Whether it be in the realm of religion, culture, climate, race, politics or justice there has been a marked increase in the emotional content of society’s judgment.  Whether it is the internet that is causing this polarization and radicalization or some unknown accelerant, it is readily visible in any recent, public communication.

This observation is no different in the realm of roadway collision investigation and safety analysis. Where we could count on cooler heads to prevail, judgment of basic incidents seems to take a heated twist. A case in point is a recent incident involving another vehicle fire that occurred in a Mississauga, Ontario parking lot. Peel Regional Police attempted to make light of the result that a driver was observed doing “donuts” in the parking lot, and subsequently the vehicle caught fire. The driver apparently escaped and fled the scene. The phrase used in the Peel police Twitter posting indicated the words “We highly recommend you ‘donut’ try this’. – Sorry. I couldn’t resist”. We believe humour is good for the soul so minimal harm done. However, the potential consequences were not humorous. While there was obvious anger simmering toward the driver under the writings of many social media posts, this also clouded the reality that the fire was of suspicious origin.

It may be amusing, and most would like to seek vengeance upon the “donut driver” of this burned out car, but the smoke of emotion has clouded our reasoning.

We have all seen the burn outs of a hot summer night when young men demonstrate their immaturity by performing high accelerations and various spin outs before police arrive. That has been happening since our grand-father’s days. And it is not likely to change in basic format. High acceleration causes high tire and brake friction which causes heat and then fire. A simple recipe, so why bother complicating it? But on snow-covered surfaces that high friction is likely to be much less than in summer. And high heat from brake system applications is also suspect when there is little resistance to lock-up the wheels. Yes, some of the result may be due to the foolishness of the driver. But there is more to this.

Many vehicles have been observed to catch fire on our roads without much concern or investigation. Many of these fires have occurred under questionable circumstances. When such fires occur after an impact there is little or no concern expressed by either police or news media. The fire is just something that is mentioned in passing, if at all.  Yet there have been the occasional fires where occupants have been trapped and perished in the worst way, not related to the impact, but due to the fire. No one wants to discuss these results because it is claimed that it might upset the family and friends of the deceased. And so we move on to the next fire and the next potential fatality.

What appears to exist in the minds of those examining this story about the ‘donut driver’ is that somehow we believe he (or she) would deserve to be burned alive because they were stupid enough to perform donuts in a parking lot. It was noted that only a few days earlier a number of drivers had closed down a major highway in Toronto in order to perform those donuts and then escaped without detection. This irritated both police and many in the general public. So now there is a resultant lashing out at anyone alleged to perform similar acts. No longer do we wish to conduct an objective investigation as to how this fire started. What is vastly more important is that we find this guy (or girl).

We must recognize the importance of keeping our emotions in check and understanding how emotion can cloud our objective reasoning. We do not need to look very far back in our collective history to recognize the disasters that have erupted when we allow hysteria/contagion to cloud our reasoning. When we read the inflammatory social media posts of others, and participate in them, we must become educated about what that is doing to us and how it is changing and controlling us, often not for the better.