Mistakes You Can’t Take Back

There’s a parenting group that I’m part of on Facebook, a group of exceptionally thoughtful women and men who discuss everything from (not) sleeping through the night to endless potty training to what risks we let our kids take. It’s a good place.

This morning I was part of a discussion on what sort of risks we allow our kids to take, and I just loved what one of the parents said: we draw the line at mistakes you can’t take back (thank you for that verbiage, Janet). Falling out of a tree, okay. Falling off a swing, okay. Running in front of a car, not okay. Our actions have consequences regardless of our intent, and sometimes consequences are grossly out of whack with what we intend. This is one of the things we have to teach our kids.

This qualifies as Not Okay by any imaginable definition.
This qualifies as Not Okay by any imaginable definition.

Sometimes it’s one of the things we have to teach ourselves, as well.

In our country, we’re setting ourselves up for failure by creating spaces for mistakes we can’t take back.

An article on Bicycling magazine’s website has gone gangbusters since it was published on Tuesday, and it takes a really interesting tack in discussing this. (You can find it here.)

In this country, “I didn’t see the cyclist” is the negligent driver’s universal get-out-of-jail free card…When the driver says, “I didn’t see the cyclist,” that’s usually enough for everybody to call it a “tragic accident”—and we don’t want to hold people accountable for accidents, do we?…

You want to know what’s really tragic? We allow this to happen. We make excuses, and offer up empty condolences, and don’t hold negligent drivers accountable, all because we’re afraid that we, too, might be held accountable for not paying attention. For not watching where we are going. For fiddling with the stereo, or shaving, or texting, or just daydreaming while driving, and not seeing what we should have seen, had we only been paying attention.

This resonated deeply with me. As I go from car, to bike, to car, I find myself so frustrated with the careless driver rolling through the intersection… only to find myself forgetting to double-check a sidewalk before I turn. It really could happen to any of us, and the fact that I am not exempt from that is deeply sobering.

In the crash I witnessed this spring where the police officer pulled out in front of a woman in a minivan, the woman in the minivan was ultimately considered at fault. The crash occurred on a high-speed STROAD with multiple lanes. Visibility was poor, and – by design – cars were traveling too quickly to have time for an adequate response. Both of them were set up for failure, and the result was a mistake that neither can take back.

So what do we do?

I love it when a solution to a problem already exists.

[I]n the Netherlands accident investigations are required for every bicycle fatality…The intersection where [a child] was killed was closed by accident investigators, who painstakingly recreated the crash, as reported in the Boston Globe:

Along with clipboards and cameras and measuring tape, they brought with them an 18-wheeler and a child-sized bicycle. Over and over, they maneuvered the two around the corner, recreating the all-too-common “right hook” accident in slow motion, each time adjusting the truck’s mirrors or the angle at which it struck the bike.

…The Dutch response to the fatality didn’t end there. Remember that painstaking accident reconstruction? The intersection where young Hananja Konijn had been killed was redesigned within a month of his death. A mirror was installed beneath the traffic light to help drivers see approaching cyclists. A bike box was also installed, so that cyclists would be able to cross the intersection before a driver could right-hook them. And the bike lane was doubled in width by removing an automobile lane, and painted bright red.

How many people have been killed in the last two years on US-31 and Chicago Drive*? How many children have been hit near schools that we’ve never heard about because they didn’t result in death? How many of those deaths and collisions could have been prevented if we took a Dutch approach?

I think that perhaps we need to begin to care in a new way when these things happen. It’s clearly just not enough to care in the sense of feeling sad when we hear about yet another person killed on our streets, or even care in the sense of saying a prayer for the family or bringing over a casserole if we know them personally. (I’m not saying that we should stop doing those good things, of course.) But what if, the next time we heard about a person who has been killed, we go to our next city council or township board meeting and request an investigation? What if we called our legislators and asked them to sponsor legislation that would do exactly this?

What if we stopped viewing all these egregious tragedies as unavoidable side effects of the modern world, when they’re not?

The law holds us liable to see emergency vehicles who are running their lights and sirens because it’s not okay not to see them. One of our responsibilities, as drivers, is to SEE. Legislators have decided that it’s not okay for us to not see emergency vehicles, so we’re charged with the responsibility of seeing them. We could, pretty easily, extend this precedent to cover vulnerable road users (that would typically be people walking and biking and wheelchairing) as well.

That would be something that I would like to see.

*I should note that Chicago Drive has seen some recent safety improvements that reduce conflicts between people using the sidewalk and left-turning vehicles. This is AWESOME.

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