Archive | Safety

Don’t Call It an Accident

Even as desensitized as our culture has become to vehicular violence, the tragedy of February 22nd, 2015 is a tough one to stomach. That day, three children—ages 4,5, and 8—were run down while crossing a street in Springfield. They were crossing legally, in a crosswalk, with the signal. The driver of the car that killed them had a simple explanation: “I didn’t see any red light. What happened was an accident.” In declining to press charges, Lane County’s DA agreed that the driver “unwittingly ran a red light.” And on Monday, the Oregonian’s Editorial Board joined the exonerating cacophony with a piece entitled “When a tragic accident is just a tragic accident,” in which they declared that “‘accident’ is the only way to accurately describe what happened at that intersection on Feb. 22.”

No, it is not.

To be fair to the O, this sort of misuse of the word ‘accident’ dates all the way to the 15th Century: “As the medieval world had few scientific tools to investigate causation, it was not surprising that the word eventually associated itself with the phrase act of God.” A century ago, a young automobile industry in the process of inventing the concept of jaywalking co-opted it to blunt public perception of collisions, and over time the act of driving—and the act of crashing along with it—were normalized. Experts have been calling for a change in terminology since at least 1997, yet use of the word stubbornly persists in the media (just look at that article on jaywalking!).

Defenders of the term ‘accident’ often argue that the word applies for reasons of intent. Since nobody drives with an explicit desire to harm people or property, a word that denotes the opposite of ‘purposeful’ seems to fit the bill. But this ignores the fact that the very behaviors most likely to lead to crashes—driving drunk, distracted, or too fast for conditions, to name a few—are very much conscious decisions. Calling the end result of an ill-considered choice an ‘accident’  ignores the prologue, substituting a clear implication of blamelessness. It’s a biased, erroneous description.

Another sneakier limitation of the ‘a’ word is that, unlike ‘crash,’ the word ‘accident’ does not readily do double duty as a verb. You cannot accident into a tree. Thus a writer preferring the term ‘accident’ is tricked into using a passive voice, which often has the curious consequence of personifying a vehicle. In describing a different “accident” in which a woman “was struck and seriously injured by a car,” The O reports that, “the vehicle that hit her was moving west on Division, weaving in and out of traffic…It swerved toward Davis and struck her, then continued over a curb and through a grassy area before stopping.” The driver, though huffing laughing gas at the time, is relegated to the role of a mere accessory.

While I don’t believe that running a red light without even slowing can ever be unavoidable, the culpability in the Springfield crash is not on the driver alone. The generations-long approach to transportation and land use that has favored automobility over all other factors is a clear cause as well. This is what forced a family to cross a five-lane stroad so unironically called Main Street in the course of walking between their home and the ice cream parlor. Further, it rendered a 68-year-old man with apparent medical conditions dependant upon a car he could no longer safely drive. This, too, is no accident. It is a flawed approach to engineering and planning that we must hasten to abandon.

‘Accident’ is an inherently weak word; it is an excuse and a conversation ender rolled into one. When we declare something an accident, we throw up our hands and plead ignorance. We can neither understand it nor learn from it; it was unavoidable, unpreventable, and thus not worth fretting much over. Accidents happen, as they say.

What killed Tyler Hudson, McKenzie Hudson, and John Day on an Oregon street was no accident. It was an entirely unsurprising outcome of a century’s worth of systemic prioritization of cars over cities, of travel time over lives. Insofar as language shapes perception, describing their death using such an inaccurate, inarticulate word is perpetuating the very systems that make tragedies like it anything but accidents.

A Bold Step Toward Vision Zero

During the public hearings on the Comprehensive Plan, and in the Transportation Expert Group (advising PBOT on the Transportation System Plan) PBOT took some heat on a lackluster safety policy (someone characterized it as “keep doing what we’ve been doing”).

I’m happy to report that PBOT has stepped up. At Tuesday’s Planning and Sustainability Commission meeting they proposed the following policy language to guide the City’s efforts for the next 20 years:

Transportation safety impacts the livability of a city and the comfort and security of those using City streets. Comprehensive efforts to improve transportation safety through engineering, education, enforcement and evaluation will be used to eliminate traffic related fatalities and serious injuries from Portland’s transportation system.

(emphasis mine)

That’s a pretty damn clear articulation of Vision Zero. Well done!

Transportation Summit to Focus on Safety

The 6th Annual Oregon Transportation Summit (September 15th) will focus on safety as the key topic.

My sometimes debating opponent (stop spacing, value of streetcars) Jarrett Walker of Human Transit fame will be the keynote speaker.

From the descriptive materials:

The 2014 Summit will have a considerable focus on safety and its relevance to creating livable communities. In the plenary session, Minnesota DOT’s Sue Groth will describe her state’s implementation of programs as part of its Toward Zero Deaths philosophy. In a two-part response, Oregon DOT’s Troy Costales will describe efforts across the state regarding TZD and Leah Treat, Director of the Portland Bureau of Transportation, will describe what TZD means to the city. There will also be a workshop in the morning on system-level safety (“Safety Is More than a Buzzword”) featuring Utah DOT’s Robert Hull. In the afternoon, a workshop on project-level safety will pay particular attention to the safety of bicycles and pedestrians.

Register here.

 

Is it Time for Our Own “Grand Bargain”?

No, not between the Democrats and Republicans…

Between the City and ODOT.

A little background – a week and a half ago, I took a tour with some ODOT folks of 82nd Ave and outer Powell to talk about what might be in store for these areas as part of our Comprehensive Plan update.

IMG_0496

Valentine Khubeyev’s daughter speaking at the vigil in her honor

A few hours later, Valentine Khubeyev was struck by an SUV on the stretch of Powell I had toured, and died of her injuries a hours later. This past Friday evening, I attended a vigil commemorating this tragedy. A lot of frustration (link not working at the moment) was directed at the state of the street and at ODOT.

Now I don’t want to point fingers specifically at ODOT. There are certainly safety issues on City of Portland streets in East Portland as well, and there was a pedestrian fatality recently on Division. Lack of funds for safety improvements is a problem for all jurisdictions in Oregon. But I can’t help wondering if City policies that treat streets as places, not as highways, may ultimately create a better context for investments in safety. The Mayor has posed a similar question.

I recently raised the same point about Barbur Boulevard, where it’s clear to me that it would be much better off as a City street.

So here’s my “grand bargain”. Instead of dealing with these corridors one-by-one, should the City and ODOT negotiate the transfer of all the “orphan highways” in Portland, perhaps as part of the Comp Plan? The obstacle is probably not ownership, but rather funding. In the past, the City has been unwilling to accept these roads until they have been brought up to a certain standard. Maybe it’s time to look past this, and as the first order of business, get these corridors under a better set of policies?