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Change Makers / News / News To Use

Op-Ed: How Powerless I Felt, but How Hopeful I am to See Real Changes to Our Transportation Safety Policies and Achieve Vision Zero

As a Professional Engineer, I thought I had done my part to make our roads safer. That was until a few days ago, when I realized that, unfortunately, there are limitations to what roadway engineers can do. We can’t force drivers to follow simple rules, don’t text and drive or drive while distracted.  

JR Rodriguez photographed on far left (taken just before the accident) with his friends and fellow teammates Carlos and Jorge.

I’ve dedicated most of my professional career to helping design safer roads, and I thought I was really making a change by following the best design criteria in the country when it comes to Transportation Safety. Unfortunately, all of that was shattered when my team of cyclists (Boyacos’ Team) and I went out for a bike ride to enjoy beautiful Clermont, FL and experienced the horror of seeing two of our own hit by a distracted driver.  

It was an early hot Sunday morning, very typical during summer in Florida. We did our regular prayer before the ride, started our bike ride very slowly, followed our regular route to hit the most famous hill in Florida, the Sugarloaf Mountain. We were following all rider’s rules for safety: calling out cars behind us, calling out obstacles, “all clear” shouts at each intersection, riding on the shoulders, wearing our bright uniforms and our helmets, and we all had our rear lights on… So, I thought, what could go wrong? 

Right before we approached the famous climb along CR 561, I left behind two of my teammates, (I guess I was feeling a bit stronger that day) when I turned at Sugarloaf Road and continued pedaling to start the climb. As I was reaching the steepest slope, my phone started to ring, and I could hear my phone’s AI, Siri, advising me it was one of my teammates left behind; I couldn’t answer the phone or my Aftershock (the auricular device I use to listen music/or get phone calls), so the call went directly to my watch, which automatically answered the incoming call. At first, I couldn’t hear anything, then I shouted “hey, what happened?” Still no answers, until I could hear a voice of surprise and horror in the background, and that’s when I heard “we got hit by a car!”  

Everything stopped for me at that moment, my thoughts, my heart, my sweat; all I could do was shout to the rest of the team up front, “Jorge got hit by a car” and then I rode as hard as I could to get back to the team behind us. 

There are no words to describe the chaos I saw, the impotency of not being able to change the scene, and the pain I felt to see two of my teammates, Carlos and Jorge, on the ground. They were severely injured by a car that hit them from behind… I couldn’t imagine the pain they felt.  

What happened afterwards, I could only describe as the worst feeling I ever felt. It was also a big surprise to see the shock the young driver had on her face, the pain of my friends, and how lucky they were to be alive after we all realized the severity of the hit. A bit of anger crept in when we discovered that the driver didn’t even see them, she didn’t even press the brakes on her car (there were no skid marks on the pavement), and then we found out the cause of the almost-fatal accident was mostly due to a distraction, most likely from the driver paying attention to a phone instead of the road.  

Carlos and Jorge’s bicycle’s lay mangled after the accident.

At that moment I realized how physically powerless we are as pedestrians and cyclists who do our best to be safe on the roads, or even as Transportation Engineers when designing safer roads, or law enforcement and public agencies which try hard to convey their safety messages and to encourage us to follow the rules. We won’t be able to achieve Vision Zero, a campaign set up to eliminate all traffic deaths in our country, without drivers who make a conscious decision to drive safely and free of distractions. Vision Zero also recognizes that people will sometimes make mistakes, so the road system and related policies should be designed to ensure those inevitable mistakes do not result in severe injuries or fatalities. Other solutions should be on the table, like proposing tougher legislation that penalizes or regulates these issues further, demanding drivers to be properly insured to cover these types of crashes and working across industries to implement technological solutions that can address these issues.  

Many organizations are actively pushing for better and safer transportation systems, and there are many messages, programs, campaigns out there that talk about these issues, but we continue to see fatal or near fatal accidents like this happening. With my active work, both as a newly appointed Board member of Bike/Walk Central Florida, a nonprofit advocacy organization, and on transportation projects in the state of Florida, I see the good and the hope we have toward seeing Vision Zero fully achieved. At the same time, I know more can be done, and more efficiently.  

I envision: 

  1. Legislators pushing for reform to ensure all vehicles are equipped with the technology to reduce driver distractions and prevent crashes. The use of lights, radars, and sensors should be required on every motorized vehicle.   
  1. Technology must be used to prevent vehicles from hitting pedestrians and cyclists the same way as new cars stop when detecting an obstacle. New technologies made available with artificial intelligence could be used for this purpose.  
  1. Vehicle and cell phone manufacturers adding technology that would disable texting while driving.  
  1. More people getting involved in organizations that promote our safety on the roads. I would like to invite you to donate or volunteer some time to those organizations and spread their message too.  
  1. You, the reader, to speak up – by either writing to legislators about the subject, raising awareness in your community or joining an organization that tackles these issues.  

The more technology and robust legislation added, the closer we are to achieving Vision Zero. I am hopeful for a day when pain from traffic crashes is gone, when people will no longer endure the burden of losing a loved one to a car crash, when drivers will no longer experience the lifelong psychological pain and damage from hitting or killing someone as a result of a mistake.  I am hopeful everybody, especially the younger generations, will make better decisions and put the cell phone down while driving.  

– J.R.  

Dedicated to Carlos, Jorge, and all those cyclists that were not as lucky, and to their families too.  

JR (on far left) photographed with his fellow Boyacos’ Teammates.

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