(Photo: Shannon Johnson)

How are you doing? 

Considering recent traffic fatalities in Portland, and similar trends across the country, I am feeling pretty low. 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 my own, but I am grieving them still. From my own near-misses, I am grappling with the risks of being on (or near) the road, and trying to figure out how to use the roads more safely, and advocate to make them safer. Shaken by the serious and fatal consequences of collisions, I’m grasping at the larger picture, a better understanding that might provide some guidance, some insight, some safer path forward.  

For myself, I am wrestling with our near-misses that didn’t result in crashes, but that still haunt me. On two occasions we were almost hit while crossing the street at an intersection with a signalized crosswalk. 

My grim comfort is that if walking could kill us too, then I guess biking isn’t any worse.

In the first instance, I was riding my giant electric cargo bike, fully loaded with four children in the front box. We had been in the roadway, in the left-turn lane, but realized we were stranded at a red light that wouldn’t change for a bike. After two full light cycles, we had to shimmy our way across right-turning traffic to get up on the narrow sidewalk and press the signal button. We were hot, tired, frustrated, and running late. I had been scared too, after feeling stranded in the middle of a busy intersection with four kids in my bike box, stuck in a left turn lane with an unchanging red light, cars moving about me on all sides. So when we made it onto the sidewalk 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 would be turning right, a car that had a red light, a car that was supposed to stop for us while we crossed. 

Instead of entering the crosswalk, I forced myself to take a second look at that car, to make sure he saw us and stopped. He didn’t. The driver didn’t even glance at us. Instead, he accelerated right through the crosswalk we were about to occupy, a space we had the right to occupy, and if I hadn’t been a “defensive walker,” a space we would have occupied. 

If I had pulled into the roadway when our signal changed, if I had failed on this occasion to look twice, to make sure I made eye contact with the driver before entering the street, if I had followed my hot and tired desire to just go it was our turn! — my kids would have been hit by his accelerating car.

Our second near-miss was an almost identical occasion. This time, I was wearing my baby, pushing my 3-year-old in the stroller while lugging his scooter, and supervising two other kids on scooters. As we approached a busy intersection, I commanded my older kids to get off their scooters and walk — a command that may have saved a life. 

We arrived at the busy corner and turned to push the walk button, only to see our crosswalk signal illuminate.”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 across. I turned us towards the road and was about to step forward, along with my stroller and two scooter-kids, when a black pick-up truck cut us off, rambling right past our toes, through the crosswalk and on his way. 

I stood stunned. 

The person walking in the crosswalk toward us yelled and waved her arms at the truck. She saw what almost happened. I felt sick to the bottom of my stomach. My older daughter was headed first into that crosswalk. If she had hopped back on her scooter to ride across, to scoot a few paces into the street, instead of obediently slow-stepping while dragging her scooter, she would have been crushed under that truck, right in front of me. My imagination leaped to that worst scenario…holding her limp, crushed body in my arms, having to say goodbye to my daughter on a street corner…

Terribly, I know some families have suffered that very thing. My dark imaginings are someone else’s terrible reality. 

It’s heavy to wrestle with. When I put my babies on the bike, I try to stuff down the thoughts, the fears, the questions. “Will my new hobby kill my children?” Shhh! Quiet darn mind! Don’t go there.” 

Unexpectedly, our near misses have brought me a grotesque kind of comfort: they have reminded me that traffic deaths are far too high and far too common. Our two close calls as a biking family have come when we used the sidewalks and crossed the street as pedestrians. And while I know plenty of people condemn my choice to ride a bike with my children–because of the dangers of crashes–I have never in my life heard anyone criticize a mother for walking with her child in a stroller. 

“Oh, you shouldn’t do that, it’s too dangerous!” said absolutely no one to someone pushing a stroller through a signalized crosswalk in bright daylight. “Where was your helmet? Were you wearing high-viz clothing? How could you take such risks with your babies?” Nobody says that to a parent out for a stroll. 

So yes, my grim comfort is that if walking could kill us too, then I guess biking isn’t any worse.

Dark humor, dark thoughts. Until now, I have largely shoved them aside. I have looked at only one statistic: that the leading cause of death for children in the U.S. has consistently been motor vehicle crashes. Cars, even riding in cars, is a leading cause of child death. (Oh dear, double-checking, I see that firearms recently surpassed cars as a leading cause of child death!)

Our near-misses surprised me, because the danger met us in a place and way that I didn’t expect, a place I had previously thought was safe: signalized crosswalks. When imagining how we might be hit, and how to avoid the most dangerous situations, walking a bike or scooter through a crosswalk had not entered my mind. 

Perhaps I should look at the data. Perhaps I can learn more about what is causing these deaths, both with the hope of avoiding collisions ourselves, but also so that I can become an effective advocate for safer streets for all. That means looking at the data and details that I wish didn’t exist. But if we are going to change this horrible reality of traffic death, if we are going to seriously push for Vision Zero, then we have to examine the current tragic reality with attention and care, and eyes wide open. These are not things I want to see, or know, or think about. But it is a responsibility I am going to take up, with the hope of making a contribution to changing it. 

To all those who have suffered loss from a traffic collision, I am so terribly sorry for your loss. I am thinking of you.



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