Charles Rowan, or “Karr the Magician” as he billed himself, was a self-styled magician of the early twentieth century, whose performance came to include escapology. Magicians being showmen, he—like many others—sought to add the excitement of danger to his act.
With some acts the aspect of danger is largely or wholly an illusion, but with some it is not, and Karr’s final act fell—unsurprisingly for a final act—firmly into the latter category.
Having had himself secured inside a straitjacket, Karr stood in a street lined with spectators. 200 yards away was a motor car, stationary, with the engine running. Its driver was instructed to accelerate the car to 45mph and keep going; Karr would emerge from his bindings, remove himself from the car’s path, and receive the cheers of the gathered throng.
It was, however, not to be. Whether by some mistake of calculation, an error during the act or simple foolhardy over-optimism, Karr failed to release himself in time. The car struck him at the agreed speed, killing him instantly.
Most of us would likely balk at the idea of performing Karr’s act, even if we were taught how to discard a straitjacket in adequate time. Most of us like a challenge of some sort, but few are willing to put our lives on the line should we falter in any one of myriad ways whilst we undertake it.
To elevate of the price of error or misfortune to his life was Karr’s choice: he explicitly accepted full responsibility for the consequences prior to the event.
It would be quite a different matter if he had simply performed an escapology act—an otherwise safe action—with a stated aim of completing it within a certain time, only for a passer-by to effectively set a time-bomb to go off once that period had elapsed.
Yet, despite such a decision from a third party being clearly an act of wilful and lethal endangerment in the context of an escapology act, it is an everyday occurrence.
This video is one of the most extreme examples of such endangerment. An HGV driven inches away from a man on a bicycle, such that any error or misfortune—a puncture, a slipped chain, a missed gear change, a diesel spill, a rabbit darting across the road—would, with no uncertainty, see that man crushed under the truck, with a considerable chance of death.
Here is someone who has chosen to simply undertake an otherwise safe action on the road, and someone else has unilaterally chosen to elevate the price of error or misfortune to their life.
Although extreme, it is far from the only clear example of its type. In a notorious case from 2013, defendant Helen Measures reportedly remarked, “I can’t help it if a cyclist, with all due respect, falls over as I’m approaching them.” Measures was overtaking two cyclists on a bend when she found herself approaching two more, whom she had not seen, in the oncoming lane. One of those riders, Denisa Perinova, tragically made an error (which, given that she was faced with a fast moving car approaching head-on while her partner braked sharply ahead of her, was perhaps quite understandable) and was killed when Measures’ car threw her off her bike and onto the verge.
Measures was acquitted of the charge against her, that of causing death by careless driving. (Overtaking on an unsighted bend into oncoming traffic is, by implication, not considered even by the CPS to qualify as “dangerous”, ie “far below what would be expected of a competent and careful driver”.) The jury, it seems, agreed that this death was not of Measures’ making: the error was Perinova’s.
The problem is, of course, that had Measures not overtaken in such a manner, at such a place, and continued to do so even after realising that Perinova and her partner were approaching, the price of Perinova’s error would not have been her life. (And, indeed, in this case the error would likely not even have occurred.)
Perinova’s choice was to ride a bicycle, an otherwise safe action, along a road; her choice was not that of Karr, to elevate the price of error or misfortune to her life.
That choice was made for her.
The responsibility for having put in place all but one piece of the puzzle of this fatality was not recognised by the law, because the person who put those pieces in place did not contribute the one piece that completed it.
Numerous other cases show the same thing, with varying degrees of obviousness and with various contributors to that puzzle.
When Sam Harding was struck by a car door that had been opened into his path, “he was flung under the bus that was coming after him…there was nothing the driver of the 153 bus could have done to avoid running over Mr Harding.” Except, of course, that the driver could have left sufficient space so as to be able to stop or swerve in the event of Harding being dismounted for whatever reason. No-one was found guilty of having caused Harding’s death: neither the person who caused him to be dismounted, nor the person whose proximity elevated the price of that error to Harding’s life.
When Liz Brown was overtaken by a van driver who swerved at the last minute to avoid her, she was hit by a second van which was close behind. The driver of this second van “told the jury how another van had suddenly swerved in front of him, blocking his view until it was too late.” Except, of course, that it wasn’t too late to have left room to account for the first driver’s error. No-one was found guilty of having caused Brown’s death: neither the person whose late pass concealed her from view, nor the person whose tailgating elevated the price of that error to Brown’s life.
There are more examples, of course. The victims of these elevations of the price of error are found not just on bicycles, but on foot, on horseback and indeed inside motor vehicles.
Worse, there are more examples every day. Many, many more. It’s just that most such examples go unnoticed by sheer fortune of no error or misfortune occurring.
But every close pass, every moment of tailgating, every assumption of some error not happening in the path of a fast and heavy vehicle, is the elevation of the price of that otherwise barely-consequential error or misfortune to someone’s physical welfare or even their life.
None of us would place bear traps under a child’s climbing frame while a child climbed on it, or fill a friend’s kitchen with buckets of petrol while they cooked dinner, or dig landmines into public lawns near the “please do not walk on the grass” signs. And rightly we would expect the law to hold us responsible if we did.
Yet so many are casually willing (sometimes not even casually) to use vehicles to do exactly the same thing: to elevate the price of error or misfortune, whether caused by the victim or a third party or sheer bad luck, so far that it becomes someone’s life. And the law seems not to hold us responsible if we do.
Engineering solutions to road danger recognise this most clearly: keeping heterogeneous vehicles apart minimises the chance of errors becoming fatalities. But society at large, driver education and the law all fail to acknowledge it to anything like the same degree.
The matter of who made a small error starts to look vanishingly irrelevant in situations where it is quite clear that a specific person’s actions converted that error from inconsequential to serious or fatal. And, when one starts to consider analogous scenarios, the casual ignorance or wilful rejection of this notion seems practically unique to road collisions.
It’s high time that we recognise that people shouldn’t be forced into Karr’s Choice, that we recognise when we inadvertently do this ourselves, and that we all demand the law do likewise.