a cultural problem where we identify with the criminal
That's entirely true.
As much as we enjoy that myth about how everyone thinks they're a better driver than everyone else, the truth is that every time someone hears about someone accidentally doing something like this, they think of all the near misses they've had in the past, and realize it could have been them or someone they know that caused that accident. Maybe they tell themselves that they're a better driver than everyone else, but deep in their mind in some repressed place, they know perfectly well that they drive dangerously all the time. They just try not to think about it too much.
The simple fact is that everyone drives unsafely. Are you driving down a curvy road with thick trees at every turn such that you can't really see around them, but the speed limit is 55 MPH? ...or maybe you're driving on a hilly road where you often cannot see what is ahead until you're at the top of each hill? Well, you're going to go around those curves and over those hills as near 55 MPH as you can. Everyone does. Everyone knows that they can't see what's around that curve or over that hill, but kind of justifies it with "if someone is stopped in the road, it's their fault anyway" or "I've never hit anyone before" or "everyone else does it too" or "no, I'm pretty sure I'd see them in time to stop, otherwise there would be a law against what I'm doing." The alternative is that they drive 30 in a 55, taking longer to arrive at their destination, and dealing with drivers behind them following too closely the whole way.
If there's one place where people give way to peer pressure, it's when road conditions require driving at less than the posted speed limit but the drivers behind them want them to go faster. Hell, Slashdot is full of people insisting that they must drive over the speed limit on the interstate because everyone else is doing it and so it would be unsafe not to. I do it all the fucking time and there is nothing unsafe about it. Indeed, if cars want to pass me at all, they must do so at about 10 MPH faster than I am traveling otherwise it's going to take them an eternity to do so and they'll have a dozen cars tailgating them in the passing lane waiting for them to get around me. People are really bothered by all of those cars following too closely that they see in their rear view mirror and so it provides a lot of peer pressure. So they come up with some justification to drive faster, like "it would be unsafe not to" and then they do so, never mind that it's actually everyone who is tailgating them who is driving unsafely. The relief of avoiding all of that peer pressure makes them feel better, and so the believe that what they've chosen to do is better.
I'd say that peer pressure is behind much of the cell phone use while driving as well. A lot of people will not only send text messages and expect an immediate response, but they will also send messages to the effect of "Hello?!?!" if you fail to respond to their messages in a timely manner, which puts a lot of pressure on people to at least read texts as soon as they are received. Something similar is likely behind the difference between talking on a cell phone and talking to a passenger, in that a passenger isn't so demanding of a response, whereas if you stop talking for ten seconds on a cell phone, you have the person you're talking to saying "hello?!" repeatedly as they think their phone dropped the call, and so you're under pressure to respond quickly. A passenger in a car knows that you're preoccupied for good reason and so they aren't going to pressure you the same way.
And of course, the #1 peer pressure is "don't be late for work," though some might argue with me about whether their employer is a peer. The simple fact is that travel time can be variable, and so with an inflexible arrival time for work, people are forced to choose between arriving at work early and standing around doing nothing, or trying to arrive just in time and driving a little unsafely in the event that their estimation puts them a little behind. So they see a bicyclist ahead, and they really don't want to slow down because they don't want to have to listen to "you're two minutes late" from their boss, so rather than wait until it is safe to pass, they just split lanes with the bicyclist and the oncoming traffic, passing within a foot of each, because they see that they can just barely squeeze in there and the pressure on them to not slow down is too great to resist.
So, yeah, when people hear about someone being involved in an accident where they kill a bicyclist or a pedestrian, they have a lot of sympathy for the driver, because they know that every day they do things that could potentially put them in exactly the same situation, and they know that their spouse, their parents, and their kids, all likely do the same thing, and the idea that they might send any of them to prison for ten years as a result is just too hard to think about. So they declare it an unavoidable accident and continue to drive as they always have, because all of that peer pressure is just too hard to resist.