BikePortland Podcast: Michelle DuBarry on grief, traffic violence and making change

In this episode I talk with writer, north Portland resident and Families for Safe Streets volunteer, Michelle DuBarry.

Michelle and her family have endured the ultimate sacrifice in the War Against Cars. In 2010, Michelle’s husband Eric and her son Seamus were walking across the intersection of North Interstate and North Lombard when a man driving a car struck both of them. Eric sustained minor injuries, but Seamus died in the hospital a day later. He was just one year old.

I spoke with Michelle about how her grief turned to activism, how elected officials and policymakers have responded to her pleas for help, how she feels about the pace of change for safe streets in Portland, why we need more government regulations for automakers, and more.

Note that we recorded this episode just a few blocks from the intersection where Michelle lost her young son. An intersection that, as you’ll hear in our conversation, she still won’t travel through over a decade later.


You can learn more about Michelle at her website and follow her on Twitter @DubarryPie.

This podcast is made possible by BikePortland subscribers, advertisers and financial supporters. If you’re not one already, please become one today.

Our theme music is by Kevin Hartnell. Cover art photo is by Beth Olson.

Find more episodes and subscription links here.

The full transcript of this episode is below:

Jonathan Maus 1:00
Michelle DuBarry, thank you for coming on the bikeportland podcast. Good to have you here in our first recording in our little basement studio.

Michelle DuBarry 1:07
Thanks for having me.

Jonathan Maus 1:08
You know, I feel like we’ve been sort of operating in similar spheres for at least a decade now. I think we have this shared thing about geography. I walk my dog a lot. And I go by the intersection, you know, on Interstate and Lombard in so it’s something that I think about pretty often. So I think it would be helpful for people to sort of set a context. And I know you’ve told this story a lot. And I appreciate you sharing it, would you be willing to just sort of share with our listeners, you know what happened on that day?

Michelle DuBarry 1:38
So it was 2010, almost 11 years ago now. And my husband, Eric was walking home from the grocery store, through a marked crosswalk at North Interstate and North Lombard Avenue, and careless driver, turned right through the intersection and struck my husband, and my son who was in a stroller, and another man in the intersection. And my husband received minor injuries. The other man, I think, had a broken arm. And our son was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance, and he spent a night in intensive care. He had two surgeries, and he died the next day.

Jonathan Maus 2:27
Wow, that is so, that was just so terrible. I… thanks for sharing that. I know that part of the work that you do, and this is why I didn’t I didn’t feel sort of as bad asking you to share it. Because I know that part of the work you do is telling your story. And I know that that is like, you know an important part of what you chosen to do after that tragedy. I was curious if you could share how you were thrust into you know, first of all, were you a part of traffic safety activism at all. Prior to that, was it something that you thought about,

Michelle DuBarry 3:01
it wasn’t something that I thought about in a political way, I grew up in Montana, and riding bikes when I was growing up was like something you did as a kid. And then it was something you did for like recreation, you know, you would go mountain biking or something. But growing up, it would have never occurred to me to ride my bike to work or to school. And then after college, I moved to New York City, and experienced the exact opposite of that. So nobody I knew owned a car, and everyone got around just fine. And it was awesome. And it was so liberating, to not have to deal with the expense and stress of owning a car. And so I moved to Portland, really because it had great public transit. And then a few years after moving to Portland, I got married to a guy who was a bike messenger and so he’s like the real cyclist in our family and a lot of our decisions around where to live and how we get around have been driven by his like he just wants to ride his bike everywhere. But like I said, we were never a political about it. We never would like go like to a public meeting and you know, yell about bike lanes or crosswalks or anything. It was like a lifestyle choice. And really like I always felt safe. In the first several years, including after our son was born, I never, I never worried about it. I took it for granted. We lived in the Kenton neighborhood and there was there was bike lanes and I was like that’s great. But there’s bike lanes, we can walk around with our son we can we can throw him in the trailer and ride around and I never really thought about it. And even after he died, I never I didn’t I thought of it as just a random freak accident. And I think I even use the word accident up until like the last few years. You

Jonathan Maus 5:00
Yeah. And you mentioned that there was an article that an Oregonian reporter published a few days after it happened. And the reporters seem to be sort of processing his love his own feelings is very, like very subjective article, if I recall, and that was the tone that that that reporter took, was this sort of, you know, it’s in God’s hands. And, and that is also how you, you felt about it as well. Right. So even like you’re saying, even after it happened, that was sort of like your approach. So can you help me understand? If there, you know, I’m assuming there was a switch? Because you’re, you’re certainly I can tell by your Twitter feed and some of the work that you do that you’ve, you have become more of a sort of conscious activist around this stuff. But I’d like to know, sort of how that transition happened, or can it denote did it happen quickly, that it take you months? Did you, you know, how did your relationship with that tragedy change in sort of the immediate term afterwards?

