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Streets that aren’t deadly — if we want them

Car crashes are the number one killer of children and young adults in the United States. It doesn’t have to be that way.

The scene of a fatal crash in Campbell County, Ky. The number of people killed on the nation’s highways rose 4.6 percent in the first nine months of 2020, despite coronavirus lockdowns that curtailed driving early in the year.Albert Cesare/Associated Press

My son Seamus never made me a Valentine, never wrote “Mom” with a crayon clutched in a wobbly fist. He was struck and killed by a careless driver in a crosswalk 10 years ago, just two months shy of his second birthday. My husband was bloodied, bruised, and concussed by the driver who plowed through a crowded intersection. Seamus endured two surgeries and a night in intensive care before succumbing to his injuries.

Families who have lost a loved one in an automobile crash know that the physical, emotional, and financial effects on survivors can be catastrophic and lifelong. My husband and I will never recover from the violent death of our chubby, green-eyed toddler. Our living children only know their big brother through photos and videos. They learned about brain injuries and death before they learned to tie their shoes.


I voted for President Biden in part because of the grace and compassion he has modeled as a victim of traffic violence himself. When I saw the 1973 photo of him being sworn into his Senate seat at his son Beau’s hospital bedside, just weeks after the crash that killed his first wife and baby daughter, I ached in recognition and solidarity. In the aftermath of tragedy, it is shocking to realize that life must continue, whether it’s the business of the United States Senate or my own work as a grant writer at a community college.

Our devastation is not unique. Car crashes are the number one killer of children and young adults in the United States. My local chapter of Families for Safe Streets consists almost entirely of bereaved parents. We write op-eds; we testify at city council meetings; we talk to the media, with the desperate hope that no other family has to know this pain. But the headlines keep coming — a bicyclist struck in a hit and run, a middle schooler killed on his way to school, a grandmother killed by a reckless driver.


President Biden is rightly focused on the COVID-19 crisis in his administration’s early days. But a recent surge in traffic deaths is an extension of the pandemic and also demands action. While fewer Americans are driving to work and school, drivers are speeding more, and fatalities on our streets have soared despite fewer miles being traveled.

In his Senate confirmation hearing, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg noted the nearly 40,000 lives lost each year to traffic violence and spoke of a “generational opportunity” to transform our nation’s transportation infrastructure. Such a transformation would be welcome and long overdue, as the United States lags far behind other countries in measures of traffic safety.

Sixty-three countries have fewer people die in crashes per capita than the United States, including Turkey, Indonesia, Egypt, Greece, and Qatar. The death rate on Canadian roadways is less than half that of the United States. The European Union has managed to decrease fatalities by 23 percent in the last 10 years, while in the United States, the number of traffic deaths increased, including a shocking 62 percent increase in the number of pedestrian deaths.

As with so many public health crises, the impact of traffic violence is felt most acutely among our most vulnerable populations. Senior citizens, people of color, and wheelchair users are all more likely to die in pedestrian crashes. Research has also shown that people who did not attend college are at a much higher risk of dying in traffic, suggesting that income plays a role as well.


We know that smarter crosswalk designs, better lighting, narrower roadways, and physically separated sidewalks and bike lanes prevent crashes and save lives. So do lowered speed limits, automated enforcement, and free, reliable public transit. For too long, we have lacked leadership at the federal level to prioritize these changes.

This Valentine’s Day, 100 grieving families will publicly share Valentines honoring our loved ones killed in traffic. We represent the 100 Americans killed on our roadways each day. For Seamus’s card, we chose a photo of him in his beloved bike trailer, grinning. Our message is simple, an echo of Secretary Buttigieg’s recent tweet that roads aren’t just for vehicles. It reads, “Streets are for children, too.”

Michelle DuBarry is a member of Families for Safe Streets in Portland, Ore.