August 9, 2020

A Life-changing Crash

A woman who suffered severe injuries when she was hit by a car hopes new crosswalks save others.
By Patrick Sullivan | June 22, 2019

When Kaischa Smith set off on a beautiful summer Sunday morning on her Trek hybrid bicycle for a ride on the Leelanau Trail, she was unaware that a life-defining moment was on the horizon, one of those points in time that separates everything before from all that comes after.

At 11:41am on July 22, 2018, as Smith waited at the Elmwood Street crosswalk on Grandview Parkway, a red Audi driven by an 82-year-old man smashed into her, sending her tumbling over his car, breaking her legs, smashing an arm, and causing severe internal injuries.

Smith, a 37-year-old elementary school teacher, has spent the last year recovering. Now that she’s back on her feet, she wants to celebrate a new crosswalk signal that’s been installed at the intersection where she was injured, and she wants people to know how devastating a pedestrian-car crash can be.
Smith said she was wary of those earlier Grandview Parkway crosswalks and said she believes she was extra-cautious whenever she encountered them.

The day of the crash, Smith had set off from her home in the Traverse Heights neighborhood and headed into town on the TART Trail, first crossing Grandview Parkway at East Front by taking the path under the bridge at the mouth of the Boardman River.

She pedaled west through Clinch Park and past West End Beach, choosing to pick up the TART Trail on the other side of the parkway. She decided to use the Elmwood Street crossing rather than the signaled crosswalk at Division Street because traffic seemed light that day.

Signs had been installed at the curbs that instructed people driving cars to “yield” to people on foot or on bikes. Smith said she was never comfortable with the design of that crosswalk.
To Smith — and lots of other users of the corridor — the “yield” sign sounded more like a request than a demand to drivers.

Given the four lanes of traffic, two moving rapidly in each direction, the tentativeness of the crossing struck Smith as problematic, she said, because the signs were sometimes obeyed and sometimes ignored by drivers. What it the car in the right lane obeyed and stopped, but the car in the left lane sped on through? Nonetheless, even though Smith was not entirely confident in the architecture of the crosswalk, she opted to use it anyway, at least on a day when the traffic seemed light.

When she got to the crosswalk that Sunday morning, there was no traffic headed north, so Smith made it across two lanes to the center island, the refuge for people who’ve made it halfway across the boulevard. There was traffic headed south toward downtown. Smith waited until a landscaping truck stopped in the farther lane to let her cross.

“I could see the traffic; there wasn’t too much behind it,” she said. “I watched it slowing down. I had a sense that it was safe.”

Here is the pivotal moment in an ordeal that, today, for Smith, represents a dividing point in her life: Once it appeared that traffic had stoped, Smith put her head down to remount her bike and to pull her feet off the ground and onto the pedals. In the second or so it took to do that, and for Smith to push into the roadway, the person driving the red Audi switched lanes, apparently to speed past the cars stopped for Smith, striking her squarely in the middle of the intersection at around 35mph.
“I never saw him in those seconds. He just swerved around the stopped traffic,” Smith said.
Despite the seriousness of her injuries, Smith never lost consciousness. That instant when she was struck and tossed onto and over the Audi is etched in her memory. That awareness had proven both a blessing and a curse.

It’s a blessing because she didn’t get knocked out. If she had, she likely would not have survived; she wasn’t wearing a medical ID bracelet that would have informed paramedics that she has a blood clotting disorder. Smith said she will always wear medical ID bracelets in the future.

“It never occurred to me to wear one of those medical ID bracelets. Now I know,” she said.

Smith said it’s also been a curse to remember what happened so clearly and to be able to relive it in so much detail.

One of the first things she recalls is the sudden sensation that her body was buzzing, as though every cell were lit up and vibrating. Her nervous system was in full-on crisis mode, and its alarm bells were going off.

In the first second, Smith recalls the strangeness of the color red. She remembers the bright red of the Audi in her face, which seemed off, given the bright blueness of the day. In the second second, Smith thought, “Oh my God, I am one of those people,” because what was happening to her was something that seemed like it only happened to other people. The implication of that was that she was going to die.

“I am not a religious person,” Smith said, thinking about those seconds, or split seconds, that left her body twisted and tangled. But as she lay on her back in the road with her head on the curb, only one thought entered her mind in that third second: “Oh my God, save me.”

Ironically, given that Smith wasn’t wearing her helmet that morning, her head and neck were among the few places on her body that weren’t seriously injured. The biggest injuries she suffered were to her legs, both of which snapped. She also smashed an elbow. She said she also suffered internal injuries that made it difficult and painful for her to breathe for at least two months.

