Grieving the Lives Lost to Cars

Coalition for Responsible Transportation Priorites logo

by Colin Fiske

Most activists are deeply familiar with grief. Indeed, for many, it is a profound experience of loss—whether intimate or public, personal or global—that leads them to activism in the first place. Taking action to address a systemic problem can be a productive and healthy part of a grieving process.

In transportation advocacy, we often feel a tension between the need to acknowledge and grieve the lives lost to traffic violence and the desire to avoid giving the impression that we’re taking advantage of tragedies, or turning people off with maudlin condolences. In fact, this is a near-constant emotional dilemma. Even in a relatively small community like Humboldt County, someone dies on average every couple of weeks in a car or truck collision. It’s such a regular occurrence that most people barely take notice if they’re not personally affected. When there’s a major crash, people sometimes seem more concerned about the traffic delay than about the loss of a life.

It wasn’t always this way. Early in the twentieth century, when cars were relatively new, families conducted very public displays of mourning for their loved ones who were killed by automobiles and led huge demonstrations against cars and drivers. A coordinated and well-funded public relations campaign at the time eventually succeeded in shifting blame away from drivers and normalizing the everyday risk of injury and death associated with big, fast vehicles operating in our communities. 

A bouquet of flowers placed by CRTP on Broadway to honor the life of Thomas Burns, who was riding his bicycle there in October 2020 when he was hit and killed by a driver.

At the Coalition for Responsible Transportation Priorities (CRTP), we don’t know every person who is hit and killed by drivers in our local communities. We don’t even know all their names. It’s certainly not our place to tell their friends and families how to grieve their loss. But we believe it is important to publicly acknowledge these lives lost, and to hold public space for grief and mourning. These are deaths that occur in public spaces, designed and maintained with public dollars, and treating these deaths as routine or as only statistics, lets us all off the hook too easily—our society, our culture, our public agencies. We should never see violent death as routine, no matter the victim’s social or economic conditions, the circumstances in which they died, or whether or not we knew them personally. 

There is a lot we can do to reduce and even end traffic deaths, if we have the will. Calling out those needed changes and generating the social and political will to implement them comprises much of CRTP’s work. The grief of friends and neighbors lost is part of what drives us to advocate for safer conditions for the most vulnerable among us, particularly those walking, biking or rolling without a car or truck. It’s time for us to publicly acknowledge and respect that feeling of grief, even as we fight to avoid the need for more grieving in the future.