On World Day of Remembrance Sunday, Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted:
Traffic violence kills thousands and injures even more Americans every year. On World Day of Remembrance for Traffic Crash Victims, I'm sending my love to the families and friends of those who have lost loved ones. It's time to #EndTrafficViolence.
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) November 17, 2019
She didn’t say, “traffic accidents,” she said “traffic violence.” It’s a statement that shouldn’t be notable. More than 35,000 people are killed in traffic collisions nationwide every year, and many times that are seriously injured. And it doesn’t need to be this way. Of course we need to “end traffic violence,” and of course candidates for President should talk about it.
But that’s the thing: They almost never do. All this death and carnage on our roads is never a topic in TV debates. It is practically never mentioned in presidential stump speeches. And policy platforms practically never include a plan for making our roadways safer (beyond things like fixing bridges and highways). So reading Warren’s tweet Sunday was very exciting. Do we finally have a national leader who wants to actually do something about the preventable traffic deaths happening every 15 minutes somewhere in our country? We spend a lot of time here talking about how Seattle can make our streets safer, but that does little for the rest of the country. This problem desperately needs national leadership.
OK, so Warren’s statement plays well with Seattle Bike Blog, but what about middle America? Well, the origins for my interest in traffic safety began in a suburban red district in a Midwest swing state. And it’s a story that may as well have happened anywhere in this country, red or blue.
When I was a sophomore in high school, a childhood friend and one of his friends died in a horrific car crash in the St. Louis, Missouri, suburb where we grew up together. Even though only a few teenagers had cell phones yet, word spread quickly. Within hours of his death, I was with dozens of his friends on the front lawn of his high school crying and lighting candles and looking around for answers.
But the adults had no answers. We called it an “accident” because that’s what the adults called it. But that didn’t feel right. That word didn’t answer our question, “Why is Ryan gone?”
The gruesome details circulated in whispers among us. It felt rude and disrespectful to hear about the blood and carnage, but it also felt important to know this truth. Our friend’s body was destroyed to a degree I had never considered possible before. Isn’t is more disrespectful to pretend it didn’t happen? Because it did.
I have never been the same since that day, and I am almost certain I would not be the author of this blog if I hadn’t been on that school lawn that evening searching for answers and coming up empty. It was one of the first moments in my life when I realized the adults in charge had no way of dealing with something like this. Adult society was willing to give us teenagers the time to have a vigil and a funeral and cry and talk to TV reporters, but then we were expected to go on with our lives accepting their deaths as something that just happens.
The cost of living in America is that some of us just have to die this way.
We didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about what really happened to Ryan and Greg. Nobody knew about Vision Zero. We didn’t talk about traffic collisions as preventable, and we didn’t know there were policies governments could pass to reduce the number of such horrific deaths and injuries. No political leader was talking about solutions. They had nothing to offer beyond “thoughts and prayers.”
So when Elizabeth Warren says, “It’s time to end traffic violence,” that’s it right there. That’s what I needed to hear back then, but didn’t. Nothing could bring them back, but could we do something to make sure it happens to fewer people next year? And even fewer the year after and the year after until it doesn’t happen at all? And even if that sounds impossible, weren’t we going to at least try?
Ryan and Greg’s parents have tried. They founded RAD (“Reaching Adolescent Drivers”), an organization that does not shy away from the gruesome, violent danger of careless teen driving. But programs like that can only do so much. Our nation needs big Federal policy and funding changes.
This isn’t a red state/blue state thing. It’s not a coasts vs middle America thing, either. I know some of the teens at that vigil now vote for Republicans. But traffic violence doesn’t care how you vote. If you ask any room of Americans to raise their hands if someone they love has been seriously injured or killed in a traffic collision, most hands will go up. And Warren is telling every hand-raiser, “I’m sending my love,” and that she’s going to do something about it. Sure, she doesn’t have a full Vision Zero policy ready to go yet, but talking about it using the right words is a big first step. This first step toward a genuine and effective national traffic safety goal isn’t a policy document, it’s compassion and acknowledging those who have been hurt. It’s talking about how this pain is not inevitable, that there are factors in our culture, in the design of our vehicles and in the design of our roads that lead to traffic deaths and injuries. And that as the people of America, we can and must demand change.
Once people across the country have true words to describe the pain of their loss, then our country might be ready to demand action. Maybe the nation is not used to thinking about traffic injuries and deaths as “violence,” but I think deep down we all know that calling them “accidents” is total horseshit.
Americans are force-fed commercial after commercial telling us SUVs are safer. So I think if Americans understand that the major car manufacturers have been putting profit above safety by pushing vehicles they know are deadly into our garages and the streets where our children play, people will demand changes. I think if a Presidential candidate vowed to build a safe walking and biking route to every school in America, people would cheer. And I think a candidate acknowledging the pain people feel when they think of the loved ones they’ve lost demonstrates that she understands what it’s really like down here at street level on any street in America.