Damian Kevitt on Hit-and-Run, Backlash, and World Day of Remembrance
Streetsblog L.A. recently caught up with Damien Kevitt of Finish the Ride and Streets Are For Everyone (SAFE). Kevitt spoke about his background, Finish the Ride, L.A.’s hit-and-run epidemic, and this week’s World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims.
The interview took place on October 31, 2017.
SBLA: Tell Streetsblog readers your story; how you got Finish the Ride started.
Damian Kevitt: On February 17, 2013, cycling in Griffith Park, I was hit and dragged close to a quarter of a mile underneath a car – from the streets, onto and down the 5 Freeway.
Obviously I survived, but minus one leg, which was basically ripped off. At the time, it was hanging on by a thread. 20 broken bones. 20 pounds of flesh ripped off. In about two minutes.
I fought for my life for those first few days. In the hospital, [I decided] one of my goals was to finish the bike ride that I started that day.
I learned about the epidemic of hit-and-runs and how dangerous the streets were – how mine wasn’t just a freak situation. It’s happening everywhere every day. I was just one of many.
I resolved: if I’m going to lose a leg, then I’m going to do something about this.
That’s when the whole movement – Finish the Ride – started.
It was originally intended to be a one-off event. I was just going to do an event and go back to my quiet life. Everything was going to be great. (laughs)
Talk about your “quiet life” a little bit. What’s your background?
Before this I was a counselor at my church. I worked one-on-one with people. I like to think it gave me an advantage because I had dealt with traumatic brain injury, with grief, with family counseling and all. Every trick that I knew, that I helped other people with, I used on myself – to get me through that.
It was actually one of the reasons why I decided to do Finish the Ride. Because when you get to a life situation like that, which interrupts everything, something therapeutic that you can do is you can complete what was interrupted. Finish that project. The project was a bike ride to the zoo. That’s what I was doing that day.
Was the crash on the freeway entrance off of Crystal Springs?
No – I was a few hundred feet away from the entrance to the zoo, on the bridge over the 5 Freeway.
It was a side-swipe. It was relatively minor, if he had stopped. He was only doing a few miles an hour, maybe like 10-15 miles an hour. I was doing less than 10.
There were so many cars, I was just trying to get through the mass of cars. He pulled across, out, suddenly and illegally. He didn’t see me. He wasn’t expecting me there. I was trying to move through the cars slowly. It was just stopped traffic. He was just trying to get out of traffic.
So, yes, he did something wrong – but he really didn’t do a whole lot wrong until he ran. Once he ran, then he committed a felony. He took off knowing that I was on the front hood of his car.
Ugh. Talk a bit about the state of hit-and-runs – are they getting worse, better, about the same?
About the same. It improved significantly with Finish the Ride’s first campaign; hit-and-runs were down by sixteen percent.
Then it’s gotten a bit worse. Last year was just a horrible year for traffic collisions and traffic fatalities – across the entire U.S. It’s one of those anomalies that baffles the experts.
They’re minimal steps in the right direction. Baby steps. It kept the rhetoric alive.
Has it made a huge difference? Changed the entire landscape? Probably not.
Same thing with the three-foot law. Has it changed the entire landscape of street safety? No. But it did make things a little bit better.
Are there new initiatives to combat hit-and-run crime – legislative or others?
No, not until the current governor is out of office. Governor Brown is very conservative – putting it nicely – on the subject of penalties. It really is a penalties issue at this point. He vetoed every single hit-and-run bill, no matter how minimal the penalties.
I worked on two bills with a mandatory loss of driver’s license for a hit-and-run felony. It would have affected a very small percentage of people, because most people are not going to plead “no contest” or guilty to a hit-and-run. They’re going to fight it.
It would have resulted in a minimal penalty of loss of license for X period of time. Nothing compared to DUIs or anything like that. Both of them were vetoed, after almost unanimous legislator support.
Seems like a driver’s license is seen as a necessity…
A human right. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article number 33 is the right to a driver’s license. (laughs) I’m joking.
Should be a privilege – something people earn and take seriously.
Yeah. In other places it is. In California it’s not. California’s so car-centric in so many places. L.A. is the car-centric capital of the entire known universe.
We won that battle, but we’re losing the war in that area. The battle was that particular neighborhood council meeting. We won that vote, because there was so much organized support. I’d like to think it was because I spoke, but what made a difference was the fact that I was heckled so badly by the Keep L.A. Moving people.
There was a neighborhood council member who reached out to me personally later and apologized on behalf of the people in that meeting. She chewed out the opposition because they were so vitriolic and so nasty.
I like to think that she probably voted in our favor more because she wasn’t OK with the way it was. If it was a polite conversation and was back and forth, I’m sure she could have been swayed a different way.
How about the bigger picture: you were saying it looks like we won that meeting, but we’re losing the war on the westside. What do you think the role of cyclists and safe streets advocates is in the current lawsuit and recall campaign?
As far as I can tell – and this is my opinion – the recall campaign has less to do with the streets and more to do with a couple of individuals, one of whom is running for congress – Alexis [Edelstein] – who is really trying to use this to get media attention.
He’s running a classic Trump-styled strategy of get media attention: say whatever you can say that is possibly false, lies, defamatory, etc. It gets the media attention, so his name is out there. Smart, but I hate it. I don’t agree with it.
I did a bit of research on his background. I see that he’s running for congress. I think “OK, this is a well-planned effort because all you need is just to get your name out there.”
What do you think the role of safe streets advocates should be at this point?
It’s a complicated question.
Unfortunately LADOT really did mess that one up – in terms of sufficient outreach, and their entire PR campaign. At another meeting, I sat down with them and told them that their strategy and their campaign is going to backfire. The strategy of reducing speed is technically correct – that being the biggest factor in traffic deaths. You can’t deny that.