Michelle DuBarry 5:54
It’s hard to pinpoint where things started to change. But I think, really, I finished working on this big insurance reform bill. And that was something I was working on for eight years.

Jonathan Maus 6:09
And that had to do with sort of the how the the health insurance pays out whether they pay out the person who did the hit the person who was driving versus the victims in this case, yeah.

Michelle DuBarry 6:19
Well, it’s it’s the pain and suffering settlement from the driver who’s at fault. So our health insurance took away our the pain and suffering settlement. So we, everything is so expensive, when when there’s a car crash, and

Jonathan Maus 6:37
go ahead, yeah, no. So it’s like, it’s almost like, you didn’t really have to maybe process the traffic aspect of it. No, no, cuz you swung into like, we’ve got bills to pay, we have this whole total. And of course, your son was in the hospital following it. So that was like an immediate concern you went into, like this health insurance mode. So in some ways, that that health insurance activism, or advocacy kind of came to the fore initially, right.

Michelle DuBarry 7:00
Yeah, I mean, it was such a, it was like a secondary trauma that I think in my head, I was like, well, I might not be able to prevent this from happening to someone else, like a crash that kills a kid. But maybe I can help them on the other side of it by making the insurance process a little bit easier. And the other thing I have thought about a lot is there wasn’t and correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like there wasn’t like a robust, sort of like, organized outrage, like ready to sort of show up and have a vigil, or, you know, like, there was no nobody in my community. And no politicians. No one was like expressing outrage at the built environment that I know of.

Jonathan Maus 7:41
That’s an interesting topic. That’s something I’ve definitely noticed through the years is that there’s so many factors that go into how the community responds, and by the community. I mean, yeah, like you said, elected officials, activists, media. But I think, in your case, I think it’s important for people to know, and this may figure into that, is that this didn’t seem like and I think we can reasonably assume that this wasn’t some egregious situation that had to do with infrastructure that had been on the front page of bikeportland as a problem, or even been red flagged by the community or a person who is super drunk or super careless, super reckless, right. So and I guess you could correct me if I’m wrong, but it was an older person. And the story that was told was that they were just Well, you go ahead and share. So what was your understanding of the person that hit Seamus?

Michelle DuBarry 8:29
So he was, he was elderly, and he, he misapplied the pedals. So he was trying to hit the brake, and he hit the accelerator, which is a really common thing, not just among elderly drivers. But I think a lot of people, I mean, we’re all sort of scanning for a villain, because we want to put our anger somewhere. And so I did have people in my life who really got upset about the fact that this man was driving at all. And initially, the police told us that he had some history of careless or reckless driving that they were investigating. And so for a while, like the outrage was sort of flowing in that direction. And then as the investigation went on, we learned that he had no history of of careless or reckless driving. It was you know, he was just a man, he was going to get a hamburger at Wendy’s, you know, like, I couldn’t be that angry at him.

Jonathan Maus 9:27
Yeah, and just to loop back and acknowledge your question about how the community responded. You know, I think another big thing besides sort of the the characteristics of the of the crash was it was someone walking you know, walking as an advocacy, you know, things that happen on foot are totally different than bicycling and it’s a this is a national issue I mean, there’s a people may not even know there’s a walking advocacy group in Portland. That’s, that’s, I believe, older than the street, trust, slash You know what we used to think it was the PTA. And just you know, walking is not considered this, you know, as sexy of a thing. So people don’t identify with it, it’s hard to rally members up to get, you know, excited about. So it just means that when when, when but you know, people that are walking get hurt or killed and traffic crashes, you don’t get as much of a response. So but I did want to go back to, you know, this idea that you just thought it was this or you know, people in general maybe just thought it was this random thing once he hurts an older person. And like I said, if there weren’t these circumstances around drug alcohol abuse, speeding anything really wild, you know, people can get mad at the laws and regulation or lack thereof about how how we allow older people to drive, you know, I don’t think you’re going to drum up too much real interesting excitement about that issue, that it’s just of all the things people are thinking about. That’s not, that’s not the one so

Michelle DuBarry 10:54
because if we take away driving privileges from people, then we live, there’s no way for them to live in these communities with dignity, because they can’t get around.

