Beautiful but scary

Posted: August 05, 2013

WHEN I MOVED to Fairmount three decades ago, I was thrilled that Kelly Drive was five minutes from my front door. Its recreational path instantly became my go-to place for head-clearing walks.

Three times a week, I hit the path for an hour, usually with a buddy. We'd solve the problems of the world as we chugged to our designated turnaround spot and back to the neighborhood again.

I knew every turn of the path. Tracked the years by the growth of its trees. Knew where the blacktop buckled and where it smoothed out again. Smiled when I passed the bench where a friend and I, when we were new, young moms, sang our cranky infants to sleep then pushed their strollers home in a sleep-deprived stupor.

At some point, I realized that I also knew where the traffic accidents happened.

I'd see deep tire marks where a careening vehicle had hopped the curb and torn up the grassy ribbon separating the path from the road. I'd spy bits of car fender and broken windshield - "crash leftovers," I called them. And I'd stop cold at the impromptu flower-and-candle memorials to those who'd perished on the road, usually near a tricky bend.

And, one day, I came way too close to being one of its casualties.

It was a weekday morning and I was in the home stretch of my walk, feeling exhilarated, when I heard an ungodly crash. It wasn't just the violent sound of metal on metal that made me jump. It was its proximity, right behind me.

I whipped around and saw a streetlight laying across a part of the road I'd just passed. Drivers in both directions screeched to a halt, and the rest of us stood, stunned, as we realized what had happened.

A motorcyclist had lost control of his bike, hit the streetlight and been thrown dozens of feet through the air, skidding to stop in the opposing lane of traffic.

The first miracle was that the first person to race to the man's side was a medical doctor. The second was that the man was alive (I later learned he'd suffered a collapsed lung and fractured collarbone and pelvis). And the third was that the streetlight had crashed into the street, away from the pedestrian path and somehow not killing any drivers either.

After the ambulance left, we witnesses stood in a shaky circle for a good 10 minutes, nervously joking that we should all play the lottery that day because only luck had saved any of us from harm.

For a long time afterward, I tended to stay off the path, instead walking in the grassy area closer to the river. Especially on the kind of misty mornings where the roads are just wet enough for an unwary driver to hydroplane across the highway and onto the path.

I loved the area too much - its wide river vista, its view of the skyline at sunrise, its eclectic crowd of bikers, runners, rowers and skaters - to stay away. No matter how bad a mood I might've been in as I laced up my sneakers for a sojourn, I'd always be in a better mood when I returned.

That's how reliably rebooting those river walks were.

Recently, though, I've accepted that there's no rebooting a death, and Kelly Drive's drivers have become a very dangerous crew.

Last October, one of them flipped his car near Boathouse Row.

In April, another lost control of his vehicle, which came to rest on the recreational trail I've used a thousand times.

Early last month, a suicidal woman gunned her automobile into the river, across a path that, seconds earlier, had been filled with pedestrians.

Last week, a driver died when she veered to avoid an oncoming vehicle, shot across the grass and plunged into the Schuylkill.

And those are just the accidents that made headlines.

Much as it pains me to admit it, I rarely use Kelly Drive's recreational path any more. There just isn't enough space between me and the cars that rocket by to guarantee they'll hurt only themselves when they take a curve on two wheels.

And I hold my breath and pray when my kid and her track team take to the river for a run.

These days, sadly, I see the path mostly from the window of a car, but only if I'm a passenger.

When I'm behind the wheel, my terrified eyes are on the road.


Email: polaner@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly

Blog: ph.ly/RonnieBlog

Columns: ph.ly/Ronnie

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