With courage and a commitment to helping others, the family of Nic Westlake channeled their grief over losing a son and brother into something positive. And they’re not done yet.
World-class ballroom dancer Westlake, 29, died in 2017 when the car he was driving was struck by a Green Line light-rail train that ran a red light on W. University Avenue at Eustis Street in St. Paul. His fiancée and dance partner, Neli Petkova, was badly injured in the crash.
The Ramsey County Attorney’s Office decided not to pursue criminal vehicular operation charges against the light-rail driver, saying there was no proof of gross negligence. Other traffic laws didn’t apply because light-rail operators were not subject to Minnesota’s laws regarding reckless and careless driving.
The Westlake family wanted something constructive to come from their loss, however, and thanks to their persistence, last week state lawmakers approved legislation that will close that loophole. The bill was co-sponsored by Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, and Rep. Cheryl Youakim, DFL-Hopkins.
“It’s nice to see some small change; hopefully some life we’ll never meet will be saved,” Nic Westlake’s brother Peter told the Star Tribune. “I think Nic would be really proud to know that he helped make the LRT safer.”
The Westlakes sued the Metropolitan Council, which operates Metro Transit, and a jury trial is set for July. The LRT driver was terminated but was reinstated after a union appeal with the stipulation