Jonathan Maus 11:05
Right, which I was gonna say. I mean, there are systemic issues. And when I hear, even if it’s so I could, I think it could be reasonable to think that, well, why did this older person get flustered. And now, if people have never been to this intersection of North Interstate and Lombard, you may not realize, but it’s an extremely stressful fluster inducing kind of intersection. And that’s why when I walked by there, sometimes I’ll just stop and look at it. And like, take a deep breath, that intersection could have caused the stress, right? So there is a reason to think about the built environment. Yeah. Do you think about the intersection? Like do you go by it still have Do you have feelings about it? Yeah, well,

Michelle DuBarry 11:47
it’s interesting, because when I was pregnant with Seamus, I, the intersection is right in between a grocery store and our house. And so we walked through it all the time, I rode the max, which there’s a big transit station right there. And when I was pregnant with Seamus, I was crossing the street one time, and people started yelling at me. And I was like, looking around, I had a walk signal. And I had, I didn’t know what was going on until a car just like rushed past me, it was so close, like, I could feel the breeze like I remember it blew my dress against my legs. And I just like, kept walking, you know, I would have thought I would have forgotten about that. If Seamus hadn’t died. But like I’m after he died, I started thinking about, like, all the crazy stuff I’ve seen in that intersection. And so I, I do think and this is something you know, I didn’t, I don’t think I thought about it in a, in a way that focused on infrastructure, I guess I just was like, wow, that’s like, that’s crazy, a lot of weird stuff happens. And we were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. And that’s how I thought for a long time,

Jonathan Maus 13:00
right. And just to finish this, about this sort of infrastructure thing, it is so interesting, it used to be I five way back in the 60s, or whatever. So it’s a relatively large Street, but it was it’s such a fascinating intersection with Lombard and for folks who don’t know Lombard is a state highway so it’s sort of this Freight Corridor and it’s relatively big arterial street managed by the state. And so it crosses with Interstate and like you said, there’s a gas station mini Mart and a big shopping center nearby so there’s a high volume of driving in a school on the corner that what’s fascinating to me about that intersection and I don’t want to spend too much time talking about the intersection but it’s it it’s not your typical profile for danger because it attracts so many people right usually intersections that have a lot of people sort of have a built in calming especially ones that have half the right of way on Interstate is a light rail line right? But then I was thinking that what what’s interesting about that is it it it’s because the mechanics and sort of the characteristics of the intersection at relatively high volume and high speeds and just a bad culture around there seems like all the presence of all those people create all like you said, all these really crazy things that happened they’re jumping it’s a pretty big bus line. They’re jumping the bus stop they’re jumping to the max line.

Michelle DuBarry 14:09
Yeah, people are running to catch the bus the max all the time. Yeah, and I don’t like I realized, actually Eric and I moved out of that house after the crash because we could not navigate our neighborhood or get anywhere without going through it. Wow. Or without taking like elaborate detours and I still I avoid that intersection like coming home from the airport I’ll direct the cab driver to go a different route. It’s become a place I avoid for I mean, for obvious reasons, but I still think it’s just dangerous.

Jonathan Maus 14:46
Wow. So you don’t even want to go back to the intersection?

Michelle DuBarry 14:50
No, I I shop at that Fred Meyer and I go in the back way and I you know, I yeah, I don’t I avoid it if I can.

Jonathan Maus 14:57
So So how did you shift from just thinking this was a random accident that, you know, nothing could have prevented this to seeing a little bit more with a little more criticism a little more, you know, skeptic skepticism.

Michelle DuBarry 15:10
So if I had to pinpoint a moment, I think it’s I started to think about it when we started having this conversation about the I five roads quarter project. And I realized that the street where Sheamus was killed was an ODOT road. And then I started, you know, Vision Zero was in the news more. People kept dying. And I just started connecting the dots between all of the people who are dying on Portland streets, and the, like the it was happening on the same streets, and the street where Seamus died. It’s, I don’t know if it’s like in the top three, but it’s definitely up there, like a lot of people die. Not at that intersection. But on that street, I just started reading, and I started following people on Twitter, who are, you know, transportation experts, and I just started questioning a lot of my own assumptions about how how the world should look, when you’re pushing a stroller with a baby on it. I, you know, our neighborhood was full of kids and families. And if you put a state highway in between kids and families in a grocery store, probably the intersection should have better protections for people who are walking, pushing strollers biking. And if you put a big transit station in the middle of an intersection with a state highway, you should probably have some traffic calming there. Yeah, it was a very gradual sort of evolution. But I was just like, it was nice to see that so much was already happening. And I could kind of plug my story in where it’s useful. I didn’t have to, like take this on, like, with the insurance reform bill, nobody else was talking about it. Nobody else was working on it, I couldn’t get the media to cover it. It was just nice to see like this really active group of people who cared and a lot of intersections with other issues like climate, it was nice to see this community and that I could sort of parachute in once in a while and tell my story and have a big impact, and maybe move the needle a little bit or change people’s opinions. And I didn’t have to do it full time.

