Today's podcast and the post two weeks ago of the same name -- Just another pedestrian killed -- are part of a conversation that needs to happen in the United States. In our rush to reorient the entire continent, and our entire economy, around the automobile, we lost sight of what we were trying to accomplish. Success does not mean arriving at one's destination ten seconds sooner as our metrics would have us believe. It does't even mean that the gross domestic product grows by 3.2% instead of the projected 2.9%. It means that Americans can live happy, successful and prosperous lives, full of opportunity for self-fulfillment, secure in their person and property.
The automobile is part of that, but just a part. And not even a major part.
Our cities today -- the places where Americans are working to achieve that prosperity -- are the byproduct of the wrong set of metrics. We have largely turned their layout, design and function over to the engineering profession and they (we) use traffic flow as the primary objective. Not travel time, but speed. How quickly and fluidly can traffic move through the city? Highway design criteria and all the accompanying metrics are typically used to measure success. It is an approach wholly inconsistent with the values of most Americans.
I can say this with confidence because I've been asking audiences around the country to identify their values and they ALWAYS rate safety higher than traffic speed. ALWAYS. Yet, engineers consistently believe they are powerless to design systems where traffic conducts itself at neighborhood speeds, speeds consistent with safety. For example, a street designed for less than 30 mph -- a speed that still practically guarantees death for a pedestrian struck by a car -- here in Minnesota requires a waiver from the Commissioner of the Department of Transportation. You read that right. Want to put up a 20 mph speed limit sign? You need DOT approval here and, I can testify, they don't want to touch that. Good luck.
So we need a new conversation, a new set of metrics, not only so our cities can be places where people prosper but, at a base level, so we can become financially solvent again. All these over-designed stroads cost a ton of money and produce very low financial returns while simultaneously making our lives more dangerous and, now that we're far into the diminishing returns of these investments, actually limiting opportunity for people. We can do a lot more with less, an agenda we are going to push aggressively in 2015.
For those of you that didn't read today's story when it first ran, I'll allow you to live the little bit of drama for yourselves. Let me just say that this experience was real then and I hope you find it real today.
Tomorrow is our last day of blogging for 2014. If you've been putting off becoming a member of Strong Towns, we're just 181 new members short of our 2014 goal, a big number but, then again, we think big. The time is now so get signed up today and join the movement.
He liked Elvis. And what’s not to like? While the King had died when he was only four, he had grown up loving the music. And his hair. What he wouldn’t give to replace the pipe cleaners on his head with the cool, black waves of Elvis.
He could afford idle thoughts like this today. What a great day. A factory-installed speaker sat under the console in his brand new SUV, pumping out the bass line for A Little Less Conversation, the juiced up version remixed by Junkie XL. He had it cranked way up, the thumping of his seat amplifying his satisfaction with the world.
A little more bite and a little less bark.
A little less fight and a little more spark.
Just two weeks earlier, a truck had pulled out in front of him and he'd smashed his little Toyota coup into the side of it. The little car crumpled like a weathered Fresca can. There had been no way to avoid it. He had smashed his knee pretty bad and, thanks to some mice eating through the wires in the little car years earlier, the airbags hadn’t worked. That meant he'd knocked his head a little too. All in all, it could have been worse. The car he hit didn’t have insurance, but he did. And now he had a brand new SUV.
Baby close your eyes and listen to the music,
Drifting through a summer breeze.
This was his second new car. He preferred new having grown up in a family where old, junky cars always quit on you at the worst possible time. And while he might be able to coax an old timer car into running with a screwdriver and a can of HEET, the newer models weren’t so easily hacked. He was a professional now, running his own company no less, and he needed something completely dependable.
He was a father now too. His little girl was just eight weeks old. The Toyota was a great college commuting car but his wife had made it abundantly clear to him that their baby wasn’t going to ride in it. Too small. Not safe. He disagreed, but he was fast learning that you don’t win arguing with mom.
