BikePortland.org

Grieving moms make traffic deaths real as Portland proclaims ‘Day of Remembrance’

Group photo after proclamation was read at Portland City Council this morning.
Left to right: Commissioners Jo Ann Hardesty and Chloe Eudaly; Oregon/SW Washington Families for Safe Streets volunteers Michelle DuBarry, Darla Sturdy, Kim Stone, and David Sale; Commissioner Nick Fish; Mayor Ted Wheeler.

Mayor Ted Wheeler announced at today’s City Council meeting that Portland will join a global movement by marking November 17th as World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims.

The proclamation’s current death toll is already out of date.

Created by the United Nations, this day is observed to bring awareness to the toll of traffic violence, which claims 1.35 million lives worldwide each year and is the leading cause of death for people 5 to 29 years of age.

So far this year 44 people have died in traffic crashes in Portland.

This global scourge was made very local — and very real — in council chambers today. The Street Trust organized testimony of three women from the group Oregon/SW Washington Families For Safe Streets: Darla Sturdy, Kim Stone, and Michelle DuBarry. Each one of them had a child who was killed while using a Portland street.

Bureau of Transportation Commissioner Chloe Eudaly introduced the women and teared up while delivering her opening remarks. “Every traffic death is… [tearing up]… I’m sorry, this is personal for me as I know it is for many of you.” “Just this year we’ve lost 44 lives despite our best efforts with vision zero,” she continued, “and the traffic death toll continues to climb.” Eudaly said it will take more than PBOT’s engineering and educational efforts to stem the tragic tide. “We need all Portlanders to make a commitment to safe driving and we need to exercise caution just as as much as we need to increase enforcement.”

Enforcement came up several times this morning. All commissioners except Jo Ann Hardesty expressed strong support for more of it and Wheeler even hinted that money for more traffic enforcement officers would be proposed in the upcoming budget process.

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(L to R) Darla Sturdy, Kim Stone, and Michelle DuBarry during their testimony.

“Thank you for recognizing this day. But the truth is the proclamation rings a little hollow to the mom of a 1-year-old who was killed on a two block walk to the grocery store.”
— Michelle DuBarry

After Eudaly spoke, Darla Sturdy shared her experience with traffic violence. Her son Aaron Sturdy was 16 years old when he was killed while biking through a MAX light rail crossing. “My son had a saying: Dream big. Don’t ever let little things get in your way,” Study shared. “To me, that means I cannot save him, but I can save others.”

Kim Stone, whose 25 year-old son Joe was walking in a marked crosswalk in 2008 when a careless driver ran into him said, “Every day is remembrance day for us.”

The day’s most powerful testimony came from Michelle DuBarry. An advocate for traffic crash victim insurance reform who helped pass a bill in the Oregon Legislature last session, DuBarry’s 1 year-old son was killed in a crash in north Portland nine years ago. He was in a stroller being pushed by his father in a crosswalk on North Lombard at Interstate after buying groceries at Fred Meyer.

“My son’s stroller was pinned to a telephone pole by the car,” DuBarry shared. “He was rushed to the hospital and endured two surgeries and a night in intensive care, and died the next day.” Then DuBarry’s tone shifted from mom to activist:

“In the news stories, the crash was portrayed as a random accident, a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But as the years have passed and hundreds more people have died on Portland streets, I wonder, are these events really random or are they the result of systemic failures? Are they signs that our city has decided some people are not worth protecting if it means inconveniencing drivers? What if we had smarter crosswalk designs, better lighting, physically separated bike lanes and sidewalks in every neighborhood? What if we lowered speed limits, added red light cameras, and consistently enforced traffic laws? What if we had fewer highways and parking lots in our city center and free, reliable public transit? How many lives could we have saved in the last 10 years, and would my son have been among them?

What does it say about our city that we haven’t taken stronger measures to protect our most vulnerable residents even as we purport to embrace vision zero?

Thank you for recognizing this day. But the truth is the proclamation rings a little hollow to the mom of a 1-year-old who was killed on a two block walk to the grocery store. From where I sit, things have gotten worse: Cars are killing our children, our neighbors, and our planet. I urge you to take meaningful action and prioritize people over cars.”

After that searing testimony, commissioners commented prior to adopting the proclamation.

“Clearly, we need to work faster,” said Commissioner Hardesty.

“We clearly have a lot of work to do,” said Commissioner Nick Fish. Then he added a bit more substance (which was hard to listen to in some parts because he used the word “accident” so much): “The issues you’ve spoken to in your testimony are priorities for me in this upcoming budget. I believe we need to wrestle control from the legislature to set our own speed limits… I believe we need to do a better job enforcing our laws… If this moment of remembrance is to mean anything, it must be in service of us doing something different. I thank you for admonishing us to go beyond symoblism and to act.”

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Commissioner Eudaly said PBOT is “moving as fast we can can with these improvements.” “But,” she added, “we need partners in the police bureau for enforcement, we need ODOT to improve their roadways that are in our city because many of the highest crash corridors are ODOT property that the city has little or no control over. That is profoundly frustrating to me.”

Mayor Wheeler called the testimony “impactful” and acknowledged his role in doing something about the problem. “I agree with you, this is on us,” he said. Here’s more from Wheeler (note his comments about enforcement at the end):

“We’re playing catch-up. The city grew at a rapid pace at a time where funding for infrastructure declined and at a time when more and more people are texting and paying attention to the distraction in their vehicles instead of the road ahead and the people who are at risk from their driving. We’ve also experienced a decline in the number of police offers and commensurate declines in actual traffic enforcement.

… and there has been, generally speaking, a decline in civility and it seems to be reaching behind the wheel of automobiles where people seem more callous and less concerned about what impacts they might have on other people.

… I will take it upon myself to work with the police bureau on traffic enforcement. It has declined due to budget cuts and people don’t feel there’s actually a consequence to them violating a traffic law, and all too often there isn’t. I don’t blame the officers, they do a fantastic job. But we need to do more to support them. I’m glad to hear that the city council seems to be uniformly supportive of that and I look forward to seeing that supported in this year’s budget.”

Then Wheeler read the formal proclamation; but not before looking at Michelle DuBarry and saying, “Your words [about the proclamation ringing hollow] are ringing in my ears, so think of this as a statement of values, but the important thing is we back these values with real action.”

It’s up to us to hold them to it.

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