Jonathan Maus 17:24
Yeah, and I gotta say to you did pass that insurance reform bill. So good work on that. And congratulations. Thank you. You also got involved to some degree in activism. I mean, it was probably hard. I mean, in traffic activism, right. I mean, it. I don’t know what year it was. I mean, I think you started, you showed up on bikeportland. I know in 2019, which is probably after you really got involved with some of it. And I think the City of Portland made their vision zero declaration and one of the 15 I want to say, but you know, we’re a vision zero city. And I remember, you know, in 2019, we did a story and you were testifying about the world day of traffic remembrance at City Council and they made a big proclamation and visions euro itself, while a bold policy, if you really take it to the letter like they’ve done in some countries, in Northern Europe. It’s really just a proclamation. You know, the, the the intersection of Interstate and Lombard looks pretty much exactly the same as it did in 2010, when Seamus was hit. Are you? You know, how do you how do you feel about the pace of change in addressing this stuff in Portland?

Michelle DuBarry 18:34
I think it’s way too slow. It’s too I think it’s hard for politicians, because the, you know, all the money is on the side of fossil fuel infrastructure and roads. And you know, the people who, who want to get around by any other means that we’re just, it’s like, we’re up against so much. And I remember testifying at City Council in 2019. And it was me and there were other other people from families for Safe Streets who had lost children. And it was just like, one after the other, just hitting them with like, the saddest stories you can imagine. And like, whenever I tell my story in front of politicians, they’re always just like, stricken. And to have all three of us lined up like that it was really powerful. And you could see them, kind of you could see that they were moved. And I also felt, you know, some of them on our side probably feel pretty powerless. And the only thing that really, they could sink their teeth into in terms of our response was like, we need better enforcement. And you could see, you know, I think I suggested a list of things that we need in Portland. And Mayor Wheeler, you could see him perk up a little bit when I got to the enforcement, which was just one thing on a long list, and he responded by saying like, yes, we’ve got to More police officers. And I wrote to him afterward. And I said, That’s not, you know, that’s not what I was. That’s not where the emphasis should be, like, here’s all these other things that I wish that we had money for better for protected bike lanes for better lighting, for, you know, redesigning intersections, and all of that stuff gets ignored. I don’t I guess because it’s not politically, it’s it’s not, it’s not going to be popular with the people who fund those campaigns.

Jonathan Maus 20:27
So family for Safe Streets is a group that you’ve worked with Can you just share a little bit of like, how that group is formed, and what kind of work they do.

Michelle DuBarry 20:35
Families for Safe Streets is a national organization, and they’re based in New York City. And they have chapters all over the US, including one in Portland, we are under the umbrella of the street trust, so they kind of house us, like our, that’s where the website is, but we don’t have any money. So it’s kind of we were just like families who have been impacted by traffic violence. And it’s, it’s really interesting, when I am at an event where there’s families for safe streets, members, it’s almost all bereaved parents,

Jonathan Maus 21:10
right. And I’ve seen that happens so many times on the these tragic deaths that I’ve covered over the years, where people will come to the fore, usually it’s a mom, and oftentimes a mom, the majority of the time, and they’re in there just, you know, welcomed with open arms by politicians, and sometimes I feel like, and I wonder if this is how you felt, you know, these politicians and policymakers love putting family for, say, streets, people in front of cameras, to talk about the tragedy and the sadness, but it’s almost like, they don’t they have a lot more, you know, urgency around thoughts and prayers, and not as much around like projects and plans, right? Do you ever feel like you’re more respected for your pain than you are for your, your brain around what you might be able to do to prevent these things?

Michelle DuBarry 22:00
Yeah, I mean, ideally, I would come in and tell my story. And then the people who are experts on preventing things like this would get to work, right. But instead, I, I often feel like I’m just telling my story over and over again. And so I think I and other members of families for safe streets, have to be kind of careful about how we deploy our stories. And you see a lot of burnout among the activists because they, there’s only so many times you can sit in a public meeting, and tell them about the worst day of your life and have nothing happen that you just kind of walk away and try to focus on something else, because it feels pretty futile.

