Persistence of Gresham mother leads to legislation that requires independent study

Darla Sturdy of Gresham is one of those rare people who can channel personal grief into positive outcomes for others. Four years after her 16 year old son was killed while crossing a MAX light-rail track, Sturdy finally has succeeded in bringing greater attention to pedestrian safety near TriMet's MAX lines.

Sturdy's victory came in the form of Senate Bill 829, which Gov. Ted Kulongoski just signed into law. 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, this legislation is an important step - as long as TriMet takes the study seriously and is prepared to implement its recommendations.

We believe the safety study will find agreement with Sturdy on several points. Pedestrian safety near the MAX lines can be improved.

But the adoption of physical safety changes is only one of the benefits of Sturdy's crusade. She has advanced the important cause of safety by making more people aware of the hazards along MAX tracks.

Mom's research made case

Getting to this point wasn't easy for Sturdy. It was four years ago 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 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 pedestrian accidents involving MAX have occurred on the east side. She showed legislators photos of pedestrian crossing gates and pedestrian barriers at newer west-side stations, and then displayed photos of unguarded crossings on the older, east-side line.

TriMet officials acknowledge that these physical differences do exist, but say that safety mechanisms are installed at pedestrian crossings based on measurable conditions in a given light-rail 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 east-side line have fewer amenities - safety-related or otherwise - than do stations on the west side.

It's only natural that TriMet uses past experiences on older light-rail lines to design and implement safety improvements on newer MAX lines.

That's one reason we believe this independent pedestrian-safety review will be good for the agency. Much has changed since the east-side MAX line opened in 1986.

Responsibilities are public, personal

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.

We understand that people who are walking, bicycling or driving near MAX tracks have a personal responsibility to be careful.

But TriMet also a public obligation to do all it can to ensure the ongoing safety of MAX users and community residents who happen to be around the light-rail lines as pedestrians, bicyclists or motorists.

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