On a brisk Saturday night last March, Matt Balga was simply trying to return home when he was seriously injured while crossing the street outside the restaurant he worked for. The 54-year-old lifelong Connecticut resident was struck by a person driving a car and succumbed to his injuries at the hospital shortly afterward.
Incidents like the one that killed Matt aren’t just unfortunate “accidents,” as they are commonly framed. Roadway deaths have risen rapidly since the COVID-19 pandemic, with 368 victims in Connecticut last year alone, 90 of them pedestrians and cyclists. Pedestrian deaths are at the highest level in 41 years and cyclist deaths have reached a 46-year high. People who walk, ride their bikes, or take the bus are legal users of almost every street. However, they rarely have the facilities that they need to take those modes safely.
Traffic violence is something that can be prevented with the right policies and political will. Vision Zero – a strategy to eliminate all traffic deaths and serious injuries on our roadways – can prevent these tragedies by designing streets and setting policies that create safe spaces for all road users, especially our most vulnerable – children, seniors, people walking and biking, communities of color, and low-income communities. There are common-sense measures that are overdue, such as making roads less wide, creating safer crossing options for people walking, and ensuring that sidewalk and bike networks are safe, connected, and complete.
Over the past year Connecticut Urbanists, a safe streets advocacy group based in Hartford, has paid tribute to Connecticut residents who have been unjustly killed by traffic violence by placing ghost-shoe memorials at the site of each tragedy. The memorials consist of a pair of white shoes and flowers and are accompanied by a flyer that conveys the urgent need for enhanced road safety measures. Memorials have been placed in towns and cities all over the state including Bridgeport, Greenwich, Hartford, West Hartford, New Haven, and Westport to name a few. They stand as a reminder of the avoidable tragedies that have occurred and serve as a silent statement in support of everyone’s right to safe travel.
On Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023, Connecticut Urbanists will join Watch for Me CT at Bushnell Park in Hartford to commemorate the first statewide World Day of Remembrance, demand safer streets, and to draw attention to the preventable trauma inflicted on Americans by traffic violence. A sea of over 600 small white flags will be placed across the lawn of Bushnell Park to represent those who have been killed on Connecticut roads in 2022 and 2023. Family members of victims have been invited to speak, there will be a roll call of the pedestrians and cyclists who have died this year, and a prayer given by a faith leader.
Anyone who has lost a loved one due to a vehicle crash is invited to attend, as well as survivors and others who care about this issue. An international event started in 1995 and adopted by the United Nations in 2005, the World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims honors the 1.35 million people killed and millions more injured on the world’s roads each year and rallies for change to prevent such tragedies. Watch For Me CT is a road safety campaign of the Connecticut Department of Transportation and Connecticut Children’s Hospital.
Matt Balga’s legacy extends beyond his role as a passionate chef and dedicated martial artist; he was a person deeply connected to his family, survived by his father, brother, and wife. As we remember Matt, we must reflect on the basic rights of pedestrians and cyclists – how can a person cross the road safely without adequate crossings? How can a cyclist share the road with vehicles speeding at 50 mph? In every city and town across the country there are people just like Matt who have paid an immeasurable price for the lack of transportation measures that prioritize the safety of pedestrians. Join us on Sunday, Nov. 19, at Bushnell Park as we rally for a collective call to action. Let’s prioritize the safety of our most vulnerable street users and work together to implement effective measures that will prevent future tragedies.