Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Original Shin

Crossing 6-8 lanes of traffic, per usual (photo: mesaaz.gov)
The above photo is what most city streets in the Phoenix metro area (known locally as "The Valley") look like. While the sprawling grid system is easy to navigate and the pavement is typically free from inclement weather, these wide, flat, straight, smooth roads with uncomfortably high speed limits (45mph on Main St!) make them the total opposite of what urban planners define as attractive and walkable.

In fact, as of 2017, Arizona was the #1 state in the nation for pedestrians deaths, with the majority of those deaths occurring in the Phoenix and Tucson areas. Phoenix officials have reacted by basically blaming and punishing pedestrians for not having cars. Texting while driving is actually still legal in Arizona, and there are no concerted "educational campaigns" for drivers about being more attentive and sober and less distracted--only for people on foot. Did you know that the first-ever pedestrian death from a driverless car happened in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe just this past March? The human backup driver in the videos appeared to be playing with their phone. 

You may recall my complaints that New England roads are too steep, narrow, and winding with aggressive drivers and no sidewalks. Somehow the people there still walk along the roads seemingly unconcerned that BMWs are speeding past just inches away from them, and in all my pizza driving there, I never saw or drove past a single accident, either car vs car or car vs ped. In fact, in 2017, Massachusetts was 35th in the nation for pedestrian deaths per 100,000 people.

Perhaps the difficult roads in MA keep drivers awake and alert, while the easy roads in AZ lull drivers into complacency: "Look at this big boring road. Ima send some texts." BAM--PEDESTRIAN.

Before I had a reliable car, (i.e. the first three decades of my life), I walked and bicycled through various American cities and climates. It was not unusual for drivers to shout insults at me, follow me, throw trash at me, rev their engines and blare their horns at me, and nip at my heels with their bumpers when I had the clear right of way, was walking on the sidewalk, sitting on a bench at a bus stop, or standing on a street corner waiting for the walk signal. The most common offense was when I'd be walking along the sidewalk--not crossing the street, not in anybody's way, not bothering anyone--and a car would whiz by me with someone screaming out the window, "GET A CAR!!" 

The sight of a person actually using their legs to walk on a public sidewalk really pisses some drivers off, I guess because every American knows that whenever you leave your house, you're supposed to be in a car, and walking or biking in town means you must've had your license taken away after too many DUIs and are deserving of ridicule. Why else would you be walking? If you're a normal person and you want exercise, you either put on special workout clothes and drive to a gym, or strap your expensive sporty bicycle to the back of your SUV, drive to a designated trail, and ride your bike on the trail while wearing a Consumer Product Safety Commission-approved helmet! You don't ride your bike around town in regular clothes because it's healthy and fun and a clean mode of transportation. God! What do you think this is, fucking Amsterdam?

American cities suck.  

I miss my bike sometimes. I love riding bikes on quiet backroads or at night when streets are empty. I love the wind on my face and the soft whir of bike tires on pavement. I love using my own muscle power to get around. I love granny bikes and I still think the Pashley Princess Sovereign is the most beautiful bicycle in the world. 

But I also love my car. Due to the American car-centric infrastructure, daily life is extremely difficult without one. I do think car mechanics are fascinating. I enjoy watching cars get repaired on YouTube and I've considered attending mechanic's school. I enjoy driving so much that I do it for a living and have also considered stunt driving school. Speeding across the Bonneville Salt Flats is on my bucket list. I love my car because I lived car-free in downtown Minneapolis, Portland, Madison, and Honolulu in my younger days, and while I loved the convenience and walkability, I hated being piled on top of other filthy, stinking, noisy humans 24/7. I hated having no access to silence or solitude in a natural space. I love my car because having one has drastically increased my income and drastically decreased my exposure to street harassment. 

I never want to be a pedestrian out in public ever again. At least not on American streets.

I was sorely reminded of all this last month, on June 20, when I actually saw a car run over someone. Like, for real. In person, in full view, before my very eyes, not even 20 feet in front of me.

It was horrific.

I was working that night, returning to the pizza shop after making a delivery. Dinner rush was winding down and I pulled up to a red light. I needed to turn right onto North Power Road, which is a main thoroughfare and looks just like the first picture at the top of this post. Six lanes, 45mph speed limit, terrifying crosswalks, etc.

