Dark thoughts, semi-mistakes, and a mental health check

(Photo: Shannon Johnson)

how are you?

Looking at road fatalities recently in Portland, and similar trends across the country, I feel pretty low. As I try to understand these tragedies, I am fully aware that each data point represents a short life.

These tragedies are not straightforward tragedies, but I still feel sad for them. From my imminent view, I run the risks of being on the road (or near it), trying to figure out how to use the roads more safely, and advocating to make them safer. Shocked by the dangerous and deadly consequences of the collision, I get to understand the bigger picture, a better understanding may provide some guidance, some insight, some safer path forward.

For me, I grapple with near misses that didn’t result in accidents, but this still haunts me. On two occasions she almost hit us as we crossed the street at an intersection with a pedestrian signal.

My dismal comfort is that if walking can also kill us, I think cycling is no worse.

Primarily, I was riding my giant cargo electric bike, fully loaded with four kids in the front box. We were on the road, in the left-turning lane, but realized we were stuck at an unchanging red light for a bike. After two full turns of light, we had to light our way through traffic in the right direction to get up on the narrow sidewalk and hit the signal button. We were feeling hot, tired, frustrated, and late. I was terrified, too, after feeling stuck in the middle of a busy intersection with four kids in the boot of my bike, stuck in a left turn lane with a steady red light, cars moving around me on all sides. So when we got to the sidewalk and waited through another light cycle for the traffic light, we were more than ready to take our long-awaited turn to cross the street.

But I saw a car approaching our intersection over my left shoulder, a car that would turn right, a car with a red light, a car that was supposed to stop for us as we crossed.

Instead of stepping into the crosswalk, I forced myself to take a second look at that car, to make sure he saw us and stopped. he did not do. The driver didn’t even look at us. Instead, he hurried through the footpath we were about to occupy, a space we had the right to occupy, and if I had not been “defensive walking,” we would have occupied it.

If I entered the road when our sign changed, if on this occasion I failed to look twice, to make sure that I had made eye contact with the driver before entering the street, if I had followed my hot and tired desire to do so. just go It was our turn! My kids could have hit his speeding car.

The second time she was about to mistake us was an almost identical occasion. This time, I would dress up my baby, push my 3-year-old in the stroller while carrying his scooter, and supervise two other kids on the scooter. As we approached a busy intersection, I instructed my older children to get off their scooters and walk—something that may have saved lives.

We got to the busy corner and turned to hit the walk button, only to see the pedestrian crossing sign light up. “Oh!” I said recklessly, “We can go!” Across the busy street, a pedestrian on the opposite corner was already walking our way, about from the road to cross. We turned toward the road and was about to advance with my buggy and two scooter kids, when a black pickup truck, crossing our toes straight, cut across the crosswalk and on its way.

I stood dumbfounded.

The person walking down the aisle shouted at us and waved her arms at the truck. She saw what was about to happen. I felt nauseous down to the depths of my stomach. My eldest daughter was heading down that aisle first. If she had jumped on her scooter to ride, and took a few steps down the street, instead of going docilely slowly while towing her scooter, she would have been crushed under that truck, right in front of me. My imagination jumped into this worst-case scenario…holding her shattered body in my arms, having to say goodbye to my daughter on the street corner…

Terribly, I know some families have experienced this very thing. My dark perceptions are another person’s terrible truth.

It’s hard to wrestle with her. When I put my kids on the bike, I try to stuff myself with thoughts, fears, and questions. “Will my new hobby kill my children?” Hush! Calm darn mind! Don’t go there.”

Unexpectedly, impending deaths brought me a strange kind of relief: They reminded me that traffic fatalities are very high and very common. Our close call came as a family cycling when we used the sidewalks and crossed the street as pedestrians. And while I know a lot of people condemn my choice to ride a bike with my kids—because of the crash risks—I’ve never in my life heard anyone criticize a mother for walking her child in a stroller.

“Oh, you shouldn’t do that, it’s too dangerous!” No one ever said to someone pushing a stroller through a signposted walkway in bright daylight. “Where is your helmet? Have you been wearing high-quality clothing? How can you take such risks with your children?” Nobody says that to a parent on a picnic.

So yeah, my bleak comfort is that if walking can kill us too, I think cycling is no worse.

Dark humor and dark thoughts. So far, I’ve pushed them aside. I looked at only one statistic: that the leading cause of death for children in the United States was consistently car crashes. Cars, even riding in them, are a major cause of death for children. (Honey, double check, I see that firearms have recently overtaken cars as the leading cause of child death!)

Our impending missteps surprised me, because danger ran into us in a place and in a way I had not expected, a place I had previously thought was safe: signposted footpaths. When imagining how we might get hit, and how to avoid more dangerous situations, it never crossed my mind to walk a bike or a moped through the footpath.

Maybe I should take a look at the data. Perhaps I can learn more about the cause of these deaths, in hopes of avoiding collisions ourselves, but also so that I can become an effective advocate for safer streets for all. This means looking at data and details that I wish I didn’t have. But if we are to change this horrific reality of traffic death, and if we are to seriously push for Vision Zero, we must study the current tragic reality with interest and care, eyes wide open. These are not things I want to see, know or think about. But it is a responsibility that I will take on, hoping to contribute to changing it.

To all those who have suffered a loss from a traffic collision, I am so sorry for your loss. I think about you.

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