On Monday, 8-year-old Chase Delarios was riding his bicycle in the Kingwood neighborhood of Houston. As he was crossing Kings Mill Lane toward a nearby pond, a 33-year-old woman driving a Hyundai Santa Fe struck him in the intersection. Delarios died at the hospital. The driver was not charged. Afterward, the Texas Department of Public Safety told local news reporters that the area “isn’t safe for pedestrians or people riding bikes.”
What does this mean, that an area “isn’t safe for pedestrians or people riding bikes”? What would lead a public safety official to make clear to reporters that a fatal crash happened in such a place? It must be a pretty busy, commercial street, packed with cars and trucks, right? Here’s a Google Street View photo of the intersection where Chase Delarios was killed.
Hmm. That just looks like an ordinary intersection in an ordinary subdivision, complete with sidewalks and houses and not-particularly-busy roads. Indeed, the Kings Mill subdivision is filled with perfectly nice houses, winding roads, and cul-de-sacs. There’s even a bucolic pond at the center of it all, in the direction of which Chase Delarios was riding when he was struck and killed. If this neighborhood street is unsafe, what kind of road would be safe?
Response to the crash has focused on that phrase from the police: “Bike advocates are furious that the Texas Department of Public Safety are blaming the young victim,” noted Bicycling.com. The same site pointed out that Houston’s CBS affiliate KHOU, likely in response to online outcry, subsequently changed the sub-headline on its web story from that particular police assertion to a blander note that the driver stayed on the scene following the crash.
Of course a quiet road in a peaceful subdivision, with sidewalks and stop signs and regular-sized streets, should be safe for pedestrians and people riding bikes. But it certainly wasn’t safe for Chase Delarios. Because of a confluence of logistical screw-ups, bad policy, huge cars, and business-as-usual American behavior, this street—like most American streets—isn’t as safe as it should be for pedestrians and people riding bikes. Why is Houston—why is any city—OK with that?
Let’s start with the most egregious problem in this crash. Follow-up reporting by Houston’s KPRC discovered that the three-way intersection features stop signs at two of the crossings but not in the westbound direction—which is where the Hyundai’s driver was going when she struck Chase Delarios. “The stop signs don’t make sense right here,” said Chase’s mother, Stacy Delarios, and other neighbors confirmed they’d long felt uncomfortable at the intersection.
The station reached out to county officials and the local police precinct; everyone sure scratched their heads about that one. There was supposed to be a stop sign there, said the county, and they didn’t know why there wasn’t one installed. The police made sure to point out that it wasn’t their fault, either, because, they said, residents hadn’t complained. “Some residents have now reached out to us requesting additional signage,” said the precinct’s commissioner, James Mett. “In the coming days, we plan to examine and research the issue to determine the best course of action moving forward.” A few phone calls later, it was announced that a new stop sign would be installed Thursday.
So, that’s one thing that made this street unsafe. But there are plenty of other problems, not unique to this intersection but common to many, many American streets, that also made it unsafe. There’s no signage of any kind to alert drivers to the possibility that walkers or cyclists might want to cross. There are no traffic-calming design elements, like speed bumps, raised crosswalks (or any kind of crosswalk), or extended curbs. There’s no protected bike lane.
The speed limit on this road is 30 miles per hour, as it is on roads in all Texas cities. Last year a Texas lawmaker introduced a bill to lower the speed limit on such roads to 25 miles per hour. Cars traveling 30 miles per hour are 43 percent more likely to kill pedestrians they hit than cars traveling 25 miles per hour, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. This is the lawmaker’s third attempt to pass this bill, and it seems to have been just as successful as the first two times, as nothing has happened to the bill in more than a year. (We don’t know how fast the driver of the Hyundai was traveling. Maybe she was going less than 30 miles per hour. Or maybe she was going faster; after all, Google Street View suggests you can drive the entire length of Kings Mill Road, a circuit of nearly a mile, and never see a single speed limit sign.)
And notably, the driver who struck and killed Chase Delarios was driving a midsize SUV. The heavier the car, the more likely it is to kill a person if it strikes them. At between 3,500 and 5,000 pounds (depending on specific model), a 2017 Hyundai Santa Fe is more than a match for an 8-year-old and his bike. (The post-crash local news coverage shows the bike, horribly, jammed under the Hyundai’s rear wheel.)
It’s fine to be angry at the police for issuing a statement essentially blaming an 8-year-old for his own death, just because he foolishly rode his bicycle on his quiet neighborhood street. (Just a few months ago in this very neighborhood, police made a real show of pointing out that a cyclist was “at fault” for a crash in which he was struck by a dump truck at 4 in the morning, because he wasn’t wearing reflective clothing.) It’s fine to be angry at local officials passing the buck about a stop sign that should’ve been installed, but wasn’t. It’s fine to be angry at the driver and her big SUV.
But I’m most angry that the police weren’t wrong. Like most American streets, Kings Mill Road is not a safe area for pedestrians or people riding bikes. It’s designed for drivers, and drivers use it that way. That’s the system we’re trapped in: As the journalist Jessie Singer argues in her book There Are No Accidents, “accidents” will happen—the “fault” of drivers, or cyclists, or someone forgetting to install a stop sign, or bad luck. Our transportation system is perfectly designed, when any of those things go wrong, to kill 8-year-olds on bikes, among thousands of others. How long will we put up with this?