The recent tragic death of Jayden Cho-Sargent in Lewiston brought the total number of pedestrian fatalities in Maine to 13 in 2016. That tragic death put Maine uncomfortably close to last year’s record-setting tally of 19 and is in addition to three more bicycle fatalities.
Cho-Sargent’s death should serve as a call to action to do something about the epidemic of fatalities and serious injuries to people walking and biking who are hit by cars.
But it probably won’t.
There will be vigils, memorials and forums, and perhaps a brief uptick in participation in the state’s bicycle and pedestrian safety education program by local schools. Perhaps drivers will slow down for a few days at the location of the tragedy. Maybe the crosswalk will get some fresh paint. But then people will settle back into their normal routines.
We will permit ourselves to be distracted. We will drive too fast. We will walk or bike in the roadway without following the rules and without enough consideration as to whether other users can see us. We will conclude that Cho-Sargent’s death was just another “accident,” as if it were an event beyond our control.
And then we’ll have another fatality.
What is the threshold of our outrage?
Every year, U.S. highways kill more people walking or bicycling — about 5,500 — than the number of people in the 911 terrorist attacks — 2,996.
When is it time to rise up and say “enough already?”
Across the country and in Maine, public officials need to invest in effective education to make sure that everyone knows the law and best practices for using the roadways safely and courteously. Is it any surprise that walkers and bike riders are regularly being killed and injured when we don’t provide any systematic traffic safety education about how they should behave?
And that doesn’t mean just school-age children. Maine statistics show that the most commonly hit age group while walking or bicycling are adults. Getting more traffic safety education in our schools and newsfeeds is the only way to create a generation of people who know how to be safe and civil on the roads, whether walking, riding a bike, or driving a car.
But that is not enough. We also need to invest more effort in enforcing the rules of the road for all users and in enforcing speed limits and distracted driving laws for motorists.
We all need to slow down and pay more attention. We need to start looking more critically at the excuse that “I never saw them.”
While some walkers and bicycle riders needlessly put themselves at risk by not wearing reflective or bright clothing in dark conditions, according to Maine DOT statistics, the large majority of bicycle and pedestrian crashes occur during daylight, in clear dry conditions.
How can a driver not have seen someone in those conditions?
Jayden Cho-Sargent was hit in morning light, in a crosswalk, where people should be expected to be. Is it really “just an accident” that he wasn’t seen?
How much inattention is tolerable?
But even education and enforcement are not enough. More effort must be invested in engineering streets so that they are safe and complete. Is it any surprise that people drive at highway speeds on city streets when the lanes are as wide as those on the interstates?
Is it any surprise that conditions are intrinsically less safe for walkers and bicycle riders, when we only allocate a tiny fraction of transportation dollars to serving their needs? And is it any surprise that more sidewalks and bike facilities are not built, when people show up at public meetings to argue that the expense of maintaining them is too great?
Things won’t change until the public sees the need to do something differently.
How many more people need to be killed or injured while walking and bicycling on public roads before we start demanding the changes in education, enforcement and engineering that will reduce these tragic, senseless deaths?
Nancy Grant is the executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, headquartered in Portland.