A young woman, about 25-30 years old, stood on the corner that I needed to pivot around. Her arms were full of bags. She was slim and lightly tanned, wearing jean shorts, and her blonde hair was tied in a trendy, messy knot. I noticed her brown gladiator sandals right away because I'd been wanting a pair exactly like that for a while.

Our light turned green, and she had the walk signal. She looked over her left shoulder at me, and I motioned with my hand. Go ahead. 

She nodded to say thank you, then started crossing Power. I always let pedestrians get to the median before I make my right turns, so I waited, watching her, envying her snazzy sandals as she crossed the first lane, then the second. She was almost to the median so I inched forward to begin my turn.

Just then a northbound car flashed through the scene and plowed into her with an audible SMACK.

The woman spun violently from the impact as the bags exploded from her arms. Her face scrunched into a grimace, as though she was biting her lip hard in anger. She fell to the ground, still in the crosswalk. 

I threw my car into park and dashed over to her. Since she wasn't hit squarely head-on, I wasn't sure if she was actually injured or if she'd just been clipped or grazed a little.

“Oh my god, are you alr--”


She screamed down the road after the errant car, then leaned back on her arms and tried to move her left leg. Her sandal was mangled, her toes covered in road grime and folded under her foot. She looked up at me and our eyes met, and she screamed again--the most guttural, teeth-baring, primal scream I'm ever heard. Then she squinted towards the sky, her hazel eyes framed by a full set of fake eyelashes, and unleashed another long primal scream. Then another, and another.

I grabbed my phone and tried to call 911, but my hands were shaking and fumbling so bad I couldn't dial. Within seconds though we were surrounded by people on their phones already talking to emergency dispatchers. The woman was now writhing around, delirious from pain and frantically asking us, “Is it broken?! Is it broken off?! Is my leg ripped off?!”

I noticed then that her left tibia/fibula had a compound fracture, the jagged end of the bone just about to peek through her smooth skin. A single drop of blood trailed down her leg. “No, darlin', it's still there!” I said. “We called 911, they're on their way!”

A man reached for her leg and we all yelled at him to not touch it or her. Another woman brought a blanket to support her head while we waited helplessly for an ambulance.

I left the crowd to find that asshole driver. A dark silver sedan was pulled over about 20 yards away and a 30-something, smartly dressed businessman strolled from it towards us, talking on his phone. I was furious. “Are you the driver?? Are you the driver??” I yelled. He nodded at me but kept talking.

All traffic had stopped, a crowd was attending to the injured woman, and an ambulance was en route, so there wasn't anything more I could do except give a witness statement to police. Since I was still on the clock, I returned to work and figured I'd file my report by phone later that night.

When I got back to the pizza shop, my hands were still shaking and I could hardly talk. I was so disturbed and upset. I tried to explain what happened, but no one could understand what I was talking about. I was so angry for that woman and so concerned about her. Having been a beleaguered pedestrian all those years, I felt so deeply for her. Two horrors played through my mind over and over: the sight of her slender body flailing and spinning from the impact, and the sheen of her eyes when she looked up at the universe and screamed in searing agony.

I tried calling the non-emergency number to give my statement, but was put on hold so I hung up. My next delivery was in that same direction though, and when I passed through that intersection again, all that remained were two police officers chatting with a few lingering bystanders. I quickly pulled over and, still in my silly pizza uniform, ran up to one of the cops.

“That woman had a green light and she was in the crosswalk!” I shouted breathlessly. “I'm on the clock so I can't stay long, but she definitely had the green!”

“I'm so glad you came back!” one of the woman bystanders said. “I don't know what happened—all I saw was a body flying through the air, so I stopped and put on my hazards!”

“I can tell you exactly what happened!” I said. “That guy ran a red light!”

“Yeah, he feels terrible,” the officer said as he handed me a witness sheet.

“I'll bet he does. Her legs looked awful."

“One broken leg for sure. The other, who knows. But it's just a broken leg, y'know what I'm saying? She's still awake and talking.” 

Just a broken leg. Did you know that's one of my worst fears? A tortuous, grotesque, devastatingly expensive injury with a long and frustrating recovery time that doctors and law enforcement don't think is a big deal because they see it every day.

Another broken leg. Ho-hum, routine, boring, who cares, so what, no biggie. Nothing to see here.

