Streetsblog reader Karen Lynn Allen sent this satirical musing on the physics of road murder about a week ago. Given the recent crash in Michigan that killed five cyclists on a group ride, it seems like an appropriate time to run it. Sometimes we need some dark, quirky slapstick in this asphalt asylum known as the USA.
Let’s say, hypothetically, you had a hankering to kill someone. And let’s say, hypothetically, you had to choose between an SUV, a bicycle, and an NFL linebacker to do the job. Which one is best? Let’s examine the efficacy and the risks—physical, legal, and financial–of each one.
First off, efficacy. This is going to depend on the intended victim, his or her frailty, and mode of travel. If this person spends all his/her time encased in vehicle steel, neither a bicycle nor an NFL linebacker is going to do you much good. Neither has the mass to kill anyone inside a car except through sheer luck. By t-boning at high speed, an SUV might be able to take out someone in a Mini Cooper or Yaris, but if your intended victim drives an SUV, you might need a dump truck.
If your victim walks or bikes, that’s another matter. In an SUV, it’s easy to nail these suckers because basic physics is totally on your side. The average SUV weighs 5,000 lbs! It can reach speeds of 30 mph in seconds! It requires almost no strength or physical prowess! You can be 85 years old, nearly blind, hardly able to walk, and with an SUV still squish someone like a bug, no problemo. Plus an SUV has a good five feet of width with which to clobber your target, reducing the need for accurate aim. Its only drawback is that its noise might warn your victim, but you can use the din of traffic to mask your approach, and if you’re going fast enough, there’ll be no time to jump or steer out of the way anyway. Helpful hint: intersections are prime spots for picking off pedestrians and bicyclists. When you see your intended victim in a crosswalk or pedaling right where you can make a turn, just press pedal to the metal, and the impact will likely result in severe blunt force trauma that will kill rather than just injure. This is true whether your victim is frail or fit. It’s nearly a sure thing.
Now your average linebacker is 240 lbs, three feet wide, can accelerate like a demon, and reaches top speeds of 20 mph. Mowing down a pedestrian or bicyclist will be a piece of cake for him. Even so, the collision isn’t likely to cause enough blunt force trauma to kill unless the victim is very young or very old (the fragile body club.) If you’re lucky, when knocked down your victim might strike his/her head on the pavement and pop off that way. But the pedestrian or bicyclist might also only wind up with a concussion, cracked rib, or a broken arm, so no guarantees.
Bicycles, weighing only 30 lbs or so (plus your body weight), don’t have much mass, and, let’s face it, their ability to accelerate from a dead stop is pathetic. So you’ll need speed. To really mow someone down with a bicycle, you’ll need to be going at least 25 mph, and this is not easy to do unless you’re whizzing down a hill or you’re physically quite fit. It certainly isn’t possible within 30 yards of a stop, so your timing becomes tricky. Plus, bicycles are only about eighteen inches wide. To hit your victim, you’ll have to start from a distance, pick up hella speed, have excellent aim, and also be blessed with some luck, since your victim could easily, even at the last moment, move out of the way. (Hitting another bicyclist is even trickier but possible.) As much as you might wish your victim would step into the bike lane from between two parked cars just at the moment you’re barreling along, you can’t count on this happening. The only thing you really have going for you is a quiet approach. As with the linebacker, if your victim isn’t very young or old, even with a dead-on hit he/she may not die but rather just end up with a cracked bone or two, putting all your effort to naught.
Now for risks. Physically, in an SUV you’re sitting pretty. Maybe your airbag will deploy, but rest assured you personally will come out of a collision with a bicyclist or pedestrian just fine. If you go after someone inside a car, well, that’s chancier; your odds are better if your vehicle has at least twice the mass of the other.
Using a linebacker to mow down your victim probably won’t hurt him, and it certainly won’t hurt you, unless you neglect to pay him, and he comes to beat the daylights out of you.
On a bike, however, if you take out a pedestrian or another bicyclist, you’re likely to injure yourself severely enough to require an emergency room visit, if not worse. Even more concerning is once you collide with your victim, go flying, and slam pavement, you’ll be at risk for some car running over you. So using a bicycle to kill, besides being relatively ineffective, is a dicey proposition physically.
Let’s look at legalities. Of course all of these methods are illegal, not to mention immoral, but let’s set that aside for now and focus on their differences in terms of avoiding legal consequences. It’s hard to guess the outcome of hiring a linebacker hitman. Being speedy, the linebacker might be able to hit and run without a trace. If caught, he might claim temporary insanity, or that he slipped. If pressed, however, he could strike a deal ratting you out in exchange for a reduced sentence for himself. That would be bad for you.
Legally, killing someone while riding a bicycle is a disaster. You can’t do a hit-and-run since the collision will leave you splayed on the street chewing asphalt. You will be caught. If your victim is a pedestrian, you’ll do time in the big house even if you claim you didn’t see him/her. (If your victim is another bicyclist, you might get off with a slap on the wrist.) You will be vilified in the press; the judge and the jury, who distrust/dislike/detest bicyclists, will find you guilty of multiple heinous crimes and impose the maximum sentence. Major bummer.
In a car, if your victim is a pedestrian or cyclist, you could hit and run, as is quite popular in the United States, but the better option is to stay and cooperate with the police. As long as you’re not legally drunk, there will be no consequences! You just say, “Oops, I didn’t see the victim,” or, “Oops, I confused the brake with the accelerator,” and it will be called an unfortunate accident. You won’t even be charged with a crime. Now, you probably couldn’t do this repeatedly, but you might get away with as many as two killings this way. After all, in the U.S., 35,000 people die a year in car “accidents,” a rate nearly triple that of non-suicide gun fatalities, but it’s the gun deaths that get the attention. Death by car, in contrast, has become a normal, if unfortunate, part of modern life that no one questions much at all.
Lastly, let’s examine the finances of each method. The linebacker is not going to come cheap. Even bad NFL linebackers make over $400K, so you’ll have to pony up a minimum of $20-30K to make it worth his while.
A bike is the least expensive option, but it’s not as dirt cheap as you might think. After all, you can’t use a crappy bike because you’ll never get up enough speed on it. Plan on at least a $1000 bike and six to nine months of fitness training before your intended hit. Then you’ll have to spend additional funds on your own recovery, and depending on how bad your injuries and how good your insurance, that could run into quite a lot of dough.
A new SUV can cost anywhere from $30-$80K, but here’s the trick—you can just use the one you currently have (or borrow someone else’s.) Yes, your hood or grill might get dented, or your windshield might get cracked, but it’ll probably end up costing less than a couple thousand to repair, which is not much more than a really good bike. And here’s another tip: you don’t actually need an SUV. Mowing down pedestrians and bicyclists can be done with a wimpy Prius or a midget Smart Car. Any vehicle with an engine and a couple thousand pounds of steel is an effective killing machine, without legal consequences or physical risk to yourself. If you’ve got any kind of car, then congrats. Your hypothetical homicide is as good as done.