For a short time, I worked as a delivery driver for a local company. My route carried me through north Asheville’s winding streets — over the speed bumps, past the rows of manicured lawns and the “Slow Children at Play” signs standing prominently along the curbs.
My boss often warned against going even a mile over the speed limit in these neighborhoods, so I drove very slowly. Maneuvering around the concrete islands, I would look two or three times in each direction before guiding my pickup over the newly painted crosswalks.
Things are different on my own street. Although it stretches for close to three miles, there are only two road signs along our section. A “Hidden Drive” sign, invisible to the untrained eye, perches alongside a small hill; a 20 mph speed-limit sign appears a few yards after a blind curve. There’s no reference to the dozen or so children who live in the immediate vicinity, and there are no crosswalks for miles, leaving the drivers who pull onto our street from Amboy and Haywood roads unaware of the heavy pedestrian activity.
About a month ago, a few families on my street learned firsthand what it means to live in a neighborhood whose children are invisible to public officials. It all happened in a fraction of a second. One moment, I was watching my daughter play with her 10-year-old friend DeVonte. They ran along the sidewalk, laughing and shouting words to each other that neither of them can remember. And then everything stopped. Tires screeched across the pavement. Someone screamed, and neighbors ran from their porches.
Our little friend, DeVonte, was sprawled across the sidewalk, the shoes kicked from his feet. Blood poured from his mouth while he squeezed my fingertips, asking me if he was going to die. The woman who hit him ran toward us from her car. Someone draped a blanket across DeVonte’s chest. The police came, and shortly after, the medics lifted him carefully onto a stretcher. Concerned about the head trauma and his lifelong struggle with epileptic seizures, DeVonte’s grandmother quizzed him about his name. DeVonte gave a feeble wave as they carried him away, and his family followed, too shocked to speak.
North Carolina state law considers children over the age of 8 negligent if they cross the street without looking. But isn’t failing to provide crosswalks or strategically placed street signs also negligence? Aren’t the kids in our neighborhood worth the cost of a speed bump or two and a sign warning drivers to watch out for children?
Later, the police informed DeVonte’s family that the formerly apologetic driver now wished to sue for damages to her side-view mirror. We realized that the police had recorded the driver’s eyewitness account, but they said they didn’t need my daughter’s explanation, nor mine, even after we called the station. And DeVonte’s family couldn’t find a lawyer who would take their case without a prepaid fee.
Meanwhile, in my neighborhood, it’s as if this moment in time had never happened — as if there never was a child lying spread-eagle on our sidewalk. I sit on my front porch and watch the cars speed by, one after another. Late for work, or maybe talking on a cell phone, these drivers can’t spare a thought for our children’s safety. And the headaches from the concussion DeVonte suffered, the slight limp he still has and the frequent trips to the physical-therapy office are all just figments of my imagination.
Accidents happen all the time — to any of us, or our loved ones, when we least expect it. But in cases like DeVonte’s, preventive measures are obvious: crosswalks and clearly posted signs reminding drivers unfamiliar with our streets that families do live here, and that our children are at play.
I am not one for New Year’s resolutions, but I do hope that those of us who drive will strive to slow down and be a bit more conscious of our surroundings. Clearly, it’s up to us — because on my street in West Asheville, our city government gives drivers little motivation to pause and tap their brakes.
[Freelance writer Tamiko Murray, a current Asheville Area Arts Council grant recipient, is working to complete her first collection of short stories.]
Donations for DeVonte’s family are being accepted at Downtown Books & News, 67 N. Lexington Ave., 253-8654.