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A child on a bike was struck in a D.C. crosswalk — again

Nathan Ballard-Means, 4, was in a D.C. crosswalk, riding his bike alongside his mom, when he was struck by an SUV. (Family photo)

The question 4-year-old Nathan Ballard-Means asked his mom after school Friday would not have stood out, if it weren’t for what happened about an hour later.

“Mommy, my helmet is a little too loose. Can you please tighten it?” Rebecca Ballard recalls her son saying.

She adjusted the yellow straps of his blue Bern helmet, and off they went to a park not far from their Northwest Washington home. He rode his bike on the sidewalk, and she jogged beside him.

The weather was nice that day, sunny but not sweltering, and Nathan was enjoying his time at the park. But the two couldn’t stay too long. They wanted to get home by 5, so Nathan could join a friend for pizza.

It was on their way home that those seconds spent tightening that helmet turned from a mundane moment into a significant one.

As Ballard tells it, the two stopped on a corner at New Hampshire Avenue and S Street, less than a block from their Dupont Circle home, looked in all directions at the four-way stop and then entered the crosswalk. They made it just a few feet, she says, when a dark SUV hit Nathan.

“I remember yelling ‘Nathan!’ and trying to grab him,” she recalls, still sounding shaken. “I was within two feet of him.”

The force of the impact propelled him and the bike backward.

“He fell on his helmet,” she says. “The helmet did an amazing job.”

His handlebars and front tire were bent in different directions, but the pre-K student was left with only scratches and a bruise on his cheek.

Ballard and Nathan’s father, John Means, suspect the SUV hit the front of the bike at an angle that pushed it sideways, sending their son toward the curb instead of under the vehicle. Both say that if he had been a foot farther into the crosswalk, he might not have survived.

“We’re very much on the razor’s edge of us having to tell a story like Allie’s parents,” Means says.

Allie is Allison Hart, a 5-year-old girl who was riding her bike in a crosswalk in her Brookland neighborhood on Sept. 13 when she was struck and killed by a van. Her father, who along with neighbors had pushed for safer roads, was with her at the time.

A 5-year-old was killed while riding her bike. A video taken the next day has, rightfully, left people furious.

The kindergartner’s obituary tells of a girl who talked about growing up to be a “rock scientist” and a mom. It also contains these two lines: “Allison was also deeply interested in fair and unfair, right and wrong, and curious about the world around her. This summer, she started asking about bike lanes, making the roads safer for cyclists and for kids.”

Allison’s death amplified long-existing calls for city officials to make roads safer for pedestrians and bicyclists. It also led to online criticism of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s Vision Zero plan, which holds the goal of ending traffic deaths in the city by 2024. Since Vision Zero was launched six years ago, bicyclist and pedestrian deaths have gone up. Allison was the second child killed this year by a vehicle. Four-year-old Zyaire Joshua of Northwest Washington was fatally struck at Georgia Avenue and Kennedy Street NW in April.

Often when we talk about road safety, we only hear about the deaths. While those are gutting, they don’t capture the full scope of what’s happening in those places shared by pedestrians, bicyclists and cars. Close calls and injuries matter, too.

Last year, Jeff Johnson, a member of the D.C. Bicycle Advisory Council and a certified bicycle safety instructor, wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post, saying city transportation safety officials may be underestimating by half the city’s transportation-related injuries. “We safety advocates don’t want to scare bike riders and pedestrians off our streets and sidewalks,” he wrote, “but we won’t know how to fix safety problems if we don’t understand them.”

When I spoke to Johnson recently, he said not much has changed since then. About 500 pedestrians and bicyclists continue to be taken to D.C. trauma centers and treated for severe injuries each year, he said, and city data continues to not reflect all of them.

“Deaths are a horrible measure of traffic safety,” he says. “We need to know the extent of injuries, where they occur and why, if we are going to solve the traffic problems.”

On Monday, the same day as Allison’s funeral, Means posted about his family’s experience on Twitter.

People immediately started replying, expressing relief that Nathan was okay and calling out the city’s lack of action.

One person simply wrote: “OUTRAGE.”

A woman who was walking near where Nathan was hit heard the crash before she saw the aftermath.

“It scared the living daylight out of me,” she tells me on a recent evening. She recalls rushing over to where Ballard was trying to comfort Nathan, who was crying but otherwise seemed okay. “He was doing pretty well, but I was scared to death. It was a rush of emotion after it happened, and I started to cry.”

She describes seeing the driver of the SUV come over. The driver looked shaken, she says, and explained that she was from out of town, it was her first time driving in the city and she was also the mother of a young boy.

The witness spoke on the condition of anonymity because she didn’t want to be involved in the investigation, but she says she lives in the neighborhood and sees what happened as indicative of a larger road safety issue — one she doesn’t know how to fix but knows needs to be.

D.C. pledged to cut traffic fatalities by 2024. Deaths are up, and now the program is under audit.

On Friday, D.C. Council member Brooke Pinto (Ward 2) and representatives from the District Department of Transportation plan to walk a mile through Dupont Circle and hear from residents along the way about their safety concerns. The walk will end at Nathan’s school.

Means, who works in urban planning, says he didn’t know about the event before his son was hit by that SUV. He now plans to attend and ask Nathan if he wants to join him and “meet people who are working to make his neighborhood safer.” Already, Means and Ballard have met with city officials at the scene of the crash and discussed how to improve safety in that area.

The two agreed to talk with me, and share what happened to them, in hopes that it will help other families avoid those close calls or worse.

After the crash, Ballard’s focus was on getting Nathan home and making sure he was okay, so she didn’t call police to the scene. Once home, she and her husband took off Nathan’s clothes to check for injuries, gave him a bath and talked with his pediatrician. He seemed physically fine.

He also, to their amazement, wanted to get back on his bike that day. Since then, Nathan has ridden alongside his dad as they’ve visited parks and other places in the city.

Only now, before they leave the house, he asks a different kind of question.

“He asks that I promise him that he won’t get hit by a car again,” Means says.

He and Ballard say they tell him that they will do everything they can to make sure it doesn’t happen again, but both stop short of making the promise he wants.

They, unfortunately, can’t say that — not yet.

Read more from Theresa Vargas:

The inspiring math of kindness: How one woman turned a 2-day yard sale into a year’s worth of kindness

A girl’s reaction to the Nationals Park shooting made the world look at D.C.’s gun violence problem

The District decided to do right by homeless children — but only after pleas, worries and questions

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