This somber event first was commemorated in the United Kingdom in 1995, later expanding to other countries. Here in Austin, Texas, USA, those who died in the past year in cars, on bikes, or on foot, are remembered with speeches, flowers, a silent walk and exhortations to stop the epidemic of car-nage. Despite a very sore knee, I made my way downtown to join the 50 or so participants, pay my respects to the 70+ people who died since last November, and hope that I’m not on the list next year. While “only” three bicyclists died, that’s still three too many. Read their stories here: Anothony Diaz, Jessica Saathoff and Anthony Williams.
I arrived (by bike, natch) with a painful knee and a setting sun. There was a smattering of people at a downtown park. Several people were known to me from bike activism, and we said hello or waved from a distance. Soon, a few speakers talked about the event, including the daughter of a woman, her mother, who was killed by a car. She was hit while walking across the intersection, with the light, during the day. The car driver simply jumped too soon and ran her down. Like most of the deaths, they say it was preventable. Certainly they were all tragic.
Statistics were given but didn’t stay in my head. I looked at the people holding yellow carnations, meaning they each had lost someone. Why was I here at such a depressing event? I thought to myself. Several reasons: to remind myself how fragile life is, that mine or anyone’s could be ended in a second, to bike safer, and to do as Mother Jones said:
“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”
We were then instructed to go on a mile walk. Despite wearing my mountain bike Pearl Izumi clip-in shoes (which have most of the clip recessed so one can walk) but still having searing knee pain, I gave into the moment and peer pressure and went on the walk. I brought Sophie the Fairdale to lean on. We went to the state Capitol, keeping silence throughout for the most part. In several cases the line of walkers got split up, and had to wait for cars. Some of them made some dangerous moves like running a red light or not stopping before the line which could have been disastrous, but everyone was ok.
Returning to the park, it was time for more speeches. Some TV news cameras were there, probably because Hizzoner himself, Mayor Steve Adler was there and Sunday is a slow news day. He talked about doing better as a community to avoid future deaths. Mayor Pro Tem, Delia Garza, spoke, her young daughter by her side. The head of Capital Metro, Randy Clark, spoke up, and said he had almost been hit by a car while on his bicycle earlier in the week, and that he had lost a relative to a car crash. And then the mother of a young autistic boy, who got run over after getting out of the house one night. It was a tragic story.
All the speakers talked about the senselessness of the crash, the terrible loss, and how it could have been prevented. Either by better lighting, infrastructure like a crosswalk or bike lane, or by reducing distracted driving like texting or drinking while driving. The Vision Zero plan was touted as a program by the event sponsor, Farm & City, to get traction in cities around the state. Originally begun in Sweden, the idea is to use various approaches to reduce traffic fatalities to nothing by a certain year. Certainly ambitious, it nonetheless is something worth pursuing. The polite, quiet applause after each speaker made me wonder how so few people could do much of anything against such a huge problem.
It became dark, a few people left early, and the speeches wound down. We were exhorted to do more, sign petitions, speak up, insist on change, work for better laws and infrastructure, and so on. And soon it was over. I talked to a few people, including the father of a young woman who died while texting. He became an activist as a way to deal and try to heal from his grief, and help prevent it from happening to others. It was very sad, and I couldn’t imagine having to live with that.
But I can imagine it, because my only first cousin died in a car crashing into a tree early in his high school. He was the passenger on the way to band practice when the driver lost control and skidded in some gravel into a tree. Stephen died immediately on impact, so at least he didn’t suffer. As I made my way home, I thought about the relatives of those who died here. Nothing would bring my cousin or them back. Slowing down, more driver education, defensive driving, better lighting, signage, bike lanes, and side walks, stiffer penalties for bad drivers — there are many things to be done.
What can you do today to reduce distracted driving? The life you save may be your own.
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