My March 12, 2019, column was almost the last thing I ever wrote. After it went live, I put on my coat, leashed my dog, and took her for her bedtime walk. At the corner of 13th and Morris Streets, she insisted on stopping to sniff a signpost before crossing the road. If I hadn’t humored her, I’d probably be dead.
We stepped into the crosswalk when I suddenly realized a black sedan was flying down Morris. Barely slowing at the stop sign, without a blinker, it swung onto 13th Street. My dog and I were still in the crosswalk—and the speeding car’s bumper missed us by about two feet.
I froze and watched as it swerved and almost hit a row of parked cars. The driver—probably drunk—straightened at the last second and blew through the next stop sign before I could think about getting the plate number.
As I double- and triple-checked the street before making the next crossing, gratitude that I was walking home instead of riding in an ambulance wasn’t the first thing on my mind. Instead, I thought about how extraordinary it is that I haven’t been killed yet by a car in Philadelphia.
Last year, PlanPhilly reported that our high traffic-death numbers (far outpacing New York City and Boston in terms of deaths per 100,000 residents) have one major cause: Philly drivers will not slow down. If a car going 20 miles an hour hits you, you have a 90 percent chance of surviving. But make that 40 miles and hour and it’s the opposite: there's a 90 percent chance you’re dead.
According to statistics from the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, there were 103 traffic deaths last year in Philadelphia. Of the victims, 32 were drivers. Ten were passengers. And 42 (about 40 percent of those killed—the highest percentage of any group) were pedestrians.
Sorry, did you need this crosswalk?
I don’t own a car and rarely drive in the city, but I’ve lost count of the times drivers have almost killed me.
Once, I was crossing Broad at Locust. It was drizzly. My light turned green. I looked to my left at the traffic stopping on Broad at the red light, and stepped off the curb. Just then, the driver of a small delivery van that had been pulling to a stop hit the gas and tore through the intersection. He flew so close to me that the front of my unzipped raincoat flapped. I still remember the faces of the folks crossing from the opposite side, their jaws hanging in shock.
Earlier this winter, I was crossing Broad at Walnut, in the middle of the crosswalk on green. Suddenly a car on Walnut swerved left, despite the crosswalk full of people. Then the driver slammed the brakes and his bumper stopped about a foot from my knees.
It was unseasonably warm. There were two young men in the front seats; windows rolled down, one arm each hanging out; smoke trailing from their cigarettes; faces expressionless.
I looked in their eyes and suddenly felt all the rage from every one of my almost-deaths.
“Slow the fuck down!” I screamed. I’m convinced that if I had brought my fist down on the hood of their car, it would have crumpled and the sedan would have flipped, movie superhero-style.
Forty-two walking people died after cars hit them in Philly last year. But who’s tracking the heart-pounding close calls? How many drivers do the South Philly slide while I’m in the middle of the crosswalk, their foot hovering on the gas like a dog that never quite learned to sit?
I’ve felt fear. Rain sluicing the windshield on a rural drive while voices on the radio warned about tornados. Walking to a cabin in the Oregon woods on a night so dark all I could see were my feet in the flashlight’s beam, knowing a cougar had recently attacked a horse nearby. Walking my dog at a deserted rest stop on the Skyline Drive, getting back in the car, and coming across a bear just a minute down the road.
But forget the woods. If I had any sense, my guts would roll in terror every time I approached a Philly intersection. Somehow, every day, I step off the curb. I trust that the nearest person behind the wheel will remember I’m a person on my feet, alive. And that I will get to write another column.
But I’m about to walk the dog again.