Two stories have been floating around in my head in the past 24 hours, the cognitive dissonance so deafening it’s hard to think about anything else. One is the news that Mayor Jenny Durkan has purchased five trucks and funded a program to more quickly respond to and clear the scenes of traffic collisions. The other is a powerful story Owen Pickford wrote at The Urbanist about a devastating moment 17 years ago when he was riding in the backseat of a friend’s station wagon. They collided with a box truck while making a left turn.
The feeling of autumn compounds the mood I get from this memory–its fuzzy edges and vivid snippets. There was yelling just before we were hit. Afterwards, I think my door wouldn’t open and I slid across the backseat, exiting on the driver’s side. I saw a friend on his phone. I laid down on the ground.
I’m unsure how long it took for the paramedics to arrive. They asked if I was hurt and I said I couldn’t breathe. There was an ambulance ride. Then at some point, my mom was standing next to my bed. She told me that one of my friends had died and I remember crying.
My friend, who was killed, sat in the front seat directly ahead of me. He was a few fractions of a second further, directly in the path of the oncoming vehicle. I had broken ribs, a partially collapsed lung, a lacerated liver, and internal bleeding.
Owen, Executive Director of The Urbanist, shared his powerful story this week. Everyone should read it in full.
The pain, both physical and emotional, that Owen has endured and continues to endure due to this one traffic collision is immense. Yet his friend was only one out of the 42,196 people who died in U.S. traffic collisions that year. And Owen was only one of hundreds of thousands of people who were seriously injured that year, and one of millions who had a friend or family member killed or seriously injured.
One year later, a childhood friend of mine died along side his friend in a car crash in the suburbs of St. Louis. Losing Ryan and Greg devastated the community. But they were just two of the 43,005 people killed on U.S. streets that year.
Between 32,000 and 44,000 people have died every year since. From Owen:
All of the 35,000 deaths each year in our streets include painful personal stories like the one I’ve recounted. These deaths are not accidents. Traffic violence is caused by public policy. It’s the result of our collective decisions about street design, speed limits, and land use. We know how to minimize crashes but we fail to care.
After a day of thinking about Owen’s story and feeling oddly uneasy about Seattle’s new Incident Response Team, I think I’ve figured out why. It’s because these trucks and the SDOT crew members operating them are going to be tasked with showing up to terrible scenes of death, injury and heartbreak to scrape the debris and remains of shattered lives off the pavement more quickly so that people driving in traffic are not inconvenienced by the devastating reality of our car-centric transportation system.
The press release for the team celebrates that they will be “helping to promptly remove debris in the street; move vehicles out of the traffic lane following a crash; assist stranded motorists; respond to traffic signal issues and fallen critical signs; and provide emergency traffic control during incidents.” Being able to respond better to collisions is not a bad idea. But the press release leaves out the part where crews have to spread out kitty litter to soak up the thick mixture of leaking motor oil and a community member’s blood.
This is a very troubling image to think about, which is why our society does all it can to hide it. We’re even celebrating the creation of a new program to clean this up faster.
But hiding it doesn’t make it go away.
While the city is investing in this new response team, the Mayor is delaying safe streets projects that could prevent fatal and serious injury collisions in the first place. Ride the Ducks is still operating on our streets and in Lake Union. We are still designing neighborhood streets that have multiple lanes in each direction despite our city’s extensively-documented success at reducing serious collisions through road diet and bike lane projects. We are still programming traffic signals to skip their walk phases and using high-tech “adaptive signals” to steal even more time from people walking so drive times can be barely shorter.
Why take political heat from neighbors who get angry about road safety changes when we can just send a truck out to clear the crash debris instead?