Smith spent almost four weeks at Munson. It took her two months before she could stand up on her own and be able to get out of a wheelchair. It took two or three more weeks to learn how to walk on crutches.

Smith, a teacher at Willow Hill Elementary School, was forced to abandon the school year.
Although she’s back on her feet today and plans to be back at school in the fall, she still sees physical therapists several times a week. She had what she hopes will be her last surgery in a long while on June 7, a successful procedure that involved the removal of some hardware. She regained movement in her right arm, a development that she marveled at.

“It’s really satisfying to be able to touch your own face, let me tell you,” she said.
Smith requested that Northern Express withhold the name of the driver in the crash, who is now 83 years old. She said that she has forgiven him, even though he has never apologized to her, and she doesn’t believe there would be any purpose in his public identification. The aftermath of the crash has undoubtedly been an ordeal for him, too.

Traverse City Police officers responded to the scene and launched an investigation that involved accident reconstruction and a careful analysis of the role the driver’s actions played in what occurred. Instead of ticketing the driver, officers submitted a report to the Grand Traverse County prosecutor’s office, which two weeks later charged him with committing a moving violation resulting in a serious injury, a misdemeanor that carries up to 93 days in jail.

The man pled guilty to reckless driving Oct. 31, and he was sentenced Nov. 19 to one year of probation with the condition that he cannot drive a car. He also was ordered to pay $1,025 in fines and costs, as well as an as-yet-undetermined amount in restitution, but Smith said he is uncollectible, and she is not expecting to receive any payments directly from him, even to cover the cost of her wrecked bike.

She said she has received some restitution from his auto insurance company through a lawsuit.
Smith has mixed feelings about the man who was driving the car that struck her.

It turned out that Smith’s family and the man’s family knew each other. Years ago, when Smith was a child, she and her family lived next door to the man’s daughter.

Soon after the crash, while Smith was adjusting to her painful new existence at Munson, a police officer approached her and told her that the man felt badly and wanted to reach out to her in some way. Would she mind? Would she be able to see or talk to him? Smith said that even at that early moment of adjusting to the suffering and terrible physical injuries the crash had caused, she was ready to forgive the man, because she knew how much not forgiving might cost her.

“I’m emotionally mature enough to know what that would do to me,” she said.

The man never reached out, however. Smith said she understands that his opinion about what happened in the crash might have evolved.

“The mind is a scrappy, scrappy little thing,” Smith said. “You kind of just have to protect your ego, protect your mind, and whatever story you want to tell yourself, or whatever story your family wants to tell you to make sure that you’re calmed down, more at peace, the more you believe in it.”
Nine months later, Smith is back on a bike. That was a big deal, buying a new bike.

“I am OK about getting back on the TART Trail, and if I have a buddy to ride with on the street, that’s got to be the next step” she said.

Smith said she’s hopeful that new crosswalk signals the Michigan Department of Transportation installed along the busy beachfront corridor at the Elmwood Street and Hall Street crossings will make the corridor safer for pedestrians and prevent what happened to her from happening to others. The signals can be controlled by pedestrians and will stop traffic with red lights.

“When I was crossing the street, I thought I was doing everything right. You know, I was stopped, I was looking both ways, I was cautious, and yet I ended up in this position,” she said. “And I do see people who just nonchalantly wander off into traffic across the street, and I think, ‘How are you OK, and how did I end up like this?’ There’s just something so unfair about that that just kind of bothers me. Not that I want anything bad to happen to any of these people.”

The new signals mark an improvement and should be safer because they offer a red-light signal for drivers to stop, removing the ambiguity of a cautionary “yield” from the intersections, said Gary Howe, a former Traverse City commissioner and advocacy director for Norte Youth Cycling.

“It’s a road that’s trying to move traffic at high speeds and give people access to the neighborhoods and bayfront,” Howe said. “I think this will be an improvement because it regulates who gets to go and when, so it’s no longer a vague consideration.”

Meanwhile, just as the new signals are installed on Grandview Parkway (they are technically called HAWK signals, which is somehow short for “high-intensity activated crosswalk”), redesign of another corridor in Traverse City where speeding traffic and pedestrians intersect is underway: When MDOT officials reconstruct a portion of Division Street between 14thStreet and 11thStreet in 2020 or 2021, plans call for crosswalks that are marked like the one in which Smith was injured.

Howe, who sat on the steering committee that helped come up with the plans, said MDOT didn’t include “HAWK” signals on Division because of low pedestrian demand in the area, but said if the crosswalks attract lots of pedestrians, that could change.


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