It wasn’t clear whether the accident that totaled the car proved her point or his. He could see it both ways. He survived just a little bruised, but while the tank of a vehicle he hit barely suffered a scratch, his car couldn’t even limp off the field under its own power. He liked that little car, especially the gas mileage. He could drive it hard and still get 34 mpg. While the new SUV had been near the top of its class in fuel efficiency, he was never going to get much over 24 now.
But the stereo was sweet, the ride comfortable and, as the October breeze cooled his face through the open window, he thumped the pseudo-cowbell that was his new dashboard. He could definitely live with this compromise.
A little less conversation, a little more action please.
All this aggravation ain't satisfactioning me.
People who live through traumatic events frequently talk about how time seems to be suspended, how the event is perceived at a different speed than real life. It isn’t clear whether the hyper-activity of the moment actually allows the otherwise sleepy brain to take in and store more information or whether the brain fills in the details later during the act of reliving the ordeal. Either way, only time can dull such vividness.
In the opposing lane of the two lane highway a car was stopped. It was preparing to take a left turn across traffic. Having been hit from behind, and having made the innocent and rarely costly mistake of having the wheels turned anticipating the turn, the driver and her young son were prematurely propelled on their desired course.
He saw them clearly as they crossed the centerline and entered the opposite lane. Their faces. The panic in their eyes. The driver looked like she was in her forties, although her face had the kind of premature aging one gets from smoking for too many years. She covered it with her right hand as if a little bit of flesh, muscle and bone could somehow prevent the inevitable.
The passenger was worse. The boy’s eyes were wide as if he had just woken up in the middle of the night, walked downstairs for a drink of water and stumbled sleepily onto a television showing a steamy sex scene, the tired, cloudy and innocent mind registering a mix of shock, confusion and disbelief. I’m not supposed to be here, but here I am, through no fault of my own.
Acting on instinct – the furthest reaction from heroism, although it likely saved lives – he banked hard to the right to avoid the car in his path. It couldn’t be completely avoided, however, his brand new SUV traveling at highway speeds and the distance simply not enough to avoid contact. At a slight angle, he hit her car knocking him further to the right – uncontrollably – and sending her and her son spinning.
Come on baby I'm tired of talking.
Grab your coat and let's start walking.
The brain should be excused for doing strange things in a moment like this. If shock is an evolutionary response to trauma, one that enabled early man the momentary strength needed to flee to safety when injured, the gallows humor that frequently accompanies such situations also likely has evolutionary origins.
As the SUV crossed the shoulder and departed the roadway, he momentarily laughed out loud as he performed an act he had simulated with matchbox cars dozens of times as a boy; he ran over the stop sign. It could not have been any more perfectly lined up in the center of the grill. Bam. It was gone. Flattened. It was beautifully thrilling.
Then the vehicle was airborne, a fact not fully appreciated until it hit the ground on the far side of the ditch. One hop and then, as symmetrically as the stop sign had aligned with the axis of the car, so did a tree. Only the tree didn’t give way.
Pop. All of a sudden the thousands of crash test dummy simulations he had seen in those boring car commercials they play during NFL games had some meaning. His body propelled forward, the seat belt caught, his head snapped into a balloon that had been inflated with a force greater than his own, and everything went black.
Darkness. Darkness. Black.
Why is the horn blaring? Who has their hand on the horn? THE HORN IS SO DAMNED LOUD!!!
He realized it was his horn. He tried to press it as if pressing it would somehow un-press it and end the noise, but the airbag made that impossible. Then the smell – sulfur, something burning – and the song, much louder now that the car had stopped moving. He thought of how cars blow up in the movies. That doesn’t really happen, does it?
A little less conversation, a little more action please.
All this aggravation ain't satisfactioning me.
He couldn’t breathe and he started to panic. With his left hand he reached down, popped the seat belt and then, with no shame or ceremony, rolled out of the car onto the ground. He crawled around waiting for the air that had been forced from his lungs to finds its way back in. While he had experienced getting the wind knocked out of him before, there was an edge of terror that accompanied these frantic gasps. And the blaring horn. Would the music ever stop?
A little more bite and a little less bark,
A little less fight and a little more spark.
As the air began to find its way back in, he found himself being dragged away from the car. Someone propped him up against a nearby tree.
