Tour de Lab September 1st

Bill’s passage will lead to more oversight of TriMet crashes

Posted by on July 25th, 2019 at 3:50 pm

Familes for Safe Streets advocate Darla Sturdy (right) stands with Governor Kate Brown and House Rep. Barbara Smith Warner following the vote on SB 1053.
(Photo courtesy Darla Sturdy).

The dogged determination of one advocate has forced TriMet to create a new committee to review all injury and fatal crashes involving their vehicles.

Darla Sturdy, a volunteer with Families for Safe Streets, turned anguish over her son’s death in 2003 into activism that has now led to passage of two bills through the Oregon Legislature. In 2007 she passed a bill requiring TriMet to study and create recommendations for how to make dozens of light-rail crossings safer. That bill became law four years after her 16-year-old son Aaron Sturdy-Wagner was killed while biking through one of them.

And on June 30th of this year, Sturdy’s bill passed just one hour before the end of the session. Senate Bill 1053 establishes a seven-member TriMet Crash Advisory Committee. Originally intended to be completely independent of TriMet with members appointed by the Oregon Transportation Commission, the final bill allows the agency’s general manager to appoint the members. The bill also mandates that committee members must come from a wide variety of experiences and professional expertise including: a disability rights advocate, a biking and walking advocate, a government agency staffer, a vision zero expert from Portland, and a TriMet board member.

“They didn’t want to do it… Then I said, politics or lives?”
— Darla Sturdy

Sturdy fought for this committee because she doesn’t trust TriMet. “TriMet judges their own accidents,” she repeated to me several times on the phone today. It’s true. Until now, the agency has always investigated themselves when one of their light rail or bus operators hurts or kills someone.

Reached today on the phone, Sturdy said it took six months of work to pass the bill. It died twice and went through three bill numbers before it was signed by Governor Kate Brown last week. At each step, Sturdy didn’t take no for an answer. “I probably met personally with all but four legislators in that building,” she told me today from a conference she’s attending in Dallas. At one point Sturdy asked her House representative to do a “bill pull” — legislative jargon for pulling a bill directly out of committee for a vote on the floor — something that’s not done very often. “They didn’t want to do it because other lawmakers might frown on it,” she shared. “Then I said, politics or lives?”

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Bill text.

A MAX light rail crossing in southeast Portland
(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)

Eventually Sturdy’s relationships paid off and she was able to get her bill on the floor. It passed unanimously an hour before the gavel came down for good.

“I knew God would take me to the end, but I didn’t realize he’d take me all the way to the last hour,” she said with a laugh.

Sturdy knows her work isn’t done. This unrelenting advocate was at TriMet’s Board Meeting last night. “I looked at the GM (Doug Kelsey) and said, ‘You’re going to be picking this committee’. And I told the board, ‘You better make sure they come from the outside’.”

For their part, TriMet was officially neutral on the bill. In a letter to lawmakers dated June 19th, the agency’s director of government affairs, Bernie Bottomly wrote, “We would like to express our reservations regarding the potential ramifications and unintended consequences of the proposed legislation… TriMet concerns relate to how this legislation may conflict with other requirements placed on the agency by both state and federal law regarding safety Management and reporting, civil liability mitigation, privacy rights of employees, attorney-client privilege and public records.”

In the end, Sturdy hasn’t lost sight of why she devotes so much of her life to this fight. “My son would be proud of me. He had a saying, ‘Dream big, don’t let the little things get in your way.’ To me that meant I can’t save him, but I can save others,” she said, holding back tears. “That’s what it is. To make that change, make it better. I believe we all have a purpose and I found mine in safety advocacy.”

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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22 Comments
  • Avatar
    Allan Rudwick July 25, 2019 at 4:30 pm

    Meanwhile… is anyone looking into car crashes?

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      David Hampsten July 26, 2019 at 7:51 am

      Why, yes. Both the Oregon Transportation Commission and the Federal Highway Administration. In logical response to increasing car crash rates, they are making cars stronger and encouraging the construction of more exclusive freeways and higher speeds, to discourage pedestrian use of highways. Why do you ask?

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        Chris I July 26, 2019 at 9:00 am

        Don’t forget the partially-automated driving systems that encourage additional driver distraction.

