I was walking home by Jade Palace on Carrboro’s East Main Street with a box of Amante Pizza in my arms when I saw a young man ride a Onewheel across the crosswalk and a driver slam a car into his body.
Bystanders took a moment to process the scene before rushing over. Then the young man stood up, brushed himself off and assured everyone, the guilt-stricken motorist included, that he was all right. No ambulance was called, no report was filed.
Thankfully for the young man, several conditions were operating in his favor that afternoon.
First, the speed limit on that stretch of road was 20 miles per hour. According to the AAA Foundation, the average risk of severe injury for a pedestrian struck at that speed is less than 25 percent, and the risk of death is below 10 percent. Second, the vehicle the motorist was driving had a low front profile. SUVs and pickup trucks, with their tall front grilles, are far more dangerous than sedans for pedestrians and bicyclists due to their tendency to push victims underneath the vehicle — instead of on top of the hood.
The young man was lucky. Middle schoolers Emmie Zwack and Lila Ashdown, unfortunately, had no such luck when they were struck on New Year’s Eve by a motorist driving an SUV on Estes Drive, where the speed limit is 35 miles per hour.
Ashdown is recovering from serious injuries at home, while Zwack’s injuries were life-threatening. According a Feb. 3 post on her family’s Caring Bridge page, Zwack will soon be moving to the Levine Children’s Rehabilitation Center to continue her recovery.
Both of these crashes occurred at crosswalks with almost identical warning. Neon yellow pedestrian crossing signs and a marker in the middle of the crosswalk that say, “STATE LAW: YIELD TO PEDESTRIANS WITHIN CROSSWALK,” but in neither case did the motorists stop.
Of course, neither of these crashes was intentional — humans err — but the simple truth is that people driving 3,000-pound metal machines are driving potentially lethal weapons and that the deadliness increases with speed.
But it would be a mistake to throw up our hands in resignation, or worse, try to solve the problem by tightening in-person traffic enforcement, which disproportionately exposes our Black and brown neighbors to harm. We already have solutions to make our streets safer for all users, and they occur outside the vehicle.
Traffic engineers have recognized the effect of roadway design on human behavior for decades, observing that people drive more quickly along wider lanes, straighter streets and gentler curves. As drivers, we subconsciously detect from these features what speed we should be driving on a road, even when we don’t know the posted speed limit.
The problem is, traffic engineers have used these features to design roads that move cars faster, not safer. Engineers, planners and policymakers alike share a myopic focus on reducing traffic congestion at the expense of safety, sustainability and equity, green-lighting project after project to widen roads while making our transportation system more dangerous, polluting and inaccessible to marginalized users.
We could instead design our streets to physically slow traffic where people are walking or bicycling and make traffic fatalities a thing of the past. We could build proper infrastructure for bicyclists and pedestrians as we have done for motorists.
Slowing traffic doesn’t have to mean lengthening commutes for drivers if it’s paired with thoughtful land use planning that promotes proximity of home, work, school and other essentials.
Building a transit system that is fast, timely and connected to useful destinations may even outperform private vehicles and reduce our need to drive. For the oft-forgotten segment of our population that has never been able to afford to drive, it will mean a transportation system that finally takes their safety and well-being seriously.
Traffic injuries and fatalities are no accident; they are the result of decisions made by many, many people, from the people who design our automobiles and our roads, to our elected officials who approve new developments, to our Department of Transportation and its chosen priorities and to individual drivers when they choose to exceed speed limits or drive distracted or impaired.
State and federal laws limit funding for bike and pedestrian projects and restrict the abilities of municipalities to make the local changes they desire, but we still need to let our elected officials know that we care about the safety of all who use our streets so that they can respond to our concerns.
Reach out to your local elected leaders today and let them know that you want Chapel Hill and Carrboro streets to be safe for everyone, no matter how they travel.
Andrew Zalesak (he/him/his)
Master of Science candidate '22
Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
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