How are you?
Considering recent road deaths in Portland and similar trends across the country, I feel pretty bad. As I try to understand these tragedies, I am all too aware that each data point represents a life cut short.
These tragedies are not directly mine, but I still mourn them. From my own near-misses, I grapple with the risks of being on (or near) the road, and try to figure out how to use the roads more safely and advocate for making them more sure. Shaken by the serious and fatal consequences of collisions, I grasp the big picture, a better understanding that could provide guidance, insight, a safer way forward.
For my part, I struggle with our near-misses which did not lead to accidents, but which still haunt me. On two occasions we were nearly hit while crossing the street at an intersection with a signalized pedestrian crossing.
At first, I was riding my giant, fully loaded electric cargo bike with four kids in the front trunk. We were on the pavement, in the left turn lane, but realized we were stuck at a red light that wouldn’t change to a bike. After two full light cycles, we had to weave our way through right-turning traffic to get up on the narrow sidewalk and hit the signal button. We were hot, tired, frustrated and late. I had been scared too, after feeling stuck in the middle of a busy intersection with four kids in my bike box, stuck in a left turn lane with a steady red light, cars driving around me from all sides. So when we got to the curb and waited through another light cycle for our walk signal, we were more than ready to take our long-awaited turn to cross the street.
But I had seen a car approaching our intersection over my left shoulder, a car that was going to turn right, a car that had a red light, a car that had to stop for us while we were crossing.
Instead of entering the crosswalk, I forced myself to take a second look at that car, to make sure he had seen us and had stopped. He did not do it. The driver didn’t even glance at us. Instead, it accelerated all the way through the crosswalk we were about to enter, a space we were allowed to occupy, and if I hadn’t been a “defensive walker,” a space that we would have occupied.
If I had stopped in the roadway when our signal changed, if on that occasion I had failed to look twice, to ensure that I had made eye contact with the driver before entering the street , if I had followed my burning and weary desire to just go — it was our turn! – my children would have been hit by his speeding car.
Our second near-miss was an almost identical occasion. This time I was carrying my baby, pushing my 3 year old in the stroller while dragging his scooter, and supervising two other kids on the scooter. As we approached a busy intersection, I ordered my older children to get off their scooters and walk – a command that may have saved a life.
We arrived at the busy corner and turned to press the start button, only to see our crosswalk signal come on. “Oh!” I said impulsively, “we can go!” Across the busy street, a pedestrian on the opposite corner was already walking our way, about ⅓ of the way. I turned us to the road and was about to move forward, with my stroller and two child scooters, when a black van cut us off, going right past our toes, across the crosswalk and onto its path.
I was dumbfounded.
The person walking down the crosswalk towards us yelled and waved their arms at the truck. She saw what almost happened. I felt bad in the bottom of my stomach. My eldest daughter was heading first to this crosswalk. If she had jumped on her scooter to cross, to take a few steps in the street, instead of slowing down obediently while dragging her scooter, she would have been crushed under this truck, right in front of me. My imagination jumped to this worst-case scenario… holding her limp, crushed body in my arms, having to say goodbye to my daughter on a street corner…
Terribly, I know that some families have suffered from this. My dark fantasies are someone else’s terrible reality.
It’s hard to fight. When I put my babies on the bike, I try to quell the thoughts, the fears, the questions. “Will my new hobby kill my children?” Hush! Damn peace of mind! Do not go.
Unexpectedly, our near-misses brought me a kind of grotesque comfort: they reminded me that deaths on the roads are far too many and far too frequent. Our two close calls as a family of cyclists came when we used the sidewalks and crossed the street as pedestrians. And although I know that many people condemn my choice to cycle with my children – because of the dangers of accidents – I have never heard anyone in my life criticize a mother for having walked with her child in a stroller.
“Oh, you shouldn’t do that, it’s too dangerous!” absolutely no one said to someone pushing a stroller across a marked crosswalk in broad daylight. “Where was your helmet?” Were you wearing high visibility clothing? How could you take such risks with your babies? Nobody says that to a parent walking around.
So yeah, my grim comfort is that if walking could also kill us, then I guess biking is no worse.
Dark humor, dark thoughts. So far, I’ve largely put them aside. I only looked at one statistic: the number one killer of children in the United States has always been motor vehicle crashes. Cars, even driving, are the leading cause of child deaths. (Oh my, double-checking, guns have recently overtaken cars as the leading cause of child death!)
Our near-misses surprised me, because danger met us in a place and in a way I didn’t expect, a place I previously thought was safe: marked crosswalks. When imagining how we could be hit and how to avoid the most dangerous situations, walking on a bicycle or scooter through a pedestrian crossing had not occurred to me.
Maybe I should look at the data. Perhaps I could learn more about the causes of these deaths, both in the hope of avoiding collisions ourselves, but also to become an effective advocate for safer streets for all. This means looking at the data and details I wish didn’t exist. But if we’re going to change this horrible reality of traffic death, if we’re serious about pushing for Vision Zero, then we need to look at the current tragic reality with attention and care, and with eyes wide open. These are not things I want to see, know or think. But it is a responsibility that I will take on, with the hope of helping to change it.
To anyone who has suffered a loss from a traffic accident, I am terribly sorry for your loss. I think of you.
Shannon is a 36-year-old mother of five who lives in downtown Hillsboro. His column appears weekly. Contact her via email@example.com
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