Thoughts on a memorial for highway victims

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Eye from Albany
March 2007

Thoughts on a memorial for highway victims

By Paul M. Bray

Our auto intoxicated state highway engineers have a new toy, the roundabout. Someone told me that very shortly after the Route 9 roundabout in the Town of Malta, Saratoga County was completed, he noticed a make shift memorial marking a traffic death. I am sure you’ve seen many of these memorials along the state’s highways often with flowers in a vase and some religious symbol along with the name of the deceased.

This got me thinking about the risks we are willing to accept to have our auto dependent life and how we blissfully ignore the risks. I also wondered whether a public memorial for highway victims including pedestrians and bicyclists would help us remember the victims of highway fatalities and as a body politic move us to develop safer means of mobility.

Capital cities like Washington, DC and increasingly Albany have a thing for memorials. Washington has 160 memorials and adds about one memorial a year. I don’t know the total number in Albany but they have clearly sprouted during the Pataki Administration. We now, for example, have memorials to crime victims, children, police officers, women veterans and Martin Luther King, Jr. to go along with the historic memorials for George Washington and General Phillip Sheridan astride his horse in East Capital Park.

State art curators, Dennis R. Anderson and Barbara R, Maggio wrote that the Empire State Plaza memorials “…commemorate the service and sacrifice of diverse groups of citizens of the great state of New York and offer visitors the opportunity to reflect on issues that touch the core of our society.”

Well said, but why I have never heard anyone suggest we should have a public memorial to the victims of highway accidents. I thought of the west wall of the Empire State Plaza behind which the State Department of Motor Vehicles is located and the design of the powerful Vietnam Memorial by Maya Lin in Washington. Why don’t we engrave the names of highway victims including pedestrians and bicyclists on the west Plaza wall for purposes of remembrance and tribute as well as a constant reminder to our public officials that road casualties are a societal problem we have to solve?

In case you are inclined to think this notion is off the wall (no pun intended), take a look at the extent of the problem of road traffic accidents not only in New York State, but also in the nation and world wide.

Drive & Stay Alive, Inc. reports, “When compared with other highly-motorized countries, the USA does badly in terms of highway safety. When individual American states are compared with international standards, things start to look even worse. No less than eleven U.S. states have worse road-death rates, per head of population, than the worst country in the international listings.”

Now look at New York State. For example in 2002, we had 1522 fatalities at a rate of 7.93 per 100,000 population. That doesn’t count the numbers of people injured or disabled, both those reported and the great number of unreported rear enders producing undiagnosed chronic pain. Traffic accidents are the largest cause of crippling injuries to the brain and spinal cord. Autos are also the single greatest killer of young people.

Not good and not acceptable. While we have traffic safety committees at the federal and state level, why aren’t road deaths, one of the most common causes of untimely death, raised to a level of public crisis? Why don’t we react to highway dangers in the same way we do to an air plane crash especially since highway dangers are predictable and preventable.

A check of the internet shows that the United Nations is trying to be a force for road safety. Oman’s representative to the UN called roadway accidents a “crisis in the making”. Globally, he pointed to 1.2 million deaths and another 20 to 50 million injuries each year in traffic accidents. This is growing at a rate that will outstrip HIV/AIDs-related deaths by 2020.

Road safety is now on the UN’s agenda beginning with the designation of the third Sunday of November to be “an annual day of remembrance for victims of road traffic accidents and their families”.

Perhaps memorializing the New York victims of traffic accidents on the marble walls of the Empire State Plaza would give visibility to the human damage coming from our auto-centric society and give this public issue and public disgrace the attention it needs to really do something constructive about it.

Paul M. Bray is President of P.M.Bray LLC, a planning and environmental law firm in Albany. His e-mail is pmbray@aol.com