Durham News: Opinion

Erik Landfried: Boy crossing Duke Street didn’t have to die

On March 20, a 14-year-old boy named Jaydn Wilkins was struck and killed by a motorist while running across North Duke Street in Durham. If initial reports are true, he crossed against the traffic signal. Every news report quickly labeled it an “accident” as if it were an act of God. One online commenter called the incident “unavoidable.”

What happened to this young man was not an act of God. And this tragic outcome was absolutely avoidable.

It is no accident that this crash occurred on a busy, high-speed street with wide travel lanes. Nearly all of the fatal crashes that involve people on foot or on bikes do. Why? Because roads like North Duke Street are built for cars to go fast.

And speed kills. People on foot who are struck by vehicles traveling 20 mph die about 5 percent of the time. At 30 mph, that number jumps to 45 percent. At 40 mph? People on foot die 85 percent of the time.

Sadly, it is not abnormal that this crash involved a child. According to a report by the UNC Highway Safety Research Center, there have been more pedestrian crashes per capita involving children in Durham than any other community in North Carolina.

Many Americans seem to have made an implicit agreement that a certain amount of injury and death is acceptable in the name of “personal freedoms” like being able to drive really fast. We cannot afford to continue that line of thinking. We must design our streets to account for the inherent fallibility of being human.

Durham City Council members have indicated that new capital dollars may become available in the upcoming budget to construct and maintain sidewalks. This would be a welcome outcome – sidewalks allow people on foot to walk along our streets in dignity and allow our most vulnerable populations to access the things Durham has to offer. Much of North Duke Street does not currently have sidewalks.

But it’s not enough. Durham deserves better. A sidewalk would not have saved this teenager’s life. It wouldn’t have saved the lives of the three Durham citizens who were killed late last year riding their bikes. We need a more comprehensive transportation policy and plan that aims to complete Durham’s streets by making them safe and inviting for everyone, whether they are walking, biking, taking transit, or driving.

It is incumbent upon the citizens of the Bull City to make this case to city staff and our elected officials. Both Durham’s Bicycle and Pedestrian and Advisory Commission (BPAC) and Bike Durham have advocated strongly for the implementation of a complete streets policy and plan in Durham. There is a new Durham Coalition for Complete Streets that is beginning to meet with various stakeholders throughout Durham to push for this paradigm shift. Get involved in one of these groups. Write your own oped piece. (Send it to this paper at editor@newsobserver.com) Speak up in front of City Council.

A teenage boy likely made a terrible mistake. But he did not need to pay for that mistake with his life. His death is not an acceptable tradeoff for the ability to drive fast.

Erik Landfried is the chairman of Durham’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission and a member of the Durham Coalition for Complete Streets.