Seattle’s new program will more quickly scrape the wreckage of people’s lives off our streets

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?

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14 Responses to Seattle’s new program will more quickly scrape the wreckage of people’s lives off our streets

  1. Joseph Singer says:

    It’s interesting about speed. I see vehicles every day on urban streets that are not “major” and I know that they are not going 25 MPH. I do not think the new speed limits are being enforced at all.

    • AP says:

      I bike a few streets in Seattle consistently. I don’t know if they’re 25 or 20 MPH streets but I’m usually going 18ish. There’s no way the cars passing me are passing at 20. No one enforces neighborhood speed limits.

  2. Thanks Tom – sober words. We all need to slow down a bit…..

  3. ronp says:

    I think the link to SDOT is dead, or at least it 404’s at the moment. Sort of like our current Mayor’s thinking about transportation issues in general?

    I know bike and pedestrian infrastructure is an uphill climb but recent events are really discouraging. American’s just want to sit in their cars and make no physical effort.

    Hard to reconfigure a city based on laziness and destroying the planet.

  4. mjd says:

    I think this could actually increase safety – when there are collisions and streets are blocked, the traffic implications are widespread in a city that doesn’t have any overflow buffer for auto traffic. Which just makes drivers angry, and in a hurry, which could both compound to endangering others even more.

  5. Marko says:

    Unfortunately, our Mayor still had a lot to learn about urban planning, safe traffic infrastructure, and 21st century solutions to traffic congestion and climate change.

    • Dylan says:

      Does she have any vision for the city at all? As best I can tell, she doesn’t care much at all about the city nor the people in it. She only seems to care about continuing the status quo: tax breaks for mega corporations and pushing more poor people onto the streets

  6. Tom says:

    This story is really misguided. Clearing the streets at an accident scene is a safety issue and has nothing to do with hiding anything. If someone was injured because they ran into debris left on the street then you would be harping on the fact that the city is ignoring their responsibility. You need to focus on bikers who routinely run red lights, weave in and out of traffic lanes, and use the side walk when bike lanes are available.

    • Adam K says:

      I think at issue is the question of expediency, not safety and thoroughness. If other larger safety programs were not being (indefinitely?) delayed, the launch of the this program wouldn’t have the same sense of mistaken value. Is one being traded for the other, when one is simply a reactive where others are proactive and harder to implement? Is there no political will to do what is difficult and better over the long term?

    • Andres Salomon says:

      No, the safety issue is leaving streets the way that they are despite repeated collisions, and despite knowing how to dramatically decrease those collisions. When children were being injured by sticking fingers and forks into electric outlets, the solution wasn’t to get them to the hospital faster; it was to create tamper-resistant electrical outlets (required in new homes by electrical code as of 2008, and earlier in various child-specific facilities) that made it much harder for kids to electrocute themselves. The same needs to happen with streets. We know that things like speed, lack of separated infrastructure, etc results in increased collisions, injuries, and death. Fix that, don’t band-aid over the problem.

      Your false equivalence of “but bikers run red lights!” is total bullshit, of course. You can start whining about that when bikes kill 30,000-40,000 people per year in the US alone.

  7. I believe that if there is a fatality then there has to be an investigation and consequently not a fast removal of evidence! I hope I am correct in that assumption.
    I totally agree with a fast response to cleaning up any non fatal accidents and getting the traffic and the system flowing.

  8. Johnny5 says:

    Fatalities in car crashes are rare- most stalled vehicles are a result of fender benders and breakdowns. For every minute a car is stalled on the highway, chances of subsequent crashes goes up. I see no harm in this proposal; it doesn’t invalidate the trauma of victims by shooing them away.

  9. Peri Hartman says:

    The Seattle times summarized the program, today. It includes:
    – citations for blocking intersections
    – enforcement against motorists who veer towards cyclists,
    – clear debris
    – new equipment to move stalled cars quicker
    This is what the article explicitly mentions. I’m sure there is more. But there is no mention of changing the procedure for aiding injured people or handling deaths. Sounds reasonable to me.

    • Drew says:

      It is certainly “reasonable” and essential given the state of our society, but this is disturbingly telling about our priorities. We like safety as long as it doesn’t inconvenience anyone. Real safety that would probably slow some drivers down during some parts of the day is less welcome.

      I have seen organisations offer to fully fund safety improvements but unless you can demonstrate that hundreds of pedestrians an hour are at risk, the city has policies to reject money if there is a chance motorists might be inconvenienced.

      We have immense wealth right now and really could enact vision zero within a decade, but we are perilously backsliding. It is time to get serious about addressing safety.

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