I've written a couple of posts so far this week about terrible incidents that have occurred when automobiles traveling along stroads ended up killing kids (Shooting Bullets / The Bollard Defense). I've got one more that will hopefully move us from what needs to be done (#slowthecars on our streets, de-stroad our roads) to who is responsible to lead the effort.
And let me preview for you my answer to the latter question: The engineering profession has a moral obligation to lead the effort to address this problem. They are the only ones who effectively can and without them it won't happen.
An all-too-familiar story out of Springfield, Oregon, from this past February:
Police said 68-year-old Larry La Thorpe of Springfield was behind the wheel of a pickup truck when it went through the intersection of 54th and Main streets.
The truck hit and killed 8-year-old John Alexander Day; 5-year-old Mckenzie Mae Hudson; and 4-year-old Tyler James Hudson.
Medics took their mother, Cortney Jean Hudson, 26, of Springfield, to the hospital with serious injuries.
She was listed in fair condition Tuesday at a local hospital.
This tragedy occurred at the intersection of 54th Street and Main Street, one of this country's ubiquitous stroad environments. Here's what the intersection looks like. I'm sure your community has lots of these.
This being the third time through a tragic story like this in two days, the response should now be anticipated by the reader. People are horrified at the tragic loss of life. Temporary memorials are erected. Community dialog begins. Consensus emerges around a set of responses.
City officials and residents are proposing safety improvements after a driver struck and killed three children in a busy Springfield, Oregon, intersection last month.
The City Council is discussing safety proposals at a meeting Monday night.
Mayor Christine Lundberg told The Register-Guard newspaper she wants everything on the table. Ideas range from increased enforcement to more public safety announcements.
Public safety announcements, as if three dead kids -- among scores of others killed around the country each year -- isn't announcement enough. Understand that fourteen people have died on this Main Street alone in the past decade. FOURTEEN! You'd think that would wake someone up.
Now to be fair, there were other proposals beyond enforcement and education that were put on the table. Although it was labeled "complicated" there was some mention of traffic calming.
They include reducing speeds on the corridor either by lowering speed limits or narrowing the travel lanes to give motorists a visual cue they need to slow down. Both would require ODOT approval.
The speed limit is 40 mph along most of the corridor, but it increases to 45 at the eastern end.
These are complicated, of course, because it would "require ODOT approval." Read: Not gonna happen.
Among the hundreds of similar tragedies I could highlight -- the list is endless -- I've picked this one because of an editorial column that came with it. The editorial board of the Oregonian weighed into this debate with When a tragic accident is just a tragic accident, a piece that acknowledged the tragedy while also acknowledging the fact that it is really, really difficult to condemn a person -- lock them up -- for something that was not related to how they were operating but merely a matter of chance; bad timing in a situation that any of us who drive could find ourselves in.
There are few words as inadequate as "accident" in describing a tragedy of this magnitude. It's hard not to feel outrage that LaThorpe isn't being held criminally accountable for a clear failure with such devastating consequences. How can there be no one to pay for the violent deaths these three kids suffered?
But as wholly unsatisfying as it may be, "accident" is the only way to accurately describe what unfolded at that intersection on Feb. 22. Investigators found no evidence that LaThorpe was impaired, using a phone or speeding. And while the community may be searching for a way to ease its grief, prosecutors cannot look to heartbreak and anger as the building blocks of a case.
Even though I know that is going to anger some of you, I agree with the Oregonian. But Chuck....if you're driving a big truck, you suffer the consequences of your actions. Those kids get no second chance. Throw him in jail and hide the key. While I understand this reaction, I don't find it helpful because it ignores the reality that someone can operate a vehicle as it's designed, following the rules of the environment it is designed for, doing so with all prudence and seriousness and they can STILL wind up killing someone. Many times a driver is at fault and, if that's the case, convict them. But many times it is random chance, the statistically predictable outcome of millions of chance interactions between fast moving cars and complex environments that we have designed into our system.
I have an answer to this: eliminate stroads. We need to convert our stroads into slow moving streets that are safe for everyone (#slowthecars) or high speeds roads that connect productive places in safe corridors that are free from turning traffic and other complex movements. It's either a street or a road and the design must reflect that.
So who is responsible for this? The Oregonian editorial points us in the right direction.
Lane County District Attorney Alex Gardner sought to provide some of that legal background in his press release announcing the decision not to charge LaThorpe. He quoted from a 2014 Oregon Court of Appeals decision in a case where a 17-year-old Curry County girl crashed into and killed a motorcyclist when she fell asleep at the wheel. In overturning her conviction, the judges said criminally negligent homicide requires proof "that the defendant should have been aware of a problem with the defendant's driving, such as swerving, inattention, or near collisions," before the crash.
Another case, decided in 1978, established "that mere inadvertence, brief inattention, or error in judgment as to proper speed does not constitute gross negligence" unless there's a component of recklessness – such as drinking – or a "conscious indifference to the safety of others."
Focus on that last part of that last sentence; a conscious indifference to the safety of others. In order to be found guilty of gross negligence, you must display a conscious indifference to the safety of others. Keep that in mind as we review the stroads where the five child deaths I highlighted this week and the one I pointed out last December took place.
Who is showing a conscious indifference to the safety of others? In other words, who is grossly negligent? Is it the driver who is following the speed limit, operating a vehicle well below the much higher design speed? Or is it whoever decided that 45+ mph traffic should be feet away from kids biking on the sidewalk, moms with strollers and children waiting to be picked up from daycare?
Is it the driver -- a mere mortal suffering a predictable, perhaps even understandable, moment of inattention or confusion while performing the monotony that we call driving -- or is it the person who took 70 mph highway standards and applied them to urban streets?
Is it the driver, whose path has been cleared of every foreseeable obstacle in a desperate effort to gain them seconds' worth of performance, or is it the person who apparently believes it is optimal to have no less than a quarter mile distance between each seven lane pedestrian crossing?
Who is the one showing conscious indifference? Who is grossly negligent?
It's not a person; it's a profession. The engineering profession -- with a growing number of notable exceptions -- employs a systematic approach to design prioritizing the fast and efficient (but not safe) movement of automobiles over everything else. As a general rule, engineers show a conscious indifference to pedestrians and cyclists, misunderstanding their needs where they are not disregarded completely. This is the very definition of gross negligence.
This system can't be changed by engineers alone, but they are the only ones that can credibly lead the charge. A new mindset among my fellow engineers would be game-changing. In a future post I'm going to detail the steps that any engineer can take to start doing the right thing.