Notes on Kamp: Justice for Pedestrians
Adrienne White has a personal stake in reducing traffic deaths
Editor's note: This week I'm turning over my column space to my colleague Adrienne White. As some of our readers may know, Adrienne recently lost her uncle to a vehicular crash. His death came one week after her father was severely injured by a drunk driver. Police Chief Art Acevedo received a version of this column in order to have an opportunity to provide a response before it went to press. APD plans to meet with Adrienne to discuss her concerns.
On March 4, my father, Ken White, was walking my dog in a crosswalk at East Seventh and Comal, about seven blocks away from where we share a duplex, when he was struck by an SUV. The driver failed to slow down or yield to my father as he barreled down Comal to make a right turn toward Downtown, and the impact threw my father and dog about 20 feet from the crosswalk. Thankfully, the driver was arrested at the scene for intoxication assault. My father was sent to the Intensive Care Unit at Brackenridge with critical injuries. A month later, he is still struggling with a traumatic brain injury and healing from fractures all along the left side of his body, while my dog, who suffered broken teeth, soft tissue injuries, and surface wounds, has thankfully made a full recovery.
On March 11, however, one week after my father was injured, my uncle Dennis, who had traveled from Commerce to support me and my father, was killed by a motorist. While walking from my house to visit my father at Brackenridge, he was struck by a vehicle operated by an elderly woman, at 11th Street and the I-35 frontage road. Up until this moment, I had never endured so much tragedy in my life. The commonalities and proximities of these events are too strong to be coincidental, instead illustrating a monumental problem in this city. No one deserves to lose a loved one, much less two, to the unsafe operation of a vehicle, and I want to know what the Austin Police Department is doing about it.
Two weeks after my uncle's death, I was stunned to read that APD Chief Art Acevedo's solution for reducing pedestrian deaths in Austin is to ticket more jaywalkers. Our infrastructure has always been designed for cars, and it feels as though pedestrian and cyclist facilities only result as an afterthought. Infrastructure is not APD's department, but how APD favors ticketing cyclists and pedestrians, both of whom are vulnerable road users – over holding negligent drivers accountable – is. I am an avid cyclist who is distraught to hear perpetual reports of close friends or members of the bike community as victims of vehicular crashes. As I began to draft this essay, my social media grew heavy with news of Elizabeth English, the cyclist who was dragged for half a mile under a drunk driver's vehicle, but miraculously survived, albeit with life-threatening injuries. These perpetrators rarely get prosecuted and often get off on a much less punitive plea deal. To add insult to injury, APD now wants to point the blame at these aggrieved, vulnerable road users who already suffer from the lack of an equitable and safe roadway system.
I recently received a copy of the crash report for my father's incident, which leaves me very concerned about the investigation. One of the responding officers wrote, "assuming [the driver's] account is generally accurate ..." in the report. The account of this driver – cited for intoxication assault; with an existing record of assault, aggravated robbery, and possession of cocaine; and who was violating parole when he was apprehended – is to be presumed "accurate"? Why is he given any benefit of the doubt? He claims he swerved, yet there was no indication of brake marks. There's absolutely no question as to my father's sobriety. He takes a blood pressure medication that requires he avoid alcohol. My father was an OSHA representative throughout his career before he retired. He is "Mr. Safety," and wouldn't dare cross a busy intersection with my dog unless he had a walk signal. Unfortunately he was unconscious, so the investigating officer couldn't question him. But the law is willing to rely on a recurring and violent offender's report because my father was incapable of providing a statement at the time of the accident. This is yet another example of a broken system. Is it unreasonable to institute monthly officer trainings on how to properly and thoroughly report pedestrian and cyclist collisions?
It makes me wonder if these policies – which vilify vulnerable road users – are why so many motorists get off with a slap on the wrist when they hit pedestrians and cyclists, compared to when a crash involves another motorist. I believe that our city will never become a safe place for pedestrians and cyclists if we keep blaming them for vehicular crashes. Drivers have little incentive to change their behaviors if there are no repercussions for their risky, distracted actions.
I am seeking justice for my father, who is forever changed by this event, and I can only hope that something positive can come from my uncle's untimely and unjustified death – increased education and awareness, advocacy for vulnerable road users, changes in motorists' attitudes toward pedestrians and cyclists, and more progressive APD policies. – Adrienne White