By Joe Baur
33,808 Americans lost their lives in traffic related fatalities in 2009 according to the U.S. Census. This only includes deaths within 30 days of the accident, and does not include survivors who are left with lifelong injuries.
Last Friday, Clevelanders saw an innocent child added to the seemingly ever-increasing tally of hit-skip victims when a 5-year-old Cleveland Metropolitan School District student was killed in a hit-and-run incident at Denison Avenue and W. 37th Street.
These tragic killings can be avoided. There’s no need to accept the increase of hit-skips across the city as part of everyday life. In fact, there’s a very simple solution that can save countless lives – respect the dangers of driving, lower the speed limit to 20 miles per hour on city streets, and enforce the law.
Losing Our Humanity
Comparatively to traffic fatalities, nearly 40,000 women per year die of breast cancer according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet we don’t see NFL superstars wearing custom shoes and jerseys for a month to raise awareness of the inherent dangers behind driving an (on average) 4,000-pound vehicle at dangerous speeds.
Of course the difference between these two travesties is that vehicle fatalities can largely be prevented. Despite this obvious fact, it seems to have done little to sway the behavior of the average driver. Head out on the highway or city streets and you’ll likely find people chatting away on their phone or worse, texting. And I think we can all agree it takes a special kind of stupid to assume texting and driving for even a second is okay.
But we as humans rationalize our worst behaviors. We’ll come up with excuses for anything and everything.
Drunk driving? “I’m not that bad.”
Dangerous driving? “Sorry! I needed to make that exit.”
Driving over the speed limit? “I’m late,” “Everyone else is doing it,” or my personal favorite: “The speed limit should be higher anyway.”
We lose our humanity behind the wheel. Driving a car is the only situation where it is socially acceptable to flip off a stranger or shout a string of vulgarities without giving a second thought.
That lack of empathy slips into the way we talk about traffic. An accident happens on the Shoreway and we report on slowed traffic, suggesting detours so we can continue our commute without being bothered with the fact that someone might have just lost their life.
Specifically in Cleveland, this loss of humanity behind the wheel is literally killing our friends and family. Over 2013 alone, we’ve seen an increase in hit-skips on cyclists and pedestrians.
The CMSD incident came with a sad hint of irony. This past Friday also happened to be “Molly Day,” which commemorates the day Senator George Voinovich’s daughter, Molly, was struck and killed on her way to school years ago. In other words, this issue is nothing new.
To put it in perspective, SUVs (the type of vehicle reported to have committed the hit-and-run) weighs in excess of 6,000 pounds. The average 5-year-old weighs around 40 pounds, yet we’ve implemented infrastructure that favors the SUV across the entire city. Why have we allowed ourselves to dedicate so much space and favorability toward inanimate objects over people?
Clevelanders across the city are mourning. But what are we going to do to change things? How are we going to learn from this? Or are we accepting that we’ll occasionally read about fatal and non-fatal hit-skips as a part of life?
Despite this travesty, drivers will continue to speed 10 miles per hour over the posted 25 mile per hour speed limit on Ontario to race onto the highway. Drivers will continue to play chicken with pedestrians crossing marked crosswalks on Euclid Avenue and St. Clair. This senseless loss of life will continue until we change our car culture and how we prioritize traffic in this city.
Our potential savior comes out of the United Kingdom – reducing the speed limit on city streets to 20 miles per hour and actually enforcing it.
The idea comes from Rod King, Founder and Director of the 20’s Plenty For Us campaign that has been lowering speed limits across the UK in order to save lives and make parents feel safer about sending their kids off to school by foot or bike. Though their website looks straight out of GeoCities, it’s packed with excellent information and myth busting.
There’s no reason not to bring 20’s Plenty to Cleveland. The lives like those of the young Cleveland student are more important than a quick commute. This isn’t a punishment on drivers. It’s simply a course correction. For far too long we’ve valued moving traffic along over the health and safety of our residents, and it’s not working.
Since motor vehicle deaths have been recorded in the United States starting in 1899, an incredible 3,572,832 Americans have died. How is this acceptable? How can any self-respecting Clevelander hear these numbers or read the personal tragedies piling up around town and still justify high speed limits?
If you want to live out in the exurbs of Westlake, Strongsville or Lake County – that’s your prerogative. Or if you live in the city and simply enjoy taking your car around, that’s swell too. But nobody in Cleveland should accept or be expected to sacrifice our health and safety for personal convenience or amusement.
In short, slow the f@% down, Cleveland. 20 is plenty.
Joe Baur is a freelance writer, filmmaker and satirist with a diverse array of interests including travel, adventure, craft beer, health, urban issues, culture and politics. He ranks his allegiances in the order of Cleveland, the state of Ohio and the Rust Belt, and enjoys a fried egg on a variety of meats. Joe has a B.A. in Mass Communication with a focus on production from Miami University. Follow him at http://JoeBaur.com and on Twitter @BaurJoe.