Nina Larson was 24 years old and she wanted to be an opera singer. On Saturday afternoon, she was crushed by a car in the street in front of my apartment building in Washington, DC. My neighbor heard the sound of the accident from her sixth-floor window and the driver’s horrific screams. Nina was trapped for a while before rescuers were able to free her from the underbelly of the car, according to police. I only witnessed the aftermath: the detectives’ chalk analysis on the sidewalk, the flowers piling up outside the nearby restaurant where Nina waited. On Sunday, local news reports announced that Nina had died in hospital from her injuries. Many of those stories contain the same photo of a clump of black cloth, presumably Nina’s jacket, in the middle of the road.
This is the part I keep thinking about: the fact that Nina’s life, in all its human complexity, was reduced to a handful of images in a matter of hours — an old Facebook profile picture, a stern yellow warning tape, an abandoned jacket. The horrifying reality is that, for those who didn’t know her, Nina Larson will be remembered as another pedestrian who was hit and killed in a city where it happens all the time, in a country where it happens all the time. Governors Highway Safety Association data suggests US drivers have been beaten and killed more than 6,700 pedestrians last year, an unparalleled number in this century. The rate at which motorists kill pedestrians increased by 21 percent from 2019 to 2020, the largest annual increase ever.
It is still not exactly clear how or why did the driver hit Nina that afternoon – did she just not see her? Was Nina on the zebra crossing, or somewhere else on the street? But I’ve hit the same spot almost 100 times, on Columbia Road and Biltmore Street. The intersection comes right after a traffic light and Columbia has no stop sign or speed bump. Cars whiz by at incredible speeds, despite the area being packed with shoppers and diners at all hours of the day. “This was not an accident. This was someone who chose to drive recklessly, and they killed my beautiful girl,” Nina’s mother, Matilde Larson, told The Washington Post.
My neighborhood is not unique. So far this year, 15 pedestrians were killed by drivers in the nation’s capital, and the total number of road deaths rises to 37 – the highest number since 2008. All this despite Mayor Muriel Bowser’s goal to end road deaths by 2024 as part of the Vision Zero program, signed by leaders from DC and other major US cities. The District Department of Transportation has made some changes to protect walkers and cyclists, such as lowering speed limits and installing more bike paths. Ironically, total traffic fatalities have steadily increased since the program started. (Bowser did not respond to requests for comment.)
The same trend is reflected in towns across America. Part of the increase in pedestrian fatalities is probably due to the fact that our vehicles bigger than ever. “Our pickup trucks and SUVs are gigantic compared to the dimensions they used to be,” giving drivers reduced visibility and a greater sense of security, making them more aggressive on the road, said Rohit Aggarwala, a fellow at the Urban Tech Hub at Cornell Tech and former director of long-term planning and sustainability for New York City. During the early days of the pandemic, when fewer Americans drove to work or school, it seemed safe to assume fewer pedestrians would die. Instead, fatalities have risen. Conclusive research is not yet available, but the increase is probably at least partly due to a decrease in traffic congestion and a consequent increase in speed: “People were still walking through their neighborhoods during the lockdown and you had a [small] number of people on the street driving very, very fast,” Aggarwala told me. Older adults, people walking in low-income areas, and black and native Americans are all overrepresented in pedestrian death statistics.
Most pedestrian deaths are preventable, and experts believe the solutions are simple. Aggarwala and his team at Cornell Tech are pushing for three major changes to America’s driving infrastructure: more robust enforcement of traffic cameras, to capture not only speeding but all types of traffic violations; redesign of roads to narrow the lane and add speed bumps to encourage drivers to slow down; and finally, raising vehicle safety standards. Car manufacturers in Europe must test cars for collisions with pedestrians; they design hoods that slope down so drivers can see anyone who might wander on the road. US automakers could do the same, or add pedestrian detection systems or speed limiters to cars. Many of these changes would not only make roads safer for pedestrians, but could also reduce police brutality at the same time. “The US has not taken this into account,” Aggarwalal said. “We have a tradition of focusing on vehicle safety because it’s all about the occupant.”
On the corner where Nina was murdered this weekend, someone has erected a cardboard sign that reads STOP FOR NINA in spray paint. Last night friends held a vigil for her there, next to the restaurant and shrine with flowers, candles and other all kinds of love expressions. It’s strange that we so often choose to honor victims of tragedy—by taking them back to the corner where they died, the place they worked, or a 1,000-word article for a magazine. Nina Larson’s life was much bigger than the circumstances of her death. A better honor would be to make sure no more lives end the same way as hers.