Make safe streets for all a reality before another life is lost – Marin Independent Journal
A month ago Sir Francis Drake Boulevard suffered another death, his seventh in six years.
On January 29, Greg Chisholm, a church pastor in San Francisco, was struck from behind while training for a bike ride to Long Beach. He was driving on the eastbound shoulder near the top of White Hill when he was struck by an SUV that drifted out of its lane.
The reason the driver left the lane is not known – the California Highway Patrol investigation is still ongoing. But whether the driver was distracted or had a medical episode doesn’t matter.
A man has died, leaving behind a grieving family and congregation, and we are left with two choices. Do we shrug our shoulders and say that “mistakes happen”, or do we choose the more difficult path to ensure that such a tragedy does not happen again? The Marin County Bicycle Coalition urges the latter.
And we are not alone. On January 27, just two days before Mr Chisholm’s death, US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced a “National Road Safety Strategy”. It is the first of its kind in the history of transportation in the United States. It aspires to eliminate deaths from our road network.
Such a goal comes at an important time. As reported in the YI, 31,720 people died in traffic accidents in the first nine months of 2021, a 12% jump from the previous year. This is equivalent to a complete Boeing 777 crashing and killing everyone on board every three days.
Imagine if we accepted this degree of loss from our airlines. And yet, of the 25 million plane trips Americans made each year before the pandemic, annual plane deaths are in the single digits.
This disparity is no accident. Air transport operates on a “safe systems” approach, recognizing that humans are fallible. Systems are put in place to ensure that when mistakes are made, no one dies. And in the event of an accident, an investigation ensures that the problem is solved.
Conversely, our pavements are “used at your own risk”. When people make mistakes while driving, they often injure themselves or others, sometimes fatally. And rather than holding the system to account, the blame is placed on the individual – “he was texting”, “the sun was in his eyes”, “they were wearing dark clothes”.
If the railing of the Golden Gate Bridge was only 2 feet high, a lot of people would fall into San Francisco Bay. Some would attribute these deaths to distraction, neglect or lack of balance. But a more fruitful answer would be to simply raise the railing.
So how do you lift the railing? The first step to solving a problem is to admit that you have one. Many of our neighboring counties (Sonoma, Napa and San Francisco, to name a few) have adopted “Vision Zero” goals, pledging to end road deaths. Marin County and its constituent cities and towns should do the same.
But an empty promise won’t solve anything. Our municipal governments should prioritize safety over everything else. We would never want an airline pilot to skip the pre-flight checklist to speed up takeoff. The same care should extend to surface transport.
Concretely, this means physically separating cars from vulnerable road users, replacing traffic lights with roundabouts, lowering speed limits and improving pedestrian crossings. Education and protective clothing are helpful, but only marginally. In the science of occupational safety, the first priority is to physically separate users from potential hazards. Helmets and reflective jackets are the icing on the cake.
Dangerous roads have a deterrent effect on walking and cycling, in practice except the most risk-tolerant. To reduce our greenhouse gas emissions (not to mention traffic), we need people of all ages and abilities to feel comfortable riding a bike for short trips.
Such a change would not only benefit people who walk and cycle, but also drivers, who make up the bulk of those killed on our roads. No doubt many readers of this article have lost someone in a car accident and wish they could go back and stop this tragedy. This is our chance.
We cannot change the past, but we can change the future and ensure that no family suffers such a loss.
Warren J. Wells is director of policy and planning for the Marin County Bicycle Coalition.