Jonathan Maus 22:39
Yeah, um, it’s interesting to hear you say that, because I’ve, I’ve heard that exact thing from from a mom that I worked with quite a bit and followed pretty closely. And she went from not just being frustrated by that, but actually being angry. Yeah, she became angry that, you know, will, obviously angry that, like, people continue to die for the same reasons that her son had died. But also I sent some anger at the politicians and people that kept inviting them to things. Yeah, like, yeah, they just wanted to hear the story, but they didn’t really want to make an ending to it.

Michelle DuBarry 23:13
Right? Yeah, I think one thing that I’ve learned just from being around other parents and people who have been impacted by traffic violence is really to choose your issues carefully, you know, you have to kind of carve out a little space where you might be able to make a difference, and focus and put your focus there. Rather than trying to change the tide. You know, like, ever, we’re going to change everyone’s mind, like, I’m going to show you a picture of this of my son and like, everyone’s going to suddenly realize how bad it’s gotten that it’s not doesn’t work that

Jonathan Maus 23:47
way. Yeah, especially now. I mean, have you noticed a change in these last two years of how people sort of personal traumas on so many different levels are sort of impacting the ability of like traffic safety activists to tell their stories of trauma? You know, like you said, you show a picture of some of your son that died in intersection from a problem that’s solvable. And it’s almost like they’re thinking, well, gosh, I’ve got 1000 calls about people on the street, they’re homeless, and we have police that are leaving, you know, police violence, and we have people that are not even I mean, there were years in Portland, where I feel like City Hall can even have a meeting. This is before the pandemic. There’s so much protesting going on,

Michelle DuBarry 24:28
right? Oh, yeah. And I, I think I step back when it seems like there’s something more pressing. You know, like, during the, during the protests last year, it seemed really important to kind of get out of the way with my issues and let other members of the community talk about their traumas and, and support them, really, I think, in so many ways where we’re connected by our trauma and in the many ways that our government doesn’t support families and people, especially women. vulnerable people. And so I think I tried to be, I tried to be generous about supporting other people in causes. And I felt that from other parts of the community as well.

Jonathan Maus 25:12
Yeah, interesting. I guess I haven’t thought about that a lot. But it makes total sense. You’re saying something about, like, the vulnerable vulnerable traffic users, which is a term we’ve been using in activism circles around transportation for for a very long time, are somehow in common cause with other vulnerable people, poor people have, you know, black and indigenous people of color, who, you know, have, you know, racial bias against them? You know, people that can’t pay rent, people that can’t find enough food, right? So people that can’t find housing, right, so there’s a lot of vulnerable people so that this, I guess, gets to your transition from, you know, 2010, when this tragic when that tragedy happened to your family, now, you’re sort of seeing it as part of a larger systemic issue. Am I hearing you right on that, and that the potential to have a broader coalition around taking care of these things? Yeah,

Michelle DuBarry 26:09
definitely. I think when I think about it the most is when I see like the climate activist movement. There’s a ton of common ground between traffic safety advocates and climate advocates. And I certainly share the concern and the outrage about what’s happening to our planet. And I think that folks who are working really hard on climate are also really conscious of, of traffic and, and car like cars, you know, the way that cars are just, like, hurting the quality of life, in our cities and, and damaging the environment.

Jonathan Maus 26:46
Yeah. And you said, you know, like, holding a photo up and thinking and everything, everybody’s just gonna come and fix the problem. Like, you know, one thing I wanted to ask you about and hear your thoughts are is this idea that and I think your your tragedy, the collision on Interstate there is similar to which is another one was, you know, on Hawthorne Boulevard, when there is a teenage girl that was struck by someone going really fast in a busy commercial area. You know, the the head policymaker at the time, the director of the Portland bureau of transportation, basically said, there’s nothing we could have done to prevent this. And I’m sure that is like where you stood for a while. But I’m sure that’s how a lot of people looked at, you know, your tragedy as well. How do you respond to people that say that it could be reasonable people could say, Hey, that was just a terrible situation. I mean, have you ever thought about that? Like, how would you How do you respond to people that say, Hey, you know, things bad things can happen. It’s really sad, but there’s nothing we can do about it, especially if I mean, this director of the transportation bureau saying that, does that frustrate you and me, how’s that make you feel?

