Russell's Blog

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A new Prometheus

Posted by Russell on December 08, 2012 at 2:33 a.m.
One year ago, UC Davis law student Megan Glanville was killed a stone's throw from my front door. She was crossing the street for a morning run. It was foggy. The driver didn't see her.

Since then, the intersection where she died has been redesigned. It is now a three-way stop with modern LED lighting. Watching over the scene, there is a new flashing red beacon.

This sort of infrastructure is easy to take for granted. As a Commissioner for the City of Davis, I suppose I pay closer attention to these things that most people do. I've payed particular attention to this little piece of city infrastructure because I pass through it several times a day.

Something has changed there since the red beacon went up. Up and down the boulevard, for almost a mile, there are crossings to access the bicycle path. Drivers now stop and let me cross. They never did that before. I am not exaggerating when I say that wherever the beacon's light falls, the feel of the street has changed. It's no longer the tail end of a lonely country road. It's a neighborhood street, and people act accordingly.

I would like to think that drivers feel the significance of the flashing beacon. I would like to think that they have noticed that the intersection has been redesigned. I would like to think that they know that Megan Glanville died there. In all likelihood, they are oblivious to these things. They stop and smile and waive me through anyway.

Why?

Good design matters. That's why.

The rocky ledge runs far into the sea,
And on its outer point, some miles away,
The Lighthouse lifts its massive masonry,
A pillar of fire by night, of cloud by day.

Even at this distance I can see the tides,
Upheaving, break unheard along its base,
A speechless wrath, that rises and subsides
In the white lip and tremor of the face.

And as the evening darkens, lo! how bright,
Through the deep purple of the twilight air,
Beams forth the sudden radiance of its light
With strange, unearthly splendor in the glare!

Not one alone; from each projecting cape
And perilous reef along the ocean's verge,
Starts into life a dim, gigantic shape,
Holding its lantern o'er the restless surge.

Like the great giant Christopher it stands
Upon the brink of the tempestuous wave,
Wading far out among the rocks and sands,
The night-o'ertaken mariner to save.

-- The Lighthouse, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

On a superficial level, a flashing red beacon is a utilitarian thing. If you look more closely, you will see that it is also a thing of beauty. It is an avatar of the compulsion we all feel to protect, to warn, to guide. The humble beacon is one of the better angels of our nature, sculpted with massive limbs of galvanized steel and eyes of electrically exuberant gallium phosphide. It sends our message out into the world, again, and again, and again.

be careful

be careful

be careful

be careful

be careful

...

Moving forward by stopping

Posted by Russell on April 02, 2012 at 4:06 p.m.
Just a three weeks after I was sworn in for my term on the City of Davis Safety and Parking Advisory Commission, UC Davis law student Megan Glanville was killed just a few dozen feet from my doorstep. She was out jogging on a foggy morning, and truck coming into town from the county road ran her down in the crosswalk. I never knew Megan, but her death deeply upsets me.

I've been worrying about pedestrian and bike safety ever since my little sister was nearly killed by a careless driver.

I find it extremely frustrating that most people do not look beyond the (usually imagined) behavior of the people involved in an accident like the one that almost killed my sister, or that did kill Megan Glanville. Either they identify with the frustrating experience of driving, and blame the victim, or they side with the law, and place the responsibility at the feet of the operator of the more dangerous vehicle. I will always side with the person who suffered more, but both views are myopic. When someone has been killed in an accident, the question of who was more "right" in that sliver of time is irrelevant. It is worse than irrelevant; it is an insult to the lives of all the people affected.

There are other, far more urgent questions that need to be raised. If you see a problem, the first question you should always ask is, "In what way am I responsible for this?" We are all bound together by bonds of mutual responsibility, and nothing happens among people, good or bad, for which each of us are not in some sense responsible. That is what words like "society," "community," and "civilization" mean. They describe the fact that the bonds that link us together are fundamentally inescapable. There is such a thing as integrity, but there is no such thing as self-reliance. Interdependence is the very essence of what makes us human. And so, if you see something that upsets you, the first thing you should look at is your own role in causing it. Through our choices, we were all present on morning that George Souza killed Megan Glanville. You. Me. Everyone. We all had a hand in it.

Clearly, we failed. You failed. I failed. Someone is dead as a consequence of that failure.

