Texting. Distracted drivers. Distracted walkers. The surge in SUV and heavy pickup sales. The average driver’s need for speed. The prioritizing of fast and efficient traffic flow over public safety. The refusal of cities to design their streets for all users. Pick your favorite villain.

But let’s at least be honest about who we are and what we do.

We are a callous society, and our indifference to the wellbeing of our fellow man is never more on display than when we seat ourselves behind the wheel of our climate-controlled, gadget festooned, power packed vehicle of choice, shut the door to the outside world and press the ignition.

Yesterday on my short cycle home from downtown I had two occasions to signal for left hand turns, both times on relatively quite Gainesville residential streets. On both occasions vehicles coming up behind opted to speed up and pass me – on the left! – rather than slow down and wait for me to safely make my turn.

Either one of those cars could well have ended my life. And I have no doubt that if that had happened, the social media comments at the end of the news article reporting my death would have been of the “well, he shouldn’t have been there anyway” variety.

I ride every day. And seldom a day passes that some friend doesn’t ask “but isn’t that dangerous?” And the truth is that the world will little note nor long remember my passing if it comes at the lead foot of some entitled driver.

But every now and then somebody of note gets run down in autoAmerica. A Margaret Mitchell or an Orson Bean. And then the world sits up and takes notice.

At least for five minutes.

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