How the Hell Do We Get Cars to Stop Hitting Kids?

The beginning of the school year resurfaces a persistent, and unacceptable, problem.

Cars hitting kids
Yavuz Arslan/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Down the block from my house, chained to a guardrail along the main road of my neighborhood, sits the Ghost Bike. This sounds like something kind of cool, like out of Scooby-Doo, but it is decidedly uncool. The Ghost is only part of a bike; if it were intact, someone would certainly have stolen it by now. It’s there to memorialize our neighbor Alexei Bauereis, who was hit by a car and killed a few months ago while he walked his bike through the crosswalk on a Tuesday night around 10:00 PM. He was 14 years old.

My son Elijah will be 14 next month. He never met Alexei, and neither did we, but they had friends in common. Elijah walks by that bike twice a day, on his way to and from school. Every time I see the Ghost Bike, I think: it could have been him.

I don’t say this to be maudlin, or melodramatic. OK, maybe I'm being both, a little. But the fact is that cars hit kids all the time. Alexei died at night, in the summer, when traditional school crosswalk rules didn’t apply. But even when they do apply, kids are getting mowed down alarmingly.

On Monday, September 1, the NBC affiliate in Austin, Texas, where I live, aired a video titled “mother reacts to son hit by truck after getting off school bus.” In the horrifying video, a 12-year-old gets bounced to the ground by a big black truck, and then bounces right back up, limping. The next day, a 16-year-old driver hit a 17-year-old high-school student, who also survived. This all happened during a week when proud parents were posting photos on Facebook of their smiling kids holding placards. But the “Back To School” message got obscured locally, because trucks kept hitting kids.

Though I prefer to think of Austin as an automotive hellscape unique in human experience, this is a nationwide, even a worldwide, problem. A quick Google search of “child hit by car” yields a variety of terrible results. Here are only a few recent ones involving schools or school buses:

  • On Tuesday morning, Sept. 13, a car hit a six-year-old in a crosswalk near a school in Northwest Oklahoma City. The child was taken to the hospital and treated for minor injuries.
  • On September 3, a 10-year-old boy was killed after dashing into the street following a high-school football game in the Fort Worth suburb of Saginaw. “They told me to do mouth to mouth and all that,” his cousin told a reporter. “But I told them I couldn't because he was bleeding from his head and his mouth."
  • On Sept 1, a car ignored a school-bus stop sign and hit a 12-year-old boy in Dallas. This was captured on video and played on the local news. The boy suffered minor injuries.
  • This week in Evansville, Indiana, a speeding sedan hit a 10-year-old girl as she crossed the street to board a school bus. She went to a hospital, was treated, and released.
  • In Tampa Bay on September 8, a car hit a nine-year-old girl who was riding her skateboard to school. The girl is currently not riding her skateboard to school because she’s on crutches.
  • Also on September 8, a seven-year-old girl suffered a broken leg when a car hit her outside her elementary school in Florence, in Southern California.
  • On August 23, in Knox County, Tennessee, a car hit a boy who had dropped his pencil in the middle of the street and was bending over to pick it up. The boy suffered minor injuries.

Have you had enough yet? I sure have. And the school year just started. These ridiculous and terrifying melodramas play in an endless loop, all year long. Sometimes they end in total tragedy, sometimes in relief, but they are all unnecessary.

Why do cars hit kids so often? Kids are easily distracted. They are small and hard to see. The Association For Psychological Science, in a 2011 article, posited that many kids simply haven’t fully developed the cognitive ability to detect and avoid oncoming objects.

But let’s face it: No matter how well-developed their cerebral cortex, no kid, except for young Clark Kent, is a match for an oncoming truck. Cars are enormous and dangerous, and they kill without prejudice or mercy. Many people don’t know how to drive them very well, and don’t understand the rules, which are often enforced unevenly. And drivers are often distracted beyond reason. “This driver was not some evil person,” said the mother of the kid who was hit by a truck in Austin on September 1. “He was doing what we all do. We all have days when we’re in a hurry.”

I don’t know if I’d have been so emotionally generous if a car hit my kid. Probably not. And keep in mind that the incidents I listed are just the ones that happened near schools, where buses have security cameras, where there are crossing guards, and where the vast majority (though not all) drivers know to slow down and be more careful. If I were to include all the kids hit by cars in the last week—in mall parking lots, at McDonald’s, playing in their neighborhoods—the list would be ten times as long.

I’m tired of seeing these stories. These are our children. They are not supposed to be roadkill.

The only solution I can surmise, other than intense criminal penalties for hitting a kid with your car, which is not going to happen unless the driver is drunk, is to rush self-driving tech into production as soon as possible. But even if every car in the world magically developed the robotic ability to stop hitting children come January 1, there would still be many horror stories to tell before the deadline. Barring that, you can only educate and enforce the law. The city of Austin handed out 900 school-zone citations the first week of school, and has let drivers know that they’re being monitored.

But that didn’t save our neighbor at 10:00 PM on a Tuesday night.

“He was an amazing, outgoing and fun 14-year-old young man,” says the GoFundMe for Alexei’s funeral expenses. “His passion was Ballet and he was a beautiful performer with Ballet Austin. He always had a smile on his face and cared about others. His beautiful soul, presence and hugs will be greatly missed.”

RIP, young man. Every time I pass the Ghost Bike, I’ll think of you. And I’ll pray that my son isn’t next.