Tag Archives: safety

What You Need to Know about Life, Death, and the Stories We Tell

Ghost bike placed in memory of South Christian High School teacher Rod VanDyke.
Photo: Karen Dunnam. This is a ghost bike, placed in memory of Rod VanDyke. Do note that this is only near the site of the accident – there was no sidewalk where he was hit.
Rod VanDyke was killed doing what he had done many times before: biking in to school for a day of teaching. In spite of Mr. VanDyke having lights on his bike and being in a highly-visible position on the road, the driver of a car coming up behind claims not to have seen him and hit him from behind at speed. What caught my eye, and made my heart sink, was discovering that the man who had been killed was part of my broader community, a colleague of my once-roommate’s husband. The headline read, “Police: Teacher killed in crash had lights on bicycle, was wearing dark clothing.”

Any child of God deserves to have his life treated with dignity, to have the story of his life – and of his death – told with integrity. But this doesn’t always happen. It’s time for us to have a conversation – about life, about death, and about the stories we hear and tell.

Telling a story well can be uncomfortable. So can hearing a story well. Rather than receiving the story as it’s told, we may need to look a little more deeply into our own souls and re-examine what are sometimes ill-considered knee-jerk reactions. This is all the more essential when the “characters” in our stories are flesh and bone.

An excerpt from the story mentioned in the headline above:

A South Christian High School teacher who died after he was hit by a car as he rode his bicycle early Tuesday morning was wearing dark-colored clothing but had lights on his bike, Ottawa County sheriff’s officials said.

Rod VanDyke, a math teacher and girls varsity golf coach, was riding southbound on 36th Avenue near Jasper Drive in Georgetown Township when he was struck from behind by a 1999 Acura also traveling south. The crash occurred shortly before 6 a.m. Oct. 7.

Sgt. Steve Austin said investigation showed VanDyke was riding in the road, more than 8 feet from the edge. He was wearing black and gray clothing, and his bicycle had lights on the front and rear. Deputies found an MP3 player and headphones near him at the crash scene, Austin said. He was wearing a helmet.

***

Last year, a similar tragedy happened when a teacher on his way to Hamilton High School was killed in a collision with a a semi outside the Tulip City Truck stop. His name was Josh Hoppe.

The crash was described this way:

Hoppe was driving about 6:20 a.m. south on M-40, south of the I-196 interchange, when police say a truck pulled out into his path from Tulip City Truck stop.

He died at the scene after his 2009 Ford Fusion hit the trailer, near the cab of the truck driven by 54-year-old David St John of Wellston.

As the community grieved over Joshua Hoppe’s death, the public conversation was quickly filled with anger and determination. People called MDOT, filled City Council meetings, demanded traffic studies, reminded the powers-that-be that others had died here, too.

The community honored his life and demanded an accounting for his blood. What they didn’t do was question his decisions or character.

Incidentally, the community’s efforts were successful. MDOT is planning to make safety improvements to the road in 2016.

***

In researching this story, I read over a hundred media reports of car crashes involving bikes and pedestrians. I was encouraged by how many of them were neutral, including only the clear facts of what had happened.

But many were not. Too many followed a predictable script, script that reinforces our desire to believe our world is fair and orderly, and that tragedies like this are either inevitable or crushingly just. But this script quietly argues for a status quo that sees valued members of our communities and families unnecessarily killed every day – and then blames them for dying.

We don’t need to accept a script that far too often condemns the dead. On the contrary, this is a script that needs to be rewritten, and we have a right to insist that it is.

This is the first in a series on the stories we tell about the people who use our common roads in ways that our culture considers unconventional. Next time, we’ll look at how to identify the specific scripts we hear so we’re better able to push back against them when appropriate.

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Something for Everybody (Wednesday’s Words)

Something for Everybody - Jacobs

I ran across this quote in an article about allowing our kids to inform our observations about our places. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. When I was five, I walked to school every day by myself. There was one busy street I needed to cross, but I have to think it wasn’t as busy as the streets in our town are now.

Yesterday as I was walking CJ in to school, she asked, “When can I walk to school by myself?” She craves that independence, that ability to do something by herself. And though I fully support her in this – we’ve explored before how essential this is to a child’s developing abilities, how it affects her cognitive development, how other cultures actively encourage this independence – the traffic on our local streets runs fast. The streets are wide and difficult to cross. There are no crossing guards in the morning (and not enough in the afternoon). We’ve made a city for the able-bodied, but there’s no place here for my little girl and her burgeoning sense of independence.

