Marna Wenderott’s ride home to the North Valley meant inching her way down Rio Grande Boulevard clogged with rush-hour traffic exiting or entering Interstate 40. Cutting across two lanes of oncoming traffic to grab a bag of ice and a soda at a convenience store on the opposite side of the street was a frustrating if not impossible effort.
But on that hot June afternoon nearly four years ago, it seemed as if the sea of vehicles had parted for her, the cars in the oncoming two lanes halting with enough room to give her the right of way to turn left onto Rose Avenue, the first street north of the freeway and a clear shot to the convenience store.
“I don’t usually go that way to get to that little store, but when the two cars in the two lanes stopped it seemed like, well, why not,” she said.
What she hadn’t taken into account, though, was whether any traffic was oncoming in a third lane.
Unluckily, there was.
Heading south in that third lane was a Volkswagen Beetle driven by a young woman. In the front passenger seat – and, according to court records, not wearing a seat belt – was her 7-year-old son, Juan.
The cars collided just as Wenderott’s Nissan 370Z, a vehicle she had owned for only three months, was entering Rose Avenue.
“It was traumatic,” she said. “I got out of my car, the woman got out of hers, and I was asking if there was anybody else in her car.”
Wenderott’s heart broke when she saw the little boy, bloodied, burned, bruised, scratched and crumpled under the glove box. Worst of all, the boy could not move or feel his left arm.
Tests later revealed that the force of the crash had torn nerve roots from the spinal cord, leaving his left arm paralyzed.
Wenderott was injured, too, though she hadn’t known it then.
But as we talked over coffee this week at a restaurant across from the site of the crash, she knows now. Since the 2014 crash, she has been to hundreds of doctor’s appointments to deal with a stiff, sore neck, severe headaches and back pain.
But what had hurt worse, Wenderott said, was the shock of it all, the shame of it all, the avoidability of it all.
“I just couldn’t believe it was all just my inattention,” she said. “It seemed like something else far bigger than that was at fault.”
Something else, like the third lane – the one Juan and his mom had been driving in – which was not a lane at all but a shoulder and a bike path that only turned into a traffic lane once past Rose Avenue where it connected with the freeway entrance ramp.
“This was a wild, misused lane,” she said. “It was a blind death trap.”
Wenderott, who has a background in environmental safety and health, started taking videos of traffic flow through the area and noted how many drivers were misusing the third lane and how easy it was for a crash like hers to occur again.
They had been already. She learned that 37 crashes had been reported at Rio Grande and Rose NW, 12 of those resulting in bodily injuries, from 2006 to 2013, according to the Mid-Region Council of Governments.
Many of those crashes, she found, had occurred in similar fashion to hers.
“What I found was that I wasn’t the causative agent; the city was,” she said. “It was predictable and preventable, and if something wasn’t done about it, it was going to happen again.”
She presented her findings and concerns to Diane Dolan, policy analyst for City Councilor Isaac Benton, whose district covers the intersection, and in 2015 a plan began to take shape.
Using funds left over from a bike lane improvement project on Rio Grande, a new median was installed that prohibits left turns from northbound Rio Grande onto Rose. A smaller median was placed just south of the intersection as a deterrent to using the phony third lane.
The bike lane was also moved closer to the curb and marked with buffering stripes. The project was completed last June.
“They say you can’t fight city hall,” Wenderott said. “Well, I did.”
Benton said he is appreciative of Wenderott’s efforts.
“It’s really important for us as a council to hear about things like this,” he said. “It’s really important that people speak out.”
But Wenderott has one more person she’d like to speak out to. Since the crash, she has never stopped thinking about Juan, the little boy hurt in the crash.
“It was your face, your injuries, my fear for your survival, your mother’s injuries and my own injuries and anger that kept me pushing the city and Counselor Isaac Benton’s office to fix this danger,” she wrote in a letter to the boy that she never sent. “You are a hero, Juan, and something very good came from the very painful experience you suffered and we shared.”
Lucky for all of us that Wenderott was a hero, too.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
Correction: An updated image with annotations has been added to this report.