Michelle DuBarry 27:53
Yeah, I mean, I think activists went out and painted a crosswalk where felon smart died. I mean, there’s something that can be done. It’s It’s It’s not, they can’t do it, it’s that they won’t do it. And it is really frustrating. And I don’t have, I don’t have a great way of changing people’s mind. I haven’t had a lot of success changing minds, because so many people have are starting from, you know, the status quo is all they know, they’ve never thought about what it would be like if our cities were more walkable, and it was easier to bike and there were fewer cars like they just there. They’re like you have I don’t know how to expose people to something different way I

Jonathan Maus 28:37
want to, I want to back up a bit because you have changed a lot of people’s minds. And I think I mean, you do know how to expose people to that. And you’ve used the power of the pen, right? I mean, so like, you’re a great writer, and a great speaker. So you have done those sorts of things. And because the way the media market is these days, you know, you’re working and is spread around to a lot of people like you’ve written for love, big publications, I just read something in the New York Times about, you know, road, you know, road violence and the amount of road crashes in America. And I think coming from you and your experience gives it a little different sort of heft than just a regular reporter, you know, writing something so you have changed minds in that regard. But what I’m sensing from you, is it your sort of daily life and experience moving around hasn’t changed?

Michelle DuBarry 29:24
Yeah, it’s really interesting because, like, I have been just like steeped in a lot of media around like, for instance, trucks are so big now trucks are too big. And you see on on Twitter, everyone puts their five year old in front of a truck roll and it’s like these trucks are too big and you see that several times a day and then I go home to Montana to visit like my college girlfriends, and they all drive f 150s. Like they all have F 150s in their driveways. And I don’t know like that’s the bridge. I don’t know how to cross You know, they’re not reading my op eds necessarily they might but like, I’m not, that’s not my, what I’m writing about. They understand the problem of traffic violence, but they don’t see their own role in it. And I’m not sure you know, I’m not I don’t want to have that conversation with my friends necessarily. Right. But I think other people and in you know, writing is one way to sort of reach people. Yeah, I can see that.

Jonathan Maus 30:21
And you know, who reads writing, you know, who know, reads articles are politicians and policymakers. And I think, you know, you’re gonna say people who already agree with you. Not true. But unless they want to come and, you know, say a bunch of really mean things to your soul. Mate, probably, I don’t know if it’s happened to you, if that happens to you. I don’t even want to talk about it necessarily on on here, because that’s just so terrible. But, you know, to go back to, you know, what can we do about I think you sort of the question the I think the answer to that is regulation, right? I think we have to let the government have the conversations with people that people aren’t going to have with themselves, right? I mean, like, the vaccine mandate is, I think a good example of that vaccine rates are going up. But reading stories now after everybody protested and said, I’m going to quit my job, and we’re going to, now they’re all getting the vaccine because they don’t want to lose their job, right? So the government came in and handle the complicated, difficult conversation among people and force some sort of behavior change. Now, I think also with, like, the big truck thing, I’ve been thinking that we are building some momentum for some kind of federal rules around the size of automobiles. Yeah, that could that could happen, I could see you writing something about that, you know, given you know, your experience, especially with the Montana Actually, I’m gonna make a note, as Michelle, you know, if I can get it, get an article from her about that, because the Montana thing and your experience like that, that could be really interesting. So, you know, I think you do you agree with that? Do you think government regulation is the way to come in at this point?

Michelle DuBarry 31:48
Oh, yeah, definitely. Because I, you know, nobody wants to have those conversations with their friends and family. Those are really hard conversations. But if the government can come in and make it really uncomfortable for you to do things that are bad for the planet, and bad for our cities, then yeah, definitely. And I think the problem, though, is like, it’s hard to know where to, like, who regulates trucks? I mean, how do you find that out? You know, like, Where can I? Where can my story have an impact? Like, I don’t want to just like blasting it all over the internet? You don’t you never know what’s going to come back from that. So yeah, well, really

