Besides traffic crashes, the most common context in which you’ll come across the word “accident” is in child-rearing, where it’s usually employed as an excuse. For example, during potty training, we assuage our children’s guilt for soiling themselves by assuring them that “accidents happen.” They soon figure out the absolving power of this word, and a few years later when you ask them why they hit a sibling over the head with a Barbie doll, they assure you that it was “just an accident.” Lesson learned.
Our language and our streets have much in common: they’re both something we all share, and they’re both something we need to update from time to time. Clinging to retrograde terms like “accident” is like failing to calm [Forbes Avenue], or [Route 51], or any of the other arteries badly in need of safety improvements. In both cases we need to discard the features that are obsolete and outmoded, and then we need to adapt them to reflect the reality that crashes are preventable.
Because “accident” is just a cop-out.
On Friday shortly before 5:30 p.m., 34-year-old Susan Hicks was astride her bicycle at the red light on Forbes Avenue at Bellefield, on her way home from work, when someone driving a car “attempted to cross over into the turning lane” but, in the process, hit a car in front of him, causing a “chain reaction” of car collisions that knocked Hicks off her bike and pinned her between two vehicles. Hicks, a skilled rower and multitalented academic, died from her injuries. Hicks’s death has been “ruled accidental,” and the driver who veered into the lane and set off the multi-car collision “has not been charged with anything.” On the Wild West roads of Pittsburgh, on which cyclists and pedestrians fight every day to stay safe against infrastructure built to prioritize automobiles above human lives, and on which gross driver negligence seems to be the rule rather than the exception, it is a cruel insult added to injury to relegate this to the domain of “unpreventable,” “accidental,” “stuff happens.” Read the Pitt News‘s obituary for Susan Hicks, read Carolyne Whelan’s post, and grieve for her death–but do not acquiesce to those who urge us to bury our anger, saying, “Don’t politicize this.” Our lives, rather than an automobile-dominated status quo, are worthy, and that is something that should be fought for on the level of local, state, and federal policy. This is political.
Just days after the shock of Susan Hicks’s death, two more people have been slaughtered by negligent automobile drivers: Yesterday a woman at the Centre/Allequippa/University Drive intersection…drove her SUV into a man in a wheelchair who was crossing the street after descending an 83 Bedford Hill bus. The impact of the SUV knocked him back, and a woman who had also just gotten off the bus moved to rescue him–but by then the bus driver, unaware of what had happened, pulled away from the stop and ran over the two pedestrians, killing them. One passenger and witness reported that “he saw the driver later leaning against a wall and crying.” According to KDKA, “the driver of the SUV stopped and did not try to flee. [Police] are determining whether charges should be filed” against her. “If the driver [had] fled then it would be a clear case: There would be charges,” Toler told WTAE, showing that regardless of the outcome–that is, the senseless death of two people–the law may decide that, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, stuff happens, and no one person is really culpable. The aggressive, careless way that people drive on Pittsburgh streets is a constant threat to human lives–and though the grief we feel is sincere and deep, the mass delusion of Car Culture has inured us, paralyzed us, captivated us to understand traffic violence as accidental rather than the result of poor decision-making, careless behavior, and our shamefully misbuilt environment. These are patterns of error that we need to fix. We should feel sad when someone’s life is snuffed out for the simple act of crossing a street. But then, crucially, we should get angry.
I hardly even know what to say anymore. Not two weeks ago, I was at an Oakland Green Team meeting and specifically called out driver behavior on Forbes and Bellefield as a particular danger to cyclists and pedestrians.
I am stunned and shocked to have this demonstrated so clearly, and so close to me physically—I work around the corner on Bellefield Ave—and so soon.
I am also stunned and shocked to have this demonstrated so clearly, and so close to me personally—while I did not know Susan personally, a number of my friends did, and while I do not ride this section regularly, I have taken multiple 412 Flock rides on this road.
I am committed to doing everything I can to ensure that people who bike and walk through Oakland, and the rest of Pittsburgh, have safe places to do so, for Susan, for the new riders Flock is committed to nurturing, for our students, for everyone.
No more cop-outs. Our lives are worthy. This is political.