After I handed in my statement, I tried really hard to make the remainder of the night at work feel normal, but I was so troubled by what I'd seen, and by what I kept seeing over and over in my mind. I wondered how many surgeries that woman would need, how long her recovery would take, if her leg would heal right, and if she would become addicted to prescription pain killers like so many people do after a severe injury. I wondered what she did for work, how much time she'd need off for all her medical appointments, and how she'd pay all those medical bills. I wondered what hospital she was taken to, what her name was, where she'd been walking to, and if she was from the area. I hoped the courts would use my witness information to award her a large sum of money for her suffering. I was so worried about her. Did you know that approximately 22% of open tibial fractures in the US result in amputation? (This attorney blog claims 35%, but they don't cite their sources.) In Sweden, it's only 3.6%. Damn, those Europeans are at it again with their healthy lifestyles and universal health care.

As we closed up the pizza shop that night, the assistant manager said, “Just think--that could've been you that got hit instead of that girl!”

“No, I don't think so,” I replied. “I would've pulled into the first lane and that driver was in the third, so he wouldn't have hit me. Besides, I wouldn't have been hurt that bad. In a car, you've got seat belts and air bags and 2,000 lbs of steel protecting you. On foot you have nothing. You're defenseless.”

She went on for several minutes about how tragedies can lead to unexpected success in life, and maybe that woman was run over because something really wonderful will happen to her later. “I don't know what you believe,” this manager said, “but I believe everything happens for a reason. I think someone was watching over you.”

“And who was watching over the girl who got hit?” I asked.

“No one,” she smirked.

I wondered about that driver, too. How could he have missed a) his yellow light, b) his red light, and c) a grown woman crossing the street when it was still light out? WTF? He hadn't slammed on his brakes or swerved to miss her; he had breezed right through a light that had been solid red for several seconds and snapped her little leggie right in half, then got out of his car already talking on his phone.

He must've been on his phone the entire time.

Did you know that if you, as a driver, hit a pedestrian but stop right away, and the person you hit is injured but doesn't have a talented personal injury lawyer, you might get off with just a small traffic ticket? If they do have a lawyer and you're sued, the payments for that lawsuit (like most lawsuits in general) are not enforced by law—your wages aren't garnished or anything—so you could simply not pay it and move on with your life like nothing happened. Or just declare bankruptcy and start fresh still without ever paying a dime to the person who likely will be disabled for the rest of their life because of your stupidity and inattentiveness.

I wonder if I'll ever hit a pedestrian in my lifetime. I can't imagine doing so, because I make an effort to be hyper-aware of them. But addiction is a huge problem here in Mesa and people do walk around high out of their minds, plus there are a lot of homeless people with mental illnesses who walk into traffic with their beat-up luggage, stolen shopping carts, or broken bicycles, arguing with trees and fire hydrants and cussing at no one in particular. If we're not going to address addiction and mental health with universal health care, then as drivers we need to be extra vigilant.

I also wonder how, in all my pedestrian years, I myself have never been hit by a car. The only answer I can come up with is that because of the hostility and harassment I experienced on main roadways, I always preferred shortcuts through alleys, driveways, backroads, yards, fields, ditches, and cemeteries where there were few to no cars. I'm a habitual jaywalker and wouldn't be caught dead wearing a safety vest or reflective tape, but I always listen for cars, look both ways twice, wait for large gaps between vehicles, never look at my phone while crossing, and I've only wandered through streets lit AF exactly one time back in 2000, and fortunately it was during a time of day when the streets were empty. So I got lucky.

Whew. I love that my legs aren't broken. What a relief! Lemme just take a moment to celebrate that. I like having solid bones. I like having two whole legs. Two original, virgin shins--never deformed or snapped or amputated or held together with external fixators or replaced with titanium rods. Now that is luck. I like not having titanium rods in my legs!

Ok, ok...these pics were originally about the shoes. But observe the intact tibiae!

Omg, I can't think about external fixators anymore. Yelch. 

But I do still live in the most dangerous state for pedestrians, so who knows how long my original shins will last.

Although if my legs ever do get deformed or snapped or amputated or held together with external fixators or replaced with titanium rods, I hope it's because I'm about to win the Mega Millions jackpot. Then after I've paid a few million in medical bills, I'll still have several million left to retire in Amsterdam.