Jonathan Maus 32:23
well, maybe one of the ways is to take something that you’re familiar with, that you’re already working on, which is Vision Zero. And this is often how policy happens, and politics can happen. So So let’s say we want to regulate the size of these huge trucks. There are car standards, right, which over here, which that’s one of the most highly lobbied things on Capitol Hill is like car regulations, right? mature, like everything from fuel mileage to you know, who, whatever else, you know, like, where the seatbelts have to be put on, there’s probably there’s like a whole list of federal rules around that. So that’s gonna be tough to go in, and like dictate through that. But oftentimes, I’ve seen politicians and policymakers look at like an existing like soft policy, and then attach like hard policy to that, like a good a good example, in Portland, was when we got neighborhood greenways adopted as city policy, right. And then we had a smart transportation Commissioner who became mayor, who realized that instead of going out and trying to ask for lower speed limits, all in a large swath of the city, I’m gonna just start by saying, streets that have previously been designated as neighborhood greenways should get the lower speed limit, there was a much easier lift, because neighborhood greenways were sort of codified in law, so to speak, there were a certain amount of like officials and policymakers already knew what that was, was like a known quantity. So to say, you know, just, you know, just Okay, let’s start with those. And of course, now it’s beyond neighborhood greenways. Because it’s a good policy to lower speed limits. But I wonder if the same thing could be true with vision zero. So it’s widely adopted, lots of policymakers have heard about it politically, it has some pole, because it’s just a proclamation and not actual thing. But it has some heft politically. And I wonder if that’s a place where you know, I know that you’ve done work on Vision Zero, you were just that I see that right. You did some lobbying. So you know about lobbying and you know, you did some work with Santa Fe safe streets and at least getting the year of our Oregon Congress, Congress members in Oregon here. But I wonder like, maybe attaching truck regulations and saying it’s part of our vision zero approach be a good way to do it. Yeah, I

Michelle DuBarry 34:24
think Vision Zero is a really good sort of unifying message and we can fit a lot of things in there and I think that’s kind of the point of the you know, all of the lobbying that’s been happening around just what is basically a rep resolution without much teeth but if you can get that, you know, written down somewhere in the law, then you can say like, Look, you committed to this. So it’s time to, you know, hear it, here’s a small policy change you could make to contribute toward that big resolution you just signed off on I can see like, it You know, the small incremental changes happening? It’s still too too slow, though. I mean,

Jonathan Maus 35:06
yeah, I think part of that problem might be, you know, to speak of policies without teeth, like, I feel like, especially with bereaved families, we spend a lot of time talking, like the 50,000 foot level, around these euphemisms and these trite phrases around safe streets and all these things, right? It’s like, because the emotional base conversation as it should be, to some degree, but at some point, and people don’t want to have the conversation of like, the brass tacks of like, How the heck are we going to make driving less lethal? You know, and I wonder if, if that’s something you’ve ever thought about? Or if that’s something that like, you know, you have an idea about, I don’t want to, like, be labor interstate in Lombard. But to like, make this point of like, I think that’s a ticking time bomb. Yeah, someone else is gonna get hit, they probably have. But maybe it’s Rhonda reported, and you never hear about in the news. And it’s a good example of like, he could sort of look at that from an engineering perspective. And it’s not, it’s not necessarily a super wide intersection. I mean, there’s reasons to think it could be safe on paper, but it’s not. So, you know, to get back to like, what would you do? If you could, if you, you know, if, if an elected official asked you, you know, like, what can we do differently in that intersection, to make it much less likely that someone is going to make up, you know, do a behavior that’s going to result in injury or death? Like, what would that be?

Michelle DuBarry 36:27
I don’t feel like I should have to answer that question. I feel like my job is to tell people what happened and get politicians to pay attention. They have their experts, they can redesign the intersection, I’ve thought about this, it’s really hard for me to be in that intersection. I could go out there with a sign a big picture of my toddler, and I could probably get people to join me. And I could probably make a big stink in the media about it. I don’t want to do that. It’s too painful. Yeah. And so but it’s, it sucks that, you know, I feel like that’s kind of my only option to for a, for an intersection for just like a discrete kind of project like that.

Jonathan Maus 37:08
Yeah, I totally hear what you’re saying about trying to keep some some borders on your involvement Absolutely. Makes sense. So then wouldn’t Would you agree that there’s a piece missing? Yes. I mean, well, I should say, there’s definitely a piece missing because not enough stuffs happening fast enough. But it sounds to me like one of the things I’m taking away from this conversation is that you’re doing your part as a bereaved mom. And then there’s, there’s a piece of it and not like the action of the chain, but there’s a human piece of it, that’s not there. It’s sort of like politicians aren’t showing up like they should activists. I also include activists in that because I think they can kind of also do that policy talk that sort of like Well, what’s the actual structural thing and you talked about this earlier, where there wasn’t a huge necessarily like, you know, community response to what happened so you know, there’s there’s never enough of these kinds of things. I think in like, sort of the activism ecosystem we could always want for more but I do hear I think that’s kind of what you’re saying, right? is there’s that that actionable piece that comes after the tragedy, before the new concrete is poured. And it’s like a Giving Voice sort of from a more engineering like a different kind of voice then I’m really mad and sad.

