The Everday Surrealism of Automobile Violence

Over the eleven years since I've been writing about street design and every day life in the Twin Cities I have heard lots of crazy things. Some are simply bizarre acts of structural malice, like the ways that cars slam into buildings  almost like clockwork, people driving cars into old buildings, new buildings, stop lights, other cars, light rail trains, and people. Every day this is happening all around us.

Others stories are tragic, particular, and unforgettable. Take for example the old Asian-American couple who immigrated to Saint Paul, and walked together each morning down the same street by their house. One morning, just days after they had visited with the Dalai Lama, a driver slammed into one of them while they were in their crosswalk.

"My wife, my wife," cried her husband, looking backwards, but she was already dead.

There was the young French girl who arrived at college for her year-long exchange program. One her first day in Saint Paul, she was killed by a driver turning through the crosswalk. She had seen the walk sign, and didn’t yet know how little it meant in this country.

There was the story once told to me by a favorite bartender at my old neighborhood bar, a place that has since burned down. A couple had reserved a table for their wedding night, and were getting something out of their trunk when a police chase flew down the street. The fleeing driver slammed into the row of cars parked on Front Avenue and the crash instantly severed the groom's leg from the rest of his body.

[Kenneth J. Foster.]
There are a dozen stories like this that I have heard since I started paying attention. Each of them makes me sick, but the latest one is the worst.

Last week on Dale Street, a driver fleeing from a crash reached 70 miles per hour on a bike boulevard, drove through an intersection onto a median, and launched his car straight through the #65 bus. At the time, it had had six passengers on it, including Kenneth J. Foster and Markus Anthony Dashawn Jackson, two men just trying to get around Frogtown.

The car went in the left side of the bus, killing Foster and critically injuring Jackson, and flew out the other side, leaving a cartoonish hole. The car then demolished a lamppost on Dale Street.

Check out the accounts of the crash:
Bjelland was driving a white sedan about 7:30 p.m. in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood, fleeing the scene of a minor crash, according to police. The car ran a stop sign, hit a median and went airborne, slamming into a northbound bus at up to 70 miles per hour, witnesses said.

The force of the crash sliced open the bus, which was carrying six to eight people, according to police. Foster was thrown from the bus and later died at the scene.

Or this:
Mercedes Berry, 17, of St. Paul, was walking to the nearby Speedy Dale convenience store to buy cheese popcorn when she saw and heard the car racing eastbound on Charles.

“It came zooming past,” she said. “It hit the median, flew into the air and hit the bus. It went through the bus — right through the bus — and flipped.”

Berry said she felt bad for the bus passenger who died.

“He was going home and was going to see his family and stuff, and now he won’t see his family no more,” she said.
Or this:

"I heard it all the way inside the house, it was unbelievable," neighborhood resident Brannon Drees said. "I was trying to piece it all together.”

Drees lives right near the intersection where the crash happened, and he says many of his neighbors came outside near the scene to try and help.

"The entire (car) frame was all like an accordion, crushed back and the flames were shooting out of it," Drees said as he described what he saw.

The weird thing about this story is how surreal it is, how horrible the actual details are to look at. The pictures alone are vaguely nauseating to me, kind of like the 9/11 images the first time I saw them. Only this is no act of international terrorism, this is everyday life in a car-dominated American city. This is simply the most extreme case of a basic reality: we have planned our lives around a dangerous machine.

Unlike many deadly crashes, this one wasn't an engineering problem. It's safe to say that designing a walkable city to prevent 70 mph suicidal driving is pretty much impossible. In this case, the tragedy is particularly ironic! The driver launched his car off a pedestrian safety median, one of the very few pedestrian and bicycling safety improvements that have ever been installed in Saint Paul.

(Q: If the median were more substantial, had higher curbs with harder angles, would the car still have flown through the air, and gone through the bus? Probably.)
The only real conclusion here is that the embedded violence of the automobile is something we take for granted. Cars are deadly, and we’ve surrounded ourselves with them. At the flick of a foot, any drugged-up maniac can kill just anyone at any time, even someone minding his own business riding the city bus down Dale Street at seven miles per hour. Designing a society around the automobile is not only wasteful of our energy and collective resources, not only alienates us from each other and feeds our most misanthropic feelings, but it must result in senseless death. This is the only outcome when our cities practically require everyone to wield a weapon every day.

So often, the things that are closest to us are the least visible. We rarely notice the scratches on our glasses or the smudges on our windows. The everyday violence of cars, crashing around us, occasionally startles, but we will ourselves to forget.

We ignore reminders — the hubcab sitting on a sidewalk, the police siren in the distance, the small shards of fender plastic scattered in an intersection — all just another part of our everyday lives, something to forget while we speed along on our lives.

Even the deadly crashes glance off our attention spans, another headline in the paper or story on the evening news. All of us have seen a thousand of these by now, and it seems like nothing can change.

It’ll take me a while to forget this one.

[A day on Dale Street.]


Keith M said...

I agree with everything here, but it's worth noting that the stretch of the so called bike boulevard between Victoria and Dale has no traffic calming features whatsoever: not a single speed hump, no chicanes, and no traffic circles on any of the intersections between these major streets. I'm all but certain that these would have kept the driver from being able to reach 70 MPH, but still above safe speed around cyclists, etc. This incident also demonstrates how useless sharrows are, as even the larger ones emblazoned with BLVD did nothing at all to slow this driver just as they don't any other driver.

Anonymous said...

Well-written, thank you.

Do you foresee a solution, or are we too far gone at this point?

Ben said...

There's a crushed railing and cement corner post along East Lake St right at an intersection, a spot where many a pedestrian has stood while waiting for a chance to cross the street. I pointed that out to my kids as a daily reminder to always look out for cars even when you think you're in a safe spot like on the sidewalk. Thanks for this post.

Crystal Rose-Wainstock said...

Thank you for writing this! My husband and I recently moved to St. Paul (about a mile north on Dale from where this accident happened) from Minneapolis, and we are constantly reminded that the city is built for car traffic. We haven't owned a car in about 5 years, and while this presents its own challenges in any location, we found Minneapolis to be fairly pedestrian-friendly. There are definitely things that happen there as well, but I never had to plan my route worrying that there just won't be sidewalks or that I'll have to frogger my way across one of the many 4-lane "streets" hoping that the drivers going much faster than the posted speed limit see me in the crosswalk. Being a fairly frequent rider of the 65 bus, this particular accident also leaves me somewhat speechless, and it will take a while to forget this incidence of car violence. I can't help but feel that St. Paul views pedestrians and public transit riders as second-class citizens. Just thanks for writing this.

Ben said...

As I was reading this post I was remembering Yi Fu Tuan describing another surreal everyday experience, flying. We sit in our airplane seats calmly, most of us anyway, as we hurtle through the air in a metal tube, oblivious to the hostile environment just the other side of the window. Of course, you're safer up there than you are walking on the street.

Bill Lindeke said...

Ben that is a funny coincidence because I have been reading Yi Fu Tuan lately also. (see: http://tcsidewalks.blogspot.com/2017/07/notable-quotes-9-yi-fu-tuan-on-martian.html)

Thanks to everyone for your comments!

Anonymous said...

Great town, great people....among the friendliest on earth, but yall terrible drivers... pretty much from fargo to milwaukee.

Erin Pavlica said...

We need to find the funding to finish the Charles Ave Bikeway now more than ever. :( I live on Charles between Lexington and Hamline and I can't tell you how sad and scared this made me for the kids of Frogtown, who often ride and play in the streets. This horrible accident could have claimed more lives than it did. I won't forget this one, ever.

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