Opinion: Carmen Ramirez’s death is a wake-up call for street safety
By Rick Cole
“We have breaking news tonight where a deadly vehicle vs. pedestrian accident has claimed the life of Carmen Ramirez,” the Channel 7 anchor announced. “She’s the chair of the Ventura County Board of Supervisors.”
Ramirez was using the crosswalk at the intersection of 7th and A streets in Oxnard’s downtown when she was struck by a GMC Sierra truck. CaliforniaVehicle Code 21950 requires that all motor vehicles yield to pedestrians walking in crosswalks, but each year nearly 1,000 people are killed by cars on California streets and roads. Tragically, Carmen Ramirez was among the latest, but at nearly three per day, she will hardly be the last.
These preventable deaths are on the rise nationally despite a widespread adoption of “Vision Zero,” the laudable public policy goal of eliminating traffic deaths and serious injuries. The common narrative blames an increase in reckless driving. Occasionally the increase in size and number of SUVs and trucks gets attention.
What is conveniently ignored is that our streets are designed to kill.
Not intentionally, of course. But the problem lies far more with reckless design than reckless drivers. And driving the reckless design is the mentality that deaths like Ramirez’s are “accidents.”
When automobiles were first introduced in cities a century ago, the result was ghastly slaughter, despite the far slower speeds of the first cars. Over decades, states and localities adopted the regulations we take for granted today: driver training and licensing; traffic rules, signage and enforcement; vehicle safety standards; etc.
The speed of cars increased as did our dependence on them. Streetcars disappeared, replaced by diesel-belching buses. “Jaywalking” was invented as a crime to clear streets for cars. We mandated and built convenient free parking at homes, businesses, schools, churches, restaurants, entertainment venues and parks. Bicycling and walking were relegated to afterthoughts.
Meanwhile traffic engineers continued to “improve” streets and roads to move as many cars as quickly as possible. That meant continuously wider streets and highways that increased capacity. They also made allowances for human failings (speeding, distracted driving, as well as driver impairment due to alcohol or drugs) with wider roads and fewer obstacles to crash into. While that makes a street less likely to kill a driver and their passengers at high speeds, it makes it far deadlier for anyone not wrapped up in a protective shielding of metal and plastic. Meaning pedestrians and bicyclists.
None of this is a secret. In“Confessions of a Recovering Engineer,”Charles Marohn lays out what he calls the “embedded values” of the street design profession: “Never mind that a high level of service is often horrific for people trying to cross a street on foot. Never mind that a higher level of service generally means a lower level of financial productivity for the community (higher costs, lower financial return), especially on local streets. For the engineer who values traffic speed above all else, there is no conflict in using this grading system to prioritize ‘improvements.’”
Moreover, Roy Prince, Ramirez’s architect husband, has long advocated for safer streets in the context of creating a healthier and more vibrant Oxnard, where Ramirez was on the City Council before being elected to the Ventura County Board of Supervisors. Four years ago, Prince advocated for making the downtown more walkable, writing, “The auto-centric un-walkable planning of the last 50+ years has failed to make places that people love — and people are saying ‘no more,’ and thus today we have NIMBYs. … When we build walkable equitable places that people love, the NIMBYs will become YIMBYs (Yes in my backyard).”
Ramirez is rightfully remembered for far more than her tragic death. She was a lifelong champion of those in our society who often go unnoticed, unheard and uncared for. There could be no more fitting tribute to her legacy than for Oxnard and Ventura County to be champions of safe and walkable communities. Our society’s most vulnerable are also those most likely to be walking or biking: the young, the old, the poor.
Change begins in our own hearts. Is shaving 30 seconds off our trip to work, the grocery store or the gym worth the loss of precious loved ones? Will we continue to support road “improvements” that gobble up tax dollars while bike paths and “traffic calming” projects are starved for funds? Are we willing to challenge decades of traffic engineering dogma and instead prioritize saving lives?
Downtown Ventura has closed its Main Street to vehicle traffic. Not a perfect solution to traffic safety, but a bold one. Reclaiming local streets for people doesn’t primarily involve banning cars, however. It simply involves putting all forms of mobility on equal footing — creating what enlightened engineers call “complete streets” that work for all forms of travel. That means ending expensive road and intersection widenings — and insisting engineers revise their standards to pursue Vision Zero instead of maximum speed. Ramirez devoted her life to this kind of community and public service. Can we devote some of our time to honor her memory and memorialize her loss?
Deserved tributes to Ramirez will continue to flow in the weeks ahead. And so will unnecessary pedestrian deaths of far less celebrated victims. In the years ahead, what will measure the sincerity of those tributes is a tenacious devotion to preventing tragedies like the one that claimed the life of Carmen Ramirez, gone too soon.
• Rick Cole is the executive director of the Congress for New Urbanism. He was Ventura’s city manager from 2004 to 2012.