Jane Jacobs takes this one step further and encourages us to consider a city that is actually created BY everybody. I don’t know exactly what this looks like, but how much healthier would our places be if this were something we strived for? Maybe I’ll ask the girls today. What does a city made for you look like?

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.

The Need for Speed

As you read this, I’m on my way to the Transportation Bonanza in Lansing. I’ll be attempting updates on Facebook and Twitter throughout – see my contact info at the end of the post!

20130309-110236.jpg

We passed two speed traps on the expressway last week, on our way to drop the girls off with their aunt and uncle for the weekend (yayyyy!). And it got me thinking: I see speed traps all the time on the expressway, but very, very rarely in town. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a speed trap in a residential neighborhood (with the notable exception of East Grand Rapids, the only place I’ve ever been pulled over).

And yet… It’s on highways, where drivers don’t face pedestrians, cyclists, turning traffic, or trees that we see speed traps. Really, the only major hazards are deer and other vehicles (and tanks, if you’re in Russia). High speeds are dangerous, but how much does the risk increase between 75 and 85 mph, or even 90? I couldn’t find good data on this – it seems to be up for debate. After all, the road is designed for it.

But we know that there is a dramatic safety difference in going from 20 mph to 40 mph, especially for people trying to live around the cars (i.e., pedestrians and cyclists). So why don’t we see serious speed enforcement on our small residential roadways – the areas where ten miles per hour makes the biggest difference? Is our need for speed just too strong?

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Ten Reasons for Your Child to Walk to School

This article is the third in a series on how kids get to school in America. Part one can be found here, and part two can be found here. This will be the last post on this topic for a few weeks.

We’ve been talking about walking to school for a while. But… this seems like a lot of work. Maybe the way we’re doing things right now are working pretty well for us. Why should we consider doing anything differently? In short…

Why does it matter if my kids walk to school?

1. We’ve talked about this bit before: Kids who walk to school can concentrate better.

2. It gets us out of our ruts. When kids walk to school, they tend to choose walking for other trips, too. We call this a virtuous cycle and it’s, you know… virtuous.

3. They get the chance to eat worms. I’m sure it’s good for their immune systems; exposure therapy and all that. But really, the opportunity to interact with their environment is a low-key adventure that we can’t take or granted anymore. Crunchy snow, splashy puddles, frosty spiderwebs, and yes, worms after a rain – all things we don’t experience through a car window.

4. Kids who walk to school are healthier. The experts recommend at least an hour a day of physical activity for kids; a good twenty-minute walk to and from school goes a long way toward meeting that recommendation.

5. There seem to be developmental benefits to allowing kids to walk to school. We’ve heard a lot about helicopter parenting, but research is beginning to show that it’s really important for kids to be able to practice making good, independent decisions from a young age.

6. It’s fun. CJ is in kindergarten right now, and doing things that I swear I learned in third grade. Naptime is long gone, and frankly, sometimes she feels the pressure. Going for a walk is a natural way to decompress, something that kids need, too. And if there happen to be some mud puddles to stomp in, all the better. (For her, not my floors.)

7. It decreases the amount of traffic on our roads. This makes walking safer for everyone in the neighborhood, reduces the need for road repairs or new construction (wear and tear is EXPENSIVE), and improves neighborhood air quality.

8. It frees up parents’ time (eventually). We’ve talked before about how much time we’re spending ferrying our kids around town. It turns out that this has been studied: “women in particular make about two-thirds of the trips, picking up and dropping off other people.” To a certain extent this is a normal component of modern parenthood, but teaching our children to get themselves around in an independent and age-appropriate way allows us to spend our time on whatever other callings we may have. You know, like laundry. So you can get to bed before midnight.

9. You save on gas money. Go buy yourself a cup of coffee, instead.

10. It strengthens your community. You say hi to the neighbor walking their dog on the way to school every day. Before long, that person who used to be a stranger is someone you know and trust. Talk about priceless.

Even if having your kids walk to school isn’t something that works for you right now (it doesn’t for us!), you can still lay the groundwork for their future lives as pedestrians TODAY. The National Center for Safe Routes to School has a decent age-graded PDF on how to help your kids develop strong pedestrian skills. There are things we do so automatically that it doesn’t occur to us to teach them. Okay, honestly – I found it a little bit over-protective. But it does give a good sense of where kids are developmentally at different times.

And remember, everything we talk about here is intended to be in the context of overall community livability, meaning that young, old, single, and disabled members of our community should all be able to participate fully in the life of the neighborhood. Helping our kids walk to school is part of making our neighborhoods strong for everyone.

Perhaps you’d consider a walk today?

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