Struck by car, Blair senior wants to increase pedestrian safety, disability awareness

Kelby Carlson and his service dog, Elvis. (Vanderbilt University)
Kelby Carlson and his service dog, Elvis. (Vanderbilt University)

On a Monday afternoon in early September, Blair School of Music senior Kelby Carlson was crossing Children’s Way, the street that runs in front of the Blair School, just as he had done countless times before. Carlson, who is blind, was with his service dog, a 4-year-old yellow lab named Elvis.

“I didn’t hear any cars coming when I began to cross the street, which is what you do when you can’t see—you listen,” Carlson said. “About two-thirds of the way across, I heard a car to my right. I heard the engine but wasn’t sure if it was accelerating, so I kept going.” The vehicle struck Carlson’s right side, knocking him to the ground.

“I realized pretty much right away that my leg was broken,” he said. Elvis, who walks on Carlson’s left side, wasn’t hurt.

The driver of the car stopped, and fellow pedestrians quickly summoned help from within the Blair School. Carlson remembers the ambulance arriving almost immediately to take him to Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Emergency Department.

There he learned that his leg was, in fact, badly broken—tibia and fibula were fractured in three places. Carlson spent several days at the Medical Center and underwent surgery to implant metal rods in his leg. His recovery included using first a walker, then a support cane to get around while he healed. He missed three weeks of classes.

Accidents like this sometimes happen on the busy streets around Vanderbilt’s urban campus, but for those in the community with disabilities, distracted drivers can pose a particular threat.

“I’ve had a few close calls with bicycles on sidewalks, but definitely nothing like this before,” Carlson said. “[rquote]Now I’m even more aware of what cars are doing and when situations are potentially unsafe.[/rquote]

“In a lot of ways, Vanderbilt’s campus is very accessible,” he said, “but in other ways, there are situations other people just aren’t aware of. And it’s not only people like me who are affected—it’s anyone with a condition that affects their physical mobility.”

When Carlson, a musical arts major from Woodbury, Minnesota, specializing in voice, was able to return to class, his Blair family rallied around him. The school gained access to a golf cart, and classmates from the Phi Mu Alpha music fraternity and others in the voice department devised a schedule to transport him between Blair and Furman Hall, where classes for his other major, philosophy, were held. Campus Dining allowed Carlson to put in his meal orders, and friends picked up the food from Rand and delivered it to his residence hall. His fellow performers in the Vanderbilt Opera escorted him to and from rehearsals.

“Everyone at Blair should be commended, the voice department in particular,” he said. “All of the students were helpful in different ways, whether it was visiting me in the hospital, getting me to classes on time, or making sure I had the medication or other things I needed. I’m incredibly grateful.”

Three months later, Carlson’s routine is more or less back to normal, though how he navigates campus is forever changed. “I’m paying even more attention,” he said. “For instance, I notice more when cars decide to take a right on red, even when pedestrians have the right of way.”

Carlson recalled a recent incident when he and Elvis tried to cross in front of Branscomb Quad’s semicircle driveway on Vanderbilt Place. “It was a shuttle bus, I think, that pulled up right next to the driveway, and the driver would not shut off the engine,” he said. “It was so loud that I didn’t feel comfortable moving across either of the driveway’s entrances. I had to take another route.”

Carlson explained that Elvis is trained to follow his lead in any situation.

“Elvis’ job is to get me across streets, to get me around obstacles,” he said. “But my job is to be the leader of the team, to know where we’re going and to be safe. He’s trained to look out for traffic, but he’s not as smart as I am. He doesn’t know the things that I do.” Carlson got Elvis, a calm and stalwart presence, from the prestigious Guide Dogs for the Blind organization in 2012, and the pair underwent extensive training together.

Carlson serves as secretary for the Vanderbilt Disabilities Awareness Partnership, a student organization founded last year to raise awareness about disabilities within the Vanderbilt community and work with the administration to improve accessibility on campus.

“A lot of disabilities are invisible, so you can’t necessarily tell that a person has a disability just by looking at them,” he said. “And people with visible disabilities—blindness for example—don’t always make up a huge percentage of the population. But everyone will encounter someone with a disability in their lifetime, and college is a great place to get people acquainted with what some of the general issues are.

“Vanderbilt is, in a lot of ways, very disability friendly, but no campus is perfect,” he said. “What we hope to do is dialogue with Disability Services and work with them to make a campus that’s already very welcoming to people with disabilities function even better.”

Though recovering from the accident dominated much of Carlson’s fall semester, he’s not letting it define his senior year. He looks forward to taking the LSAT in a few weeks—he’s planning to attend law school after graduation; performing again with the Music City Chorus, a Nashville barbershop singing organization; and preparing for his senior voice recital in the spring.

Drivers on campus should remember these safety tips and responsibilities:

  • Be attentive. Pay attention especially when traveling in and around intersections or where there is heavy pedestrian traffic.
  • Be alert. Be aware that some pedestrians may challenge you to stop since they have the right of away at a crosswalk. Failure to yield to a pedestrian within a marked crosswalk is a violation of Tennessee state law.
  • Use caution when turning on a green light. If you are making a turn with a green light, the pedestrian crossing with a green light has the right of way.
  • Be attentive at uncontrolled intersections. A pedestrian passing through an uncontrolled intersection, even if there is no marked crosswalk, has the right of way.
  • Yield to stopped vehicles. Do not overtake or pass vehicles that are stopped for pedestrians.

For more information on pedestrian safety, download VUPD’s Pedestrian Safety Guide.