So, let us set aside the choices of George Souza and Megan Glanville, and look at the choices we made that contributed to this terrible thing. They are easy enough to see :

This is the crosswalk where Megan was killed, which is part of a system of roads that belong to the City of Davis. The arrow on the yellow sign is pointing almost directly at the spot. The laws that govern the design of the road are a kaleidoscopic fugue of local, county, state, federal and international regulations. Within that often contradictory matrix of statutes, the city government has a small keyhole of authority within which it may choose what the road looks like and how it works.

From an engineering point of view, it's pretty clear what the problem is. The road on the left is just a stone's throw from the border of the city. Beyond the border, it is a wide county road that cuts a nearly straight line for miles among orchards and farms. When it crosses into the city, this road suddenly plunges into a dense residential neighborhood with no transition whatsoever. The intersection where Megan was killed is the very first intersection an eastbound driver encounters in the City of Davis. So, drivers come in from the county road going at county road speeds, and roar through this intersection where people are trying to cross to the bike path that parallels the road. Add a little darkness and bit of fog, and the accident was basically inevitable.

Why was this intersection designed this way? I don't know. According to the laws and statutes that regulate its engineering, there is nothing particularly wrong with it. But then again, houses that catch fire and burn people alive inside are often built to code. Compliance with the law is not enough. Only thoughtful design can keep people safe, and the absence of that thoughtfulness killed someone.

So, who is to blame? The legislators who wrote the statues describing how intersections should be designed? The engineers whose designs were constrained by those statutes? The City of Davis Public Works Department that built and maintained it? Surely, some of the responsibility falls to them. But not very much. If you've ever driven, walked or bicycled through the intersection of Lake and Russell, then a great deal of the responsibility falls on you. If you've ever felt uncomfortable or unsafe while passing through it, then you knew someone would get hurt there sooner or later.

The Council Chambers are open to the public. The meetings and agendas are available weeks in advance for all to see, at CityOfDavis.org. You can even submit your concerns in writing if you don't have time to come to the meetings. In other words, you had the reason and the means to get this fixed, or at least play a part in getting it fixed, before Megan Glanville was killed. I share in this responsibility; I serve on the commission charged with advising the City Council on these things, and I did not raise this issue either. And I use this intersection several times a day. And I always feel unsafe. It is my fault too.

So, here is what is going to happen. The City Council was asked, and agreed, to take steps to prevent anyone else from getting killed. The proposed changes will add stop signs on Russell Boulevard in both directions, a blinking red light in case drivers don't see the stop signs in the fog, and four new street lights for better illumination overall. It will cost about $20,000.

This is a much better design. It's impossible to know if it would have saved Megan's life had it been in place in December, but it seems likely that it would have. I strongly support it.

Roads are not natural phenomena. They are public infrastructure, and they are designed and built and maintained in exactly the way the public asks them to be. Let's try to do a better job of holding up our end of that conversation.

The tale of the rampaging lorry

Posted by Russell on May 23, 2009 at 4:33 p.m.
On Friday morning, a fellow named Boris and two of his friends got on their bicycles for a ride. As they pedaled along, observing the speed limit and traffic rules, a speeding truck overtook them. As it bounced over a speed bump, it's rear door swung open and snagged a parked car, and flung it across the road. It came within a few inches of crushing Boris and his friends.

So far, the event I've described above seems fairly unremarkable. Things like that happen all the time. There are two unusual things about this crash, though. First of all, the incident was caught on tape by a security camera, so we know exactly what happened. The three near-victims were Lord Adonis, Kulveer Ranger, and Boris Johnson; the UK's minister of transport, the director of transport of the city of London, and the mayor of London, respectively.


Helmet in hand, the mayor of London walks over for a better look at the car that almost killed him. This iPhone shot is by user Beatnic on Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

The three were cycling through London to scope out possible routes for a system of protected bicycle "super-highways." Mr. Johnson had the following to say about the incident:

"I am relieved that no-one was hurt, but this incident reinforces the need for us to make London's roads safer for cyclists, which I am determined to do and to make London the best city for cyclists in Europe.

"Cycle Super Highways, which are part of our record investment in cycling, will play a central role in this, providing clearly demarcated routes for cyclists that lorry drivers and others will be aware of."

What does this mean for American cities? I would take three lessons. First, London is huge, cramped, and damp. Yet London is looking to bicycles as a significant part of its transportation mix, and the city government takes it seriously enough that the mayor himself is regularly out surveying bicycle routes. Bicycles are a serious metropolitan transportation system, not just a recreational activity. Relative to London, cities like Davis are in a much stronger position when it comes to cycling; it should press its advantage.