Michelle DuBarry 38:29
Yeah, definitely. Because we don’t have the expertise to make the specific recommendations. We just know it’s really dangerous. I know that my baby died because that intersection was unsafe and so I wish that I wish that was enough. I mean, I’ve thought about like, why it is that when politicians get elected they just lose their motivation or something they they kind of get neutered in a way like they can’t just be bold and make bold statements and make bold changes and I wish I wish I knew more about what that shift is for them and like what pressures they’re under

Jonathan Maus 39:14
Yeah, that’s a massive like conversation Yeah, like policy by I hear what you’re saying it is, it is frustrating to me watching that like because, you know, I came onto the scene as a real advocate and someone really pushing for stuff and I got, I got so disappointed in what I saw from City Hall, that I personally kind of just like, left that realm and I decided to put up some some borders myself of being like, I’m just going to do the thing of like documenting and boosting signals and showing people stuff because that part of it of like, you know, how to get politicians to do the stuff you want is, is is tough, and I think there’s a whole there’s sort of a missing I do think there’s a missing piece there. So I think there might be people listening to this that have been through tragedy, you know, transportation or lated you know, street tragedy, unfortunately, it’s just all too common. Can you share something with people that have been through an experience similar to yours, you know, something that helps you to not just, you know, you’re not over it by any stretch, you don’t, I don’t think you get over that kind of stuff. But something that helps you get along, and also sort of stay in the fight.

Michelle DuBarry 40:27
The best advice I got, after Seamus died, was from my grief therapist who I was sitting in her office, like, probably within a month after the crash, and she is somebody who, like she works almost exclusively with bereaved parents. And I just was like, so bewildered. The whole situation just like deepened shock. And I asked her Does, does anyone ever get over this? Does anyone ever heal it seemed obscene the word even. And she told me, it won’t always feel like this. And I think that’s kind of a variation on the cliche, you know, this too shall pass, it won’t always feel like this. The the first year is awful. The second year is also awful. I mean, it’s it continues to be awful, but it also like it changes taking care of yourself, my husband’s doctor told him to drink tea and, and eat soup. And that really helped with his stomach pain. I think Yeah, doing what you can to, to sleep. And to kind of just take time, don’t go to work for a while if you don’t have to. And then you just, you just kind of like, put one foot in front of the other until the fog starts to lift a little bit. And I think every grieving parent I’ve ever connected with has figured out a way to find meaning in what happened to them. It’s not always like political activism. Sometimes it’s their recommitting to their career with new perspective and more compassion. Sometimes it’s fundraising for a cause, or, or some something in their community that they find meaningful. And I think in a lot of ways, it’s, it’s almost like finding a place to put that love for your child, because they’re not there anymore. So you kind of have to channel that somewhere else. And the result is often really beautiful. And so I think, for anyone who experiences something like what my family did, there is I don’t want to say there’s, you know, good that comes out of it. But it’s not all bad, I guess, I would say there’s a lot of just like amazing people in the world who are going to help you. And it’s good to rely on other people accept help, take time, take care of yourself. And also, like, totally willing to connect with people. I’m pretty easy to find online. And so I can connect them to more concrete resources and make book recommendations and, you know, introduce them to my therapist if they want.

Jonathan Maus 43:09
I’m really grateful that you’re still in the community making things better. And I think a lot of other people are as well. And you answered my, my last question, which was how can people find your work and, you know, continue to be inspired by you and learn from from some of the stuff that you’re sharing?

Michelle DuBarry 43:25
I have a website that has a list of all of the essays and op eds that I’ve published, it’s And you can find me on Twitter @DubarryPie

Jonathan Maus 43:37
Thank you so much for coming in and sharing. Michelle, I really appreciate it.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and
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Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Founder of BikePortland (in 2005). Father of three. North Portlander. Basketball lover. Car owner and driver. If you have questions or feedback about this site or my work, feel free to contact me at @jonathan_maus on Twitter, via email at, or phone/text at 503-706-8804. Also, if you read and appreciate this site, please become a supporter.

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2 years ago

Oof! “we need to hire more police officers”. Wow, that’s Wheeler for ya. Not to mention that the cops on the books at the time likely weren’t enforcing the law to begin with.

2 years ago
Reply to   Jason

I should also say that overall this was a moving story. I really appreciate the fatigue that Michelle experiences by telling and retelling her story, only to have it fall on (apparently) deaf ears. No one should have to go through that.

Chris I
Chris I
2 years ago

This was a great interview, and a good reminder why this all matters, and why we need to keep advocating for safe streets.