Darla Sturdy of Gresham is one of those rare people who can channel personal grief into an effort to help others.
Four years after her 16-year-old son was killed while crossing a MAX light-rail track, Sturdy finally succeeded in forcing greater attention to the issue of pedestrian safety near TriMet's MAX lines.
Sturdy's victory came in the form of Senate Bill 829, which Gov. Ted Kulongoski signed into law last month. The legislation requires TriMet to commission an independent study, complete with findings and recommendations, of pedestrian light-rail crossings. Originally, Sturdy had pushed legislators to force TriMet to install crossing gates at all unguarded pedestrian crossings along the MAX tracks, but the bill was amended because lawmakers were fearful of the cost of such a project.
Even in its diminished form, the new law will do some good - as long as TriMet takes the study seriously and is prepared to implement its recommendations. We believe that Sturdy is correct on several points. Pedestrian safety near the MAX lines can be improved. And even if few physical changes come about as the result of this study, Sturdy will have advanced her cause simply by making more people aware of the hazards.
Mother's research raises questions
Getting to this point wasn't easy for Sturdy. It was four years ago in June that her son, Aaron Wagner-Sturdy, was killed by a train at the Gresham City Hall station. The boy, a former student body president at his middle school, had been headed home on his father's bicycle after talking to a church-related youth group.
The tragedy sent Darla Sturdy on a quest to find out how TriMet can improve pedestrian safety. She conducted voluminous research, all of which was presented to the legislative committees that considered this bill. She testified that - since the year 2000 - approximately 80 percent of the train-pedestrian accidents have occurred on the east side vs. 20 percent on the west side. She showed legislators photos of pedestrian crossing gates and pedestrian barriers at newer westside stations, then displayed similar photos of unguarded crossings on the older, eastside MAX line.
TriMet officials acknowledge these physical differences but say that safety mechanisms are installed at pedestrian crossings based on measurable conditions in the area - such as sight distances for pedestrians and train speeds.
That makes sense to a degree, but we also would point out that, in general, stations along the older eastside line have fewer amenities - safety-related or otherwise - than do stations on the west side.
Personal and public responsibilities
It's only natural that TriMet has improved safety along with everything else as it learned from experience and built new MAX lines.
But that's one reason we believe this independent pedestrian-safety review will be good for TriMet. Much has changed since the eastside MAX line first opened in 1986. The light-rail line has attracted dense development, which increases pedestrian traffic. At the same time, TriMet has accumulated new knowledge and has tried to keep up with safety improvements in other cities.
The independent review will provide an unbiased look at whether all parts of the MAX system are as safe as possible for pedestrians. There's no question that people who are walking, bicycling or driving near MAX tracks have a personal responsibility to be careful. But TriMet also has a public obligation to do all it can to ensure that the Darla Sturdys of this community are able to see their children live to become adults.