Second, helmet laws and cycling safety initiatives are important, but even the most careful cyclist -- even the mayor of London -- can do very little to protect himself from a rampaging truck.

Third, out-of-control vehicles are depressingly common. If you want bicycles to play a serious role in municipal transportation, you must deal with vehicle safety.

As if vehicle safety weren't worth pursuing anyway! 43,000 Americans die every year in car accidents. That's like one 9/11 hijacking every month. Bringing this number down will take more than airbags and antilock breaks. It will require making some changes in the way we drive, and the roads we drive on.

The Davis Crash Map

Posted by Russell on April 29, 2009 at 12:02 a.m.
I want announce a little project I put together over the weekend. For want of a better name, I'll call it the Davis Crash Map. Basically, I analyzed the accident report spreadsheets from the City of Davis Public Works Department, and made an overlay for Google Maps to visualize the data. The spreadsheets are a bit difficult to analyze, so I'm leaving out the reports that aren't clear to me (about 15% of the reports). The reports that gave me some trouble seem to be randomly distributed over the city, so the overlay should still give an unbiased picture of what is happening.

In particular, this is map is intended to examine bicycle accidents. I hope people will look at this map, and think about how they behave on the roads, weather on foot, on a bicycle, or in a car. How you behave on the road has direct, and sometimes dire, consequences for you and for other people.

However, there is more to this than behavior. This is also a design question. Roads are not natural features. They are designed and built by people for use by people. As with anything that is made by humans, there are good designs and bad designs. These designs have a real impact on peoples' lives. In the case of streets, the impact on your life can be very literal, as this map shows.

Even good designs can always be improved. Davis is a pretty safe town in which to walk, bicycle and drive. But if you study this map, and think about it as you go about the town, it's also clear that things could be better.

I'm not a traffic engineer, or a civil engineer, or a city planner. I claim no expertise in those areas. I'll leave it to other people to make specific suggestions. However, I think it is important for the users of streets -- pretty much everybody -- to think about what kind of streets they want. This map should help give you a better idea of what kind of streets we actually have.

For some reason, people seem to get very emotional about traffic. I grew up in Los Angeles, home of the nation's worst traffic jams. Perhaps this is to make up for our lack of a professional football franchise. Passions about transportation, especially mundane things like parking spaces and HOV lanes, get people really worked up. Los Angeles is also famous for road rage, and nowhere is it in greater evidence than in the corridors of City Hall. Public meetings on traffic can make I-405 look like afternoon tea. In fact, thousands of people from all over the world tune into the internet broadcast of the Santa Monica city council meetings to listen to Californians scream at each other over the exact position of little blobs of paint on little strips of asphalt.

What the conversation needs, I think, is some perspective. Data can help provide that perspective, especially if it can be represented in a way that is easy to understand. Maps are good at that.

If you will indulge me, I'd like to share my perspective on this data. Each marker represents a traumatic event for someone. Under some of those markers, a life came to a sudden, violent end. I'd like to share a picture of what kind of event a marker on this map represents. You won't find a marker for this event because it happened in Norman, Oklahoma, a college town that is a lot like Davis.


Anna and me

In October of 2007, my little sister was riding her bicycle near her house. A lady in a Mercedes made a lazy left turn, and crossed onto the wrong side of the road. She hit Anna head-on. Anna went up and over the hood of the car, and face-planted on the windshield, breaking her nose and her front teeth. The lady slammed on the breaks, and Anna then went flying off the car and slammed her head on the pavement. That much is clear from where my mother photographed the tire marks, the blood stains, and scattered teeth.


Who designed this street, anyway?

The sequence of events afterward are a little unclear, since Anna does not remember anything from that day, or for several days before and after the accident. The police report includes several details that are impossible or don't make any sense; for example, the officer thought she was coming out of a driveway onto the street, but the driveway did not belong to anyone she knew, and was paved in gravel (extremely annoying to bicycle on). The report also places the accident on the wrong side of the street, which was obvious enough based on the tire marks and blood. Based on what her friends say she was doing -- biking from her house to a friend's house -- she would have just been pedaling along the side of the road. The details of what happened are somewhat unclear, other than the evidence left on the road and gouged onto my sister's face.

