MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — At around 8:15 a.m. on a Thursday morning in March, Andre Retana, a 13-year-old biking to college, stopped at a red light at the intersection of El Camino Real and Grant Road in this Silicon Valley suburb.
Close to two major national highways, the El Camino and Grant pass is one of the busiest in the area and The most dangerous road sections. The intersection lacks dedicated bike lanes and other features to protect cyclists and pedestrians from fast-moving motor vehicle traffic. Instead, the intersection is an asphalt and concrete love letter to cars. Gas stations occupy two corners; an America’s Tire store is on a third, a BMW dealership on the fourth. Its traffic design also prioritizes the efficient flow of cars and trucks over other uses of the road. To keep traffic flowing, motorists at all its corners are allowed to turn right at red lights.
As Andre approached the southeast corner of the intersection, he drove past a construction truck waiting at the light to turn right. A police investigation will later determine that the truck had stopped at a red light. Police say the truck driver, high in the cab, never saw André, who was in the blind spot of the truck.
Then, in a disaster of timing, André fell off his bike in the crosswalk near the front of the truck – just when the driver, with the light still red, decided it was safe to start driving. turn right. The truck hit André. The driver, whose identity has not been revealed, only realized he had been involved in an accident after passers-by reported it. The boy on the bicycle was seriously injured and died in hospital a short time later.
Police found no evidence of wrongdoing and concluded the death was an “extremely tragic incident”. They said the driver, whom they described as “devastated”, been not speeding or under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and had executed his right turn legally. André, too, seems to have followed all the rules of the road.
It’s tempting to call what happened that morning in Mountain View a freak accident, the kind of cosmic piling up of time and space that can never be avoided in a complicated world. But as journalist Jessie Singer has argued, in much of American life, many “accidents” are far from accidental — rather, they are the inevitable result of political and economic choices that society has made, and they could have been avoided if we had made other safer choices.
States and cities will soon be inundated with $1.2 trillion in infrastructure funding that Congress appropriated last year. Some road safety advocates told me they saw the money as a huge opportunity to save our roads – but to get the most out of the money, they said, we need to be eager to think about road safety in a transformative way.
No one knows if André would have lived if Caltrans, the California state traffic agency that operates El Camino Real, had built this crossing with the safety of cyclists and pedestrians in mind. Mathew Roe, transportation planner at the National Association of City Transportation Officials, suggested several singles safety devices this could have helped, especially the protected cycle paths, which provide a physical barrier between cars and bicycles; raised areas in the corners behind which bikes could safely queue while waiting for the light to change; a “back-up” that forces cars to wait further from the intersection, improving their ability to see pedestrians and cyclists, and separate signals for bicycles and cars, to help each type of vehicle stay ahead distance from the other. Even a “No Turn on Red” sign could have changed André’s fate.
The United States is in the midst of a fatal crash crisis. Nearly 39,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes on U.S. roads in 2020, the most since 2007. U.S. roads have become especially dangerous for “non-occupiers» of vehicles, i.e. the cyclists and pedestrians. In 2011, 16% of road deaths involved non-occupants; in 2020, it was 20%. The trends are a major reversal – from the 1970s to the late 2000s, US road deaths from the cyclists, pedestrians and people in cars had steadily declined. There are a number of potential reasons for the increase in deaths – among them the fact that many more of our cars are Fat and deadly SUVsthat states continue to raise speed limitsthat carpool vehicles have made our roads more chaotic and that people have been driving much more recklessly during the pandemic. But as many cities, states and the federal government unveiled plans to lessen the horror, progress has been elusive.
The intersection of El Camino and Grant Road illustrates much of the problem. One of the main reasons why our roads are not safe is that they were designed this way — because, as the advocacy group Smart Growth America puts it, policymakers at nearly every level of government continue to prioritize the speedy movement of vehicles over the safety of everyone else on our streets. And even when the dangers of our bad roads become glaring, authorities have limited options to fix them.
Our roads are deadly because officials will continue to call the inevitable consequences of this misconception a tragedy rather than a choice.
The only way for America to reverse the trafficking death spiral is to make a radically different choice. Death on the road declined steadily in most U.S. peer countriesmany of which adopted stricter rules regarding speed limits, seat belts, drunk driving, helmets and vehicle safety standards. Many of our peers have also removed from car-focused road design. We now have a chance to replicate their success.
How? We need to make cars smaller, because SUVs are significantly deadlier to pedestrians than to sedans. We must slow them down, because speed kills. And we must be prepared to disturb drivers slightly to improve the roads for everyone else.
In practice, this will include the installation of a variety of road safety devices and the introduction of new rules. We could deploy protected cycle paths almost everywhere; we could modify our busiest intersections so that cyclists and pedestrians have marked, safe places to wait and specialized signage to let them know when to go; sometimes we have to make cars and trucks wait longer at a signal so other people can use the road safely.
But we need to do more than just install a bunch of new bike lanes – we need to make the installation of bike lanes and other safety measures for pedestrians and cyclists an integral part of the design of our streets.
“It’s about retraining our brains,” Zabe Bent, a traffic planning expert at the National Association of City Transportation Officials, told me. In much of the United States today, driver safety and convenience is considered the natural state of affairs, while installing bicycle and pedestrian safety measures requires special approval. Among the most gruesome policies: In the federal government’s road safety bible, the MUTCD, one way for a locality justify installing a traffic light at a pedestrian crossing is if a number of people have been injured there.
Bent’s group advocates changing these default standards to favor modes of travel other than cars. She pointed has a arrangement adopted in Cambridge, Mass., in 2019 which requires the installation of safe cycle paths on any road the city fixes. In other words, bike safety is required by design – and city officials must seek permission to avoid installing a bike lane. “They flipped it,” Bent said. “You have to demonstrate why you can’t build a protected bike path,” instead of begging the city to do so.
Are U.S. policymakers brave enough to stand up for bike and pedestrian safety if it means getting in the way of cars? I can’t say I’m optimistic. Drivers are a phenomenally powerful political force – see how even Democratic politicians like Governor Gavin Newsom of California and President Biden have recently abandoned their environmental goals in order to lower gas prices.
But it’s worth remembering that protecting pedestrians and bikes on our roads isn’t just good for walkers and cyclists. It’s also good for drivers – both because most drivers are also sometimes pedestrians, and because turning some car commuters into bike commuters frees up traffic for cars. Then there is the civilizational imperative. While it’s great to see cars switch from gas to electric, switching our automobiles’ fuel source is unlikely to be enough to meet our emissions reduction targets to combat climate change. The fight against climate change also requires that Americans drive less and walk and cycle far more than we currently do.
Currently, compared to many parts of Europe, walking and biking in America is a terribly dangerous proposition. But these dismal statistics can be reversed. Even Amsterdam wasn’t always Amsterdam: Until the 1970s, the Dutch cycling paradise was as dependent on the car as many other places in the world – and it was only after a fierce militant campaign sparked by hundreds of road deaths that Amsterdam has decided to adopt bicycle safety as a central element of its urban plan.
US states and cities now have the ability to do the same. But they have to act fast and they have to act decisively. This is not the time for half-decade action plans.
A week after Andre Retana’s death, his parents called a Mountain View community meeting with a plea for city officials to rethink traffic safety.
“He should always be here with us,” Andre’s father told officials. “We want something done faster than 2030.”
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