Seventeen years ago today, I was riding home with high school friends, sitting in the backseat of an old station wagon. While turning left at an intersection, we were hit by a box truck.
The feeling of autumn compounds the mood I get from this memory–its fuzzy edges and vivid snippets. There was yelling just before we were hit. Afterwards, I think my door wouldn’t open and I slid across the backseat, exiting on the driver’s side. I saw a friend on his phone. I laid down on the ground.
I’m unsure how long it took for the paramedics to arrive. They asked if I was hurt and I said I couldn’t breathe. There was an ambulance ride. Then at some point, my mom was standing next to my bed. She told me that one of my friends had died and I remember crying.
My friend, who was killed, sat in the front seat directly ahead of me. He was a few fractions of a second further, directly in the path of the oncoming vehicle. I had broken ribs, a partially collapsed lung, a lacerated liver, and internal bleeding
At that time, a lacerated liver required staying in bed. The hospital stay included powerful painkillers but nights were interrupted by intense pain. When I was finally allowed to walk, I had trouble balancing.
The initial injuries receded and I was discharged. But after a short time home, I started getting intense fevers. The fevers worsened and I was re-admitted due to an infection. After another stay, I was released again but this time with a purse attached to my arm. It had a pump that fed antibiotics through a tube stitched to my bicep. The tube ran down a blood vessel towards my heart. Every few hours, I felt an internal chill as the antibiotics were dispensed. When I was clear of the infection, I was re-admitted to the hospital one final time for surgery. They cut out a piece of lung and left tubes sticking out of my back for drainage. My skin still crawls thinking about when they pulled out the tubes.
In the background there was intense love and affection. My parents slept at the hospital. Friends made long drives to visit. Extended family came from far away. Classmates I’d barely spoken with sent notes. The hospital staff was supremely empathetic, kind, and helpful.
It was a bad time but I lived.
I think I wanted life to return to normal but it was askew. We were teenagers and that meant talking about the dark and gross details: bedpans, catheters, painkillers.
Other aspects were only discussed discreetly. There was a call from a lawyer who wanted me to remember minutiae of the crash. I had drunken discussions with my friend who had been driving. I felt he was carrying a burden. There were teachers who gave me passing grades on homework I didn’t do. There was talk about medical bills. There were suggestions I had changed, become more negative.
And then there were things that were never talked about. I remember sitting in a waiting room across from the driver who hit us. We didn’t make eye contact. Long afterwards, my body would get a rush of adrenaline when I was in a car turning left. As time passed, I thought about my friend’s death less frequently and I felt wrong for letting it recede. I felt guilt about being sad because we weren’t very close. I thought about his family and how I didn’t have the courage to talk with them. I worried about receiving sympathy because other people’s loss was more serious. I still think about how we had the same birthday.
I also remember feeling increasingly powerless. Chance events stomp into life, dropping an exclamation point on how meaningless our day-to-day activities seem. I grew cynical.
Yet, over time, life changed. I got older, went to college, and lived in a city for the first time. It was the last time I owned a car. I needed money and could get around by walking, biking, or bussing.
As my life contained less driving, my worldview changed. I learned that over 35,000 people die every year in the United States from traffic violence. Every two years, more people die in our streets than the number of Americans killed during the Vietnam War. My story was personal, but it was also a statistic. Many of us relate to this tragedy. We are a large community.
This misfortune irreversibly changed my life, the lives of everyone in that car, their families and their friends. I reacted by imagining life as capricious. Death and suffering seemed to be arbitrary “accidents” caused by human error. Life forced this on me every time I got in a car. With no effort at all I could be killed or kill someone else.
But seventeen years later, I feel much different. My friend’s death was not an accident. All of the 35,000 deaths each year in our streets include painful personal stories like the one I’ve recounted. These deaths are not accidents. Traffic violence is caused by public policy. It’s the result of our collective decisions about street design, speed limits, and land use. We know how to minimize crashes but we fail to care.
There is a dread in knowing more people will be killed in our streets. This sharpens into anger when it actually occurs. But for me, the anger no longer springs from a well of cynicism. I know this problem is solvable and I know who is responsible. We continually see elected leaders prioritize publicly-subsidized parking ahead of safe streets. Some publicly shame folks who get around using a bicycle. They wait to improve safety until after people are hit and killed. And most importantly, they often do nothing. They aren’t just killing bike lanes. But we know they can do better because sometimes electeds show leadership.
The anniversary of my memory coincides with Seattle’s budget deliberations. Our budget is the clearest expression of our values and priorities. It’s an opportunity to recommit to Vision Zero. We should not be investing in solutions that prioritize private vehicles. Instead, we could complete the Downtown Basic Bike Network, expand bus lanes, adequately fund sidewalk construction, pilot home zones, and most importantly, make our streets safer. We can spend money on a future that eliminates these tragedies. We can design streets that work for everyone.