After hitting the pavement, she evidently got up and staggered around for a bit, and then collapsed. She stopped breathing, and officer on the scene couldn't find a pulse, and assumed that she was dead. This was the reason given for not immediately summoning an ambulance.

Then she suddenly revived and started mumbling. The lady who ran her down went into screaming hysterics, and had to be restrained (or evacuated, or something). It was only then that an ambulance was called. From the report, it appears that paramedics and police spent a good deal of time tending to the driver of the car, who was having an anxiety attack, instead of Anna, who was bleeding from massive head trauma.

Anna then spent the next several days in the hospital. My mother got on the next flight to stay with her. For the next several days, Anna went through long and short memory lapses and dizzy spells of various lengths. When I spoke to her on the phone over the next several days, she also had some kind of aphasia, which was very jarring to me because she is normally a very articulate person. And then there was the puking. Brain injuries often come with a heavy dose of overpowering nausea. She was on anti-nausea drugs for a long time after the accident.

It took a long time for he to start feeling "normal" again. Almost two years later, she's still not sure she feels completely normal. Fortunately, thanks to some really great work by her surgeons, she looks normal. Needless to say, she is both very lucky and very tough.


Anna's bicycle. The police kept it as evidence, but allowed my mother to photograph it.

You could say that I have a personal stake in this, and I will not claim to be unbiased. Many people who argue against safety measures that would slow traffic argue their case on the basis of personal responsibility. We are each responsible for our actions, they argue, and if you do something stupid, you are responsible for the consequences. Why should people who don't do stupid things be inconvenienced?

I agree completely. However, if one casts any real issue into the frame of personal responsibility, then things are rarely so simple. Everyone who could act in a situation has responsibilities, even if they are not they are directly involved. When you have the power to prevent something bad from happening, and you choose not to act, then some of the responsibility falls on you. Every unfortunate, stupid thing that happens involves a cast of thousands of silent, but not blameless, bystanders.

We have a responsibility to at least attempt to protect people regardless of what they are doing -- even if it is stupid. This is especially true when it comes to the things we build. We shouldn't, if we can possibly avoid it, build things that injure and kill people. If we can think of ways to make something we build less dangerous, we ought to give it a try.


Anna and Earnie, about a year after the accident.

My little sister was stupid not to wear a helmet that day. The lady in the car was stupid not to have been on the lookout for cyclists. But neither of them deserved what happened. Each of them is obviously bears some measure of responsiblity (and I have my own opinions on how those measures are apportioned), but the city of Norman is also responsible. The city didn't even bother to paint a line down the middle of the road; what was the driver supposed to be on the wrong side of?

Yes, this is about personal responsibility. We, the public, build the roads. We are responsible for the markers on this map, and all the terror, trauma and tragedy they represent. Let's try to do better.

Bike saftey in Davis

Posted by Russell on April 25, 2009 at 11:18 p.m.
I've been tinkering with a little data visualization applet for looking at bicycle crash data in Davis, and I thought this map might be interesting to people. This is a image was generated with Google Maps and a heatmap overlay generated with a gheat tile server.

This is for 168 bicycle accidents that happened between 2004 and 2006. I have a lot more data, but 95% of the work in this little project involves parsing and renormalizing it. Evidently, police reports are not written with data processing in mind! I suppose that makes perfect sense. An officer at the scene of an accident probably has things on her mind besides generating a nice, easy to parse data point for future analysis. The priority seems to be completeness, rather than consistency. My parsing code, for example, has to be able to correctly detect and calculate distances measured in units of "feeet".

I'll release the applet here once I make an interface for it (and get the rest of the data imported). Stay tuned.

Fun with My Tracks, an accident, and Biking in Davis

Posted by Russell on April 21, 2009 at 5:40 a.m.
I was biking home today, and I decided to take a detour to enjoy the warm evening (and to avoid the not enjoyable warm apartment). About half way around the Davis Bike Loop, I remembered that I wanted to try out My Tracks. Here's the result :
Neat!

After wandering off the Bike Loop a bit, I decided to head home. I was biking down Russell Blvd., and I witnessed a very scary car accident. The accident happened where I stopped recording the track, at the red marker. A guy in a cherried-out lifted F-150 was sitting at the traffic light (that's the point where I turned around). When the light turned green, he floored it. According to the other witnesses, he was racing with someone, or trying to catch someone who had cut him off. I couldn't see the other car because it was behind his gigantic stupid truck.