The horn. The music.
“Stay right here. We’ve called for help. It’s going to be okay.”
That horn is so loud. And the music is going to keep playing because the song is on repeat. He starts to feel shame as he realizes these people are going to think that he listens to one Elvis song on repeat, over and over, day in and day out. Who does that?
He forces himself to get up and walk to the car. It is smoking out of the front end which is bashed in a good twenty four inches. The axles are destroyed, a fact made obvious by the tires being near parallel to the ground. The doors are open – they don’t look closable – and airbags litter the front dashboard. If he could just shut off the radio.
Then someone new is moving him away from the car, someone with less panic in his voice, someone of authority. They help him to the ground, lay him on a blanket then cover him with more blankets. The cloth is heavy and thick like an old rug. These people talk to him, reassuringly, check his body for injury. They shut off the radio and the horn. First responders.
“What’s your name?”
“Okay. Chuck what?”
“Um…. Marohn. Chuck Marohn.”
“Okay. Stay still. An ambulance is on the way. We’re going to get you to the hospital.”
An ambulance? He doesn’t need an ambulance. Someone who can walk doesn’t need an ambulance. The stubborn pride of his age and upbringing rear its head. He reaches in his pocket and pulls out his phone. While it would take months for him to be able to process numbers reliably, the concussion symptoms persisting longer than he was likely even aware, his home is on autodial so no deep cognitive function is necessary.
“Can you come and pick me up. I got in a little accident.”
Ten minutes later his wife arrived, their infant buckled up in the back seat. She had driven the same road he had, the road they both have driven hundreds – maybe thousands – of times before. The road they would continue to drive. With their baby girl. And soon a second. And like all those times but his most recent, there had been no accident, no small quirk of fate that had nearly ended a life.
In that she was lucky. And they have been lucky since. High speed traffic combined with stopped and turning traffic is a guaranteed recipe for tragedy. What happened that day wasn’t an accident. Accidents are preventable. What happened that day was the statistically inevitable outcome of the circumstances. Another statistic.
He got in the car, the pain now becoming very real, and looked at his wife. As she drove him to the hospital, all he could do was shake and cry.
That day in October 2004 was one of the worst of my life. The collision totaled a brand new car, one with slightly more than 500 miles on it. When I went to the salvage lot to get my Elvis CD and other belongings out of it, I saw the damage and was amazed I survived. My mom was with and she cried. I had some deep bruises that took weeks to heal, some burns on my wrists (from the airbag) that hurt worse but healed more quickly and then months of fog from a severe concussion. I feel lucky to be alive.
Last month, on a similar stroad just a few miles from my house, there was another terrible collision that was eerily similar to mine. A car heading in one direction, another stopped in the opposite lane waiting to cross hit by another driver not anticipating the stopping/turning movement. Five people were injured. One had to be airlifted to the hospital. These are lives that will never be the same.
This follows another accident that happened a little further up the stroad. A biker riding along the wide shoulder was hit by an intoxicated woman who was also texting while driving. The biker, a neighbor of mine who was a very decent man with a wife, kids and grandkids, was killed.
I drive by the tire tracks of this latest scene. In time they will fade away. We will take the official accident reports and compile them into statistics. The cause of accident: Driver inattentiveness. Alcohol. Improper signaling. One of the checkboxes that documents human nature. People being people.
Life. Normal life.
When we mix high speed cars with stopping and turning traffic, it is only a matter of time until people get killed. It is statistically inevitable because we are all normal people living normal lives. When things get bad at one spot – when a random sample of accidents becomes the inevitable statistical aberration in one place or another, the mistaken signal within the noise – professional engineers will propose some turn lanes or a lane widening or a greater clear zone. They will never propose the two things that would matter: designing non-highways in such a way that people drive more slowly and removing dangerous accesses from those highways where we want people to drive fast.
I wrote this today because I wanted you to experience, at least a little bit, what those moments of terror are like. Then I want to give you this question to ponder: is it worth it? Are all the developments we get on the periphery of town, all the strip commercial growth we get along the highway, the couple of minutes we save on a local commute, is it all worth it?
Not to me.