It’s not going to work from a PR perspective. How do you get people to sign on to this in this city called Los Angeles that is hooked like heroin on how fast can I get from place to place in my car. You know 70 percent of all people in L.A. use cars – single-occupancy cars. They’re hooked on speed – just like a drug addict is.
Who are the people you have to sell on this? The people that are protesting are the people that weren’t sold on it because they weren’t reached out to enough. Maybe minimally but not enough to get the buy-in of those individuals.
Don’t jump into major changes until you’ve properly gotten enough people to know what Vision Zero is and think it’s a good thing. If you do something and call it something that no one knows what it is – it sounds like an optometry term – and you don’t get them to buy into the importance of it and the necessity of it, then they and the media will take it and twist it into something bad.
That’s what media does. They take it and they make it controversial. They have to – it’s part of their playbook.
I said this six months before the Mar Vista thing actually happened: you will have media taking Vision Zero and turning it into something controversial and you’ll lose the game.
We haven’t lost the game, but it’s set us back years.
Now we’re at the point where we’ve got a six-month hold on new Vision Zero projects. You’ve got councilmembers that were behind it and willing to stand up. Now they’re skittish and backing down. Englander is making propositions about [removing] bike lanes, where before he was proud of his protected bike lanes in Reseda.
We’ve set ourselves back. Shot ourselves in the foot. And I’ve only got one foot left. Not a good idea. (laughs)
I saw a statement from you on the recent pedestrian killed in a Venice crosswalk. The recall folks – the anti-road diet people – are blaming Bonin for pedestrian deaths – saying he didn’t do enough. How does that strike you?
That’s really the biggest cop-out I’ve ever seen. It’s such a manipulation of the facts.
I’m not saying that leaders shouldn’t be held accountable for their positions, but let’s just go over the mechanics: that driver did something that was not only per common sense not the right thing, it was highly illegal. In a marked crosswalk, with another car stopped.
Bonin can’t monitor the actions of every single citizen.
The fact is the death was caused by the foolish and criminal actions of a driver who wanted to save fifteen or thirty seconds. That’s crazy.
It’s not only just that driver – it happens all the time. Is Bonin responsible for the cultural stupidity of our drivers? No, he’s not. This happens all over the entire city. It’s not one intersection.
Tell readers about the video project you’re working on.
Finish the Ride has evolved into its own nonprofit called SAFE – Streets Are For Everyone. The mission of SAFE is [to address] not just hit-and-runs, it’s street safety, mirroring the Vision Zero concept.
We’ve got many projects, including billboards, advocacy.
We have our first chapter in Sunland-Tujunga, which is experiencing backlash. People are trying to get rid of the bike lanes in Sunland-Tujunga area, especially on Foothill because it slows down their commute – by almost nothing. They’re also taking the recent La Tuna fire where the 210 Freeway was closed for several days and Foothill was clogged as a reason to get rid of the bike lane. Dumb – it’s a throwing the baby out with the bathwater mentality by a few people.
Part of the mission of SAFE is working directly with schools. How do we affect high schools? How do we target the population that’s most likely to die in traffic collisions? I can do individual one-on-one stuff. I’m a good speaker, but there’s one of me. I’ve got a great looking leg, so it’s an impinging story, but again there’s only one of me and there’s only one leg so I can’t spread it around.
We’re currently accepting entries for a film competition for high school students. Dozens of high schools and hundreds of students are competing, in teams, making traffic safety PSAs. They’re mentored by Hollywood filmmakers – Academy Award winning special effects people, cinematographers, documentary filmmakers.
There’s an Oscar-style awards ceremony, with statues, where celebrities and civic leaders present the awards to these students in various categories.
We got some great PSAs last year – posted on our Streets Are For Everyone YouTube channel. I’m hoping to see some great ones this year.
Let readers know about events you have coming up.
We have World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims coming up.
SAFE is part of the Vision Zero Alliance. We’re working with the alliance on really doing a much better job on World Day of Remembrance. Last year,[it] was disappointing, very minimal. You probably didn’t even hear about it.
This year it’s a three-day activity.
The first day is going to be held at [Los Angeles] City Hall to commemorate the 503 individuals who lost their lives in the last couple of years, since Vision Zero was adopted. We’re working on getting city councilmembers out there to recommit to prioritizing street safety, to make saving lives a priority.
Jeff Knopp was killed a year ago on Foothill Boulevard in Sunland-Tujunga, at a location where there was no bike lane. He was killed because there was no bike lane. There is a bike lane there now, and there’s a heavy push to get rid of it because it’s “slowing people down.”
We’re doing a ride in his honor. It’s a celebration and also an effort to make the street safer – to push back on the people who all they care about is how fast they can get to their Starbucks.
We actually have – I don’t have this fully nailed down yet – the individual who killed Jeff. It was not a hit-and-run; he stopped. He’s going to be there. I’m trying to convince him to speak. He’s a little skittish, understandably so.
The third day, Sunday the 19th, will take place on the steps of Pasadena City Hall. The Families for Safe Streets chapter of Southern California is officially being announced.
We did a bunch of interviews. I was the interviewer. Oh god – it was horrible. I spent three hours just interviewing parents and families who’ve lost loved ones. They described it, one after another. That was rough.
Those are the three days of events. We’re hoping to really take this Word Day of Remembrance somewhere.
The last question Streetsblog interviews typically ask: If you had a magic wand, and you could wake up tomorrow and have changed one thing about Los Angeles – what would it be?
Considering my perspective – it would be the responsibility of drivers.
There are many good things in Los Angeles. Many bad things. But it’s the care for its citizens by its citizens. That affects driving. That affects everything.
I hear all sorts of crap, people responding to my work for street safety. But I’m mostly saying: just give a shit! Really. It’s not all about you.