What I did see, though, was that he accelerated continuously until he reached the next intersection (the red marker), where he had a head-on collision with a girl in a 1990's Honda Civic trying to make a left turn. His engine was deafeningly loud even a block away, and I heard it roaring and down-shifting right up until the crash.

Looking at the damage to her car, it looked like he basically ran it over. The lift kit on the truck put his undercarriage about level with her roof, and there were even little ladders installed to climb up to the doors. After he ran over the Civic, he swerved around a bit, jumped the median, sideswiped a small SUV in the oncoming traffic, spun 180 degrees, and snapped his axle. When the axle snapped, I heard his engine redline for half a second and then cut.

Happily, nobody was hurt. The girl in the Civic was pretty much petrified, though. She was convinced that the accident was her fault because she didn't get out of the way.

I told her this was nonsense; the truck was going more than double the speed limit, and I'm pretty sure he didn't have his lights on (it was dusk, but not completely dark yet). She asked me about five times, "How much do you think it will cost to fix?" I told her, "Cost you? Nothing. He was committing maybe a dozen moving violations, and probably racing someone. His insurance company will probably be so happy not to have to pay medical bills that they will buy you a whole new car."

Maybe she could have been a little swifter completing her turn, but it's a busy street and there is a lot of pedestrian and bicycle traffic (it parallels a bike path). Making a quick turn is probably not a good idea. Or, maybe she could have waited until this asshole passed, but, as I pointed out, he was going maybe 50 or 60 in a 30 zone, and accelerating. She timed her turn right for reasonable traffic flow, but didn't account for total maniacs among the oncoming traffic. It would have been difficult to judge when he would reach the intersection she was turning through.

Oi!

As it turns out, Davis has been thinking about redesigning this stretch of Russell Blvd. for several years. If you look at the proposed design, it would have made this accident impossible or unlikely. You can't race on a one lane road, and a landscaped medium would have prevented the second collision.

Protect your noodle

Posted by Russell on October 31, 2007 at 12:58 a.m.
Yesterday afternoon, my little sister was hit by a car while riding her bicycle across the University of Oklahoma campus. She suffered lacerations and abrasions to her face, lost a couple of teeth, and a number other injuries. She also has a serious concussion. She is now experiencing memory loss, disorientation, extreme nausea, and huge amount of pain.

All of this is, in a sense, good news. She was very, very lucky, given that she was not wearing a helmet. The prognosis is that she will recover completely after some unknown amount of time. My mother flew out to Oklahoma on the first available flight, and she'll be staying with Anna at least throught next week.

She is an exceptionally smart girl, and she knows perfectly well how important helmets are. When we were little, I witnessed her flip her bike and pile-drive her head into the sharp point of the curb in front of our house. She was not hurt, but her helmet nearly split in half. We still have that helmet, even thought it is ruined. The seven inch long, two inch deep gash across the crown makes it perfectly clear that Anna would have died that day, had it not been for a geeky-looking early 1990s vintage Bell helmet. The very first serious email I ever wrote was to thank Bell Sports for saving my little sister.

Now is not the time to wonder why she wasn't wearing her helmet yesterday. Maybe she lost it, or maybe she figured she was only going to ride a short distance, or maybe she didn't expect any cars on campus. We may never find out, given that she doesn't remember the accident. For now, we're focusing on when we can take her out of the hospital, and how long it will take her to recover.

I am writing this here today to ask you, dear reader, to always wear the proper safety equipment. Concussions are not funny. Shit happens. Protect your noodle.

I am going to go ahead and shamelessly plug Bell helmets. Bell has been making helmets since 1954, and they invented the modern bicycle helmet in 1975. Bell saved my little sister once, so they've got my vote for life. Buy a helmet, and make sure it is on your head whenever you so much as handle a bicycle, in case you are overpowered by a sudden uncontrollable urge to peddle around. In fact, buy two, just in case you loose one, or for variety, or for the hell of it.

If you are wondering how to make bicycling safer, you can do two things. Wear a helmet, and bicycle more :

The analysis undertaken in this study suggests that policies which lead to an increase in cycling will not increase the likelihood of cyclist crashes. From the work reported here, it seems the more cyclists there are on the roads the lower the risk that any individual cyclists will be involved in a collision. Road safety professionals concerned about reducing the likelihood of cycle crashes might consider measures that increase cycling.