Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Honor a victim and help make our roads safer

Honor a victim and help make our roads safer

Posted on Wed, May. 17, 2006

Felicity Paxton is a senior fellow in the Critical Writing Program at the University of Pennsylvania

At 2 p.m. Saturday a good friend called to say he had just seen a 6-year-old cyclist killed on Martin Luther King Drive. A Mercury had smashed through one of the metal gates that "closes" this section of roadway to traffic on the weekends.

The boy, Riley Boyle of Bryn Mawr, was killed when the gate slammed into him. His siblings sobbed as their brother lay there. The driver, Doris Goodman, 81, of Lafayette Hill, was unharmed.

Two hours later, I cycled to the scene to pay my respects and send silent wishes to the boy and his family. As I stood there, I saw out of the corner of my eye a white van hurtling toward the gates. The driver didn't see me, the "road closed" sign, or the shiny new chain used to refasten the gates after the first crash. He flew into the exact same gate at about 50 m.p.h.

Fortunately for me, I was standing behind the gate he didn't hit, and by some law of physics I don't claim to understand, when the chain locking the gates burst, the one on my side didn't move. Fortunately for the driver, he was wearing a seat belt and survived the collision. Fortunately for all of us, there was no one else in the immediate vicinity as his van crashed through the gate and spun out of control. The van came to rest just feet from where Riley was killed.

That night I had nightmares filled with the sound of metal on metal. Of course, they are nothing compared with the nightmare visited on that little boy and his family.

I cannot explain why I got to live on Saturday and a child out for a family bike ride did not. I know that others who witnessed the first crash ponder the same question. But here's what we do know, and I say "we" because I spent Sunday back at the gates, this time collecting donations for the bereaved family and discussing the safety of this junction with others:

On Saturday, there were no orange cones out on the roadway ahead of the gates. These highly visible markers help motorists speeding down from the Art Museum see that MLK Drive, beyond Sweetbriar, is closed. (There were cones on Sunday, along with three police barriers and a squad car.)

On Saturday, the traffic lights at the Sweetbriar intersection were not set to flashing red, as they should have been to alert motorists to the road-closure ahead.

On any day, dark brown gates are a bad idea. They blend nicely into the park setting, but that is precisely the problem: They aren't sufficiently visible, especially for afternoon drivers with the sun in their eyes. Why not paint them bright orange or yellow?

Neither of Saturday's accidents would have occurred if we didn't have the highly controversial compromise that reopens MLK Drive from Sweetbriar to the museum at noon. This confuses drivers and endangers all those who seek to benefit from the otherwise excellent and enlightened road closure.

A final and painfully ironic twist in this tragic tale: Saturday marked the start of Philadelphia Bike Week, cosponsored by the Bicycle Coalition and the city. Tonight's "Ride of Silence" to commemorate cyclists killed while riding was already scheduled.

Now, we have another cyclist to mourn. Join us at the Art Museum steps, at 6:30 tonight. May our massed silence honor this latest victim and make loud our demand for a safer Philadelphia for all cyclists.

Contact Felicity Paxton at