Laughter filled the air in Andover when our 5-year-old daughter, Sidney, stepped outside on a sunny day in May. She grabbed her pink scooter and snapped on a unicorn helmet. A cool wind tossed her purple dress. Tuesday meant art class, her favorite. Sidney’s voice was soft with a giggly laugh as she joined her cousin, mother, and little brother, Ellis, for the short journey. Dusty blond springy curls framed her dimpled face.
They stopped at Elm Square, a twist of five interlocking streets. Walk sign — good to go. What happened next changed everything. An idling tractor-trailer jolted forward and rolled over our daughter in the crosswalk. Her mother screamed in horror. Sidney was dead instantly, and we lost what felt unlosable.
Sidney’s death devastated our family, the driver, first responders, and our community. What’s worse is that her death was preventable. Unlike many things that kill us, the causes of road deaths are known and addressable, including heavy reliance on cars, an increase in speeding, an influx of larger vehicles, limits to video enforcement, and roads that are designed for more cars, not people.
The question is: If traffic deaths are preventable, why aren’t communities preventing them?
Soaring traffic deaths, including 7,508 pedestrians killed in 2022, a number not seen since 1981, have been normalized. Often the people who can fix it, including state and local governments and businesses, seemingly accept it as an inevitable risk in travel.
If Sidney had died in a plane, it would have been labeled a crash, and the response would focus on systemwide failures. Yet, like other road deaths, hers was dubbed a tragic accident, even though a woman was killed on the same street a year earlier and there was an outpouring of stories in town forums detailing terrifying near misses, unreported crashes, and changes in behavior to avoid walking in the area.
We’re fortunate to live in a town where the public officials cared. Since the crash, the state Department of Transportation and the town partnered to implement new traffic signal patterns, eliminated rights on red, and moved back the stop line. In addition, the town reduced speed limits to 25 town-wide, including the roads approaching Elm Square. That’s uncommon in many towns with intersections like Elm Square, particularly in underserved communities where pedestrian deaths are most common.
Yet what’s happening here is not normal. In Europe, countries like Germany and France are steadily eliminating road deaths. You’re three times less likely to die this way there. Even densely populated areas of the Northeast, like Hoboken, N.J., have virtually eliminated deaths.
In these places, roads are designed with more space for people and less space for cars and trucks. Traffic-calming features discourage high, dangerous speeds. Automatic enforcement measures, such as speed and red light cameras, discourage aggressive drivers. Mandatory safety features on trucks reduce the devastating impact of human error by recognizing blind spots and triggering warnings to prevent collisions with pedestrians.
On Sunday, our family participated in the World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims. A movement that began in 1993 to acknowledge the victims of road traffic crashes and their families, it is now recognized throughout the world. To further heighten awareness of the growing issue, our charity the Sidney Mae Olson Rainbow Fund is calling for safe streets for people and will commemorate World Day of Remembrance with “Sidney’s Rainbow Run” in Andover on Thanksgiving Day.
Small changes make a big difference. Something as simple as $100 cross-view mirrors, like those used by school buses to spot small children in front, could have saved Sidney’s life. We can’t walk down our street without reliving the horror of that day, hearts racing every time a child crosses. It doesn’t have to be this way. Residents of Massachusetts, tell your stories and voice your concerns to local officials. Federal and state funds are available to improve safety, and you can make it happen. Business owners, please acknowledge that much of Massachusetts looks like Andover, with aging roads. Stop putting lives and truck drivers’ livelihoods at risk. Look for safer times and smaller vehicles to deliver goods.
Members of the Legislature, we ask that you treat increasing road deaths like the public health crisis they are, starting with passing House Bill 3393, which clears the way for automated enforcement, where cameras capture and report traffic violations, including red light infractions and speeding. The practice is used by 26 states. Communities and businesses have the solutions to create more livable cities and towns — and save thousands of lives. We just need to start using them.
Eric Olson and Mary Beth Ellis are cofounders of The Sidney Mae Olson Rainbow Fund.
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