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      Scott Kocher July 26, 2019 at 9:27 am

      Looking into crashes is always a good idea, whether it was an airplane, train, bus or car. It’s especially worthwhile for TriMet because its vehicles encounter (and sometimes create) the same problems over and over, and fixes may be applicable to multiple similar locations (e.g., station design improvements). It’s super impressive what Darla has achieved through her dedication and advocacy. Congratulations. Now let’s make this a good thing.

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    Kittens July 26, 2019 at 12:33 am

    As a MAX operator I question what results this will have. More bureaucratic minutia or real, significant change that Ms. Sturdy so clearly desires.

    TriMet needs to get real about upgrading crossings throughout the alignment. Times have changed. The sheer quantity of electronic distraction and mental health issues we see daily is staggering and makes the job incredibly stressful and ends up slowing down the system. Waiting for another death or injury seems reactive. I can go into great detail but scattered throughout the system are the vestiges of every accidental MAX fatality, areas where we have to go super slow. The hilarity is that we only do this where someone was killed. So, with enough time, basically the entire system is going to have these special speed zones and crossing treatments unless they step up and make more active crossings and barriers.

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      David Hampsten July 26, 2019 at 7:45 am

      The whole point of light rail, streetcar, tram, BRT, & trolley is to create a fast rail system for a fraction of the cost of an exclusive right-of-way system like subway or Skytrain, usually more for redevelopment purposes than for moving people. This is the natural consequence of the those cost-cutting measures: more crashes, more injuries and deaths by intersecting users, slower speeds. On the long run, these cheaper systems ultimately need to be upgraded to the higher-priced systems.

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        Kittens July 29, 2019 at 3:54 am

        Actually, most of our system is exclusive ROW. The only area it is not is Tillicum Crossing and approaches. I think what you mean is grade-separated. Part of the reason MAX runs on surface streets was strategic. By the late 70s downtown Portland was pretty dead and they thought having all these people on the street and passing through and seeing shops and cafes would enliven the core. That has succeeded beyond all measure. The entire system of planning and urban growth was predicated on downtown being the destination. All transit was and is still routed through downtown. Works great if you are going to downtown.

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      Chris I July 26, 2019 at 9:03 am

      I’d be curious to hear about the top areas you feel are speed restricted for these safety reasons, vs. track geometry or signals. A few I can think of:

      1. The area around Saturday Market
      2. Rose Quarter
      3. Approaching Lloyd Center

      At some point, can we have a reset, and try to speed up the system by eliminating these zones?

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        Kittens July 29, 2019 at 3:45 am

        Chris, here are just a few off the top of my head: WB into Millkan Way (15mph), WB into Hawthrorne Farm (15mph), EB into Civic Dr (15mph) all of these are due to incidents and are silly.

        The height of absurdity is the 5mph WB into Sunset TC due to a temp pedestrian crossing being in use for a 6 month elevator project. Adds about a 1.5 min to each trip. And to think closing those three platforms downtown will save, what? 4.5 min? Just getting the signals to work better along Morrison would save a couple of min. It really is absurd.

        Personally, as both a pedestrian and cyclist, I much prefer active crossing arms to push-gates or “zee” crossings which force you through a slalom of fences in order to cross.

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    Mike Quigley July 26, 2019 at 6:08 am

    Crossing rails calls for looking both ways. Otherwise, ***portion of comment deleted for insensitive word choice***. Other countries who’ve had light rail for decades don’t have this problem. You can’t protect people from themselves.

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      David Hampsten July 26, 2019 at 7:38 am

      It’s more accurate to say that other countries don’t report pedestrian crashes and injuries from light rail. However, it isn’t at all difficult to find local crash articles through Google for any city that has light rail anywhere in the world. Basically foreign agencies are just as likely as TriMet to sweep such issues under the rug – no one likes to take responsibility for causing any deaths.

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    billyjo July 26, 2019 at 7:34 am

    Her son was killed crossing a fixed track train. He didn’t even bother to look to see if a train was coming. So far she has managed to force tri met to build those mazes that you have to go through to cross the tracks and to place signs telling people to look both ways when crossing the tracks. Her son didn’t die from a train that swerved into him. Her son died because he didn’t even make an effort to see if it was safe to cross. Somehow she has always tried to make it tri met’s fault?

    Now tri met needs to spend a whole lot more money?

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      billyjo July 26, 2019 at 7:42 am

      So I went and looked for more. Her son made eye contact with the driver of the train and I guess figured that a massive, heavy train would stop for him to get in front of it? The family sued and got nothing. A court even put the blame on the son, but she is on a crusade to put the blame on tri met.

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        Scott Kocher July 26, 2019 at 10:25 am

        @Mike Quigley would you look a person in the eye and tell them their loved one died because of “Natural Selection”? @billyjo you don’t know the first thing about what Aaron “figured” in the moments before he was killed riding home from youth group. Your dismissive tone doesn’t add to discussion about crash reviews, or double threat crossings which continue to cause a disproportionate number of crashes (street and rail) each year.

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          billyjo July 26, 2019 at 11:27 am

          the crash was reviewed by a court and the court made a decision. There is a point where all these “improvements” are nothing but encumbrances for all the rest of us.

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            austin July 26, 2019 at 11:36 am

            Holy crud Billyjo and Mike Q – she’s trying to make sure another parent doesn’t a lose a child the way she did. Your comments read like O-live garbage.

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              billyjo July 28, 2019 at 1:46 pm

              I am sorry that is how you see it. Her son was killed. As a result she has become an advocate. As an advocate, and as someone with a specific agenda, people are allowed to disagree with her. We are talking laws that affect people. She is responsible for the mazes and gates that you have to go through to cross max tracks. Mazes and gates that every day, people with bikes or in wheelchairs have difficulty with. These gates negatively impact people’s lives. Stand at a platform with these for just a few hours and watch how many people do dangerous things to avoid them. For those people, these mazes are making the crossings less safe. But you think we should just suck it up so that she can “try” to save some other family from her pain? What if the money wasted on these 2 ideas were instead used to educate people about physics? A train cannot stop on a dime just because there is suddenly a person there. Perhaps if you took emotion out of it, and looked at the actual proposals logically, you too would see that these are only costing more money that could be used for better things.

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          Greg Spencer July 30, 2019 at 12:00 pm

          When I started helping with Families for Safe Streets, I had reservations about Darla’s case because I’m a big believer in public transport, and I didn’t want to advocate against that.

          However, Darla’s point that TriMet shouldn’t oversee investigations of its own crashes is a no brainer. These investigations need independent verification, otherwise they have no credibility.

          I was disappointed that TriMet managed to water down the final version of the bill by putting its own general manager in charge of nominating committee members. You can’t help but wonder, what is TriMet afraid of? If they’re confident in the integrity of the investigations, why not submit to purely independent, third-party oversight?

          TriMet has fought this every step of the way, and it’s disappointing to me that the operator of this city’s PT system couldn’t have found a more cooperative, constructive way to work on safety issues with Darla and rest of Families for Safe Streets.

          I support public transport in principle, but this particular operator has not done much to win my confidence.

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    Johnny Bye Carter July 26, 2019 at 11:40 am

    Hopefully this is a step closer to getting actual automated arms instead of just a zig-zag or those awful manual gates.

    The problem is that TriMet is putting in these pedestrian crossings away from the road where the counterweights for the streets arms usually swing up to partially obstruct the roadside sidewalk and give a natural deterrent. They should put in automated arms if they’re going to create a mid-track crossing away from the already installed automated street arms.

    As usual motor vehicles get all the safety improvements and vulnerable users are left in an unsafe environment.

    Yes, you should look both ways before crossing. But why don’t drivers need to? It’s obviously not that difficult to install automated arms and keep people safer, in all modes.

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    Jason July 26, 2019 at 3:51 pm

    I was coming off the west bound sidewalk, on Hawthorn bridge. On that particular day, I was wanting to cross the car lanes and get to the left side to exit on 1st ave. I know this is very common for bikes to do. A bus was barreling down the bridge and despite my position in front of it, it did not yield to my right of way.

    Upon contacting the dispatch desk via email I was told, “Tri Met buses don’t have to yield to anyone”. This informs me that Tri Met is a horribly toxic environment, if you are not a bus driver. Even if you are a bus driver, I imagine.

    The irony of this story.

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      Johnny Bye Carter July 26, 2019 at 6:31 pm

      I’m unclear on this scenario with respect to the right-of-way.

      You were already in the right-hand auto lane (to the left of the bike lane) with forward right-of-way and the bus coming from behind you seemed like it was going to run you over so you went back to the bike lane?

      Or:

      You were still in the bike lane and signalling (or not, doesn’t matter) to get into the left auto lanes and traffic wouldn’t yield their forward right-of-way to let you in?

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    Pdxmark July 27, 2019 at 11:42 am

    Speaking of legislation, when is the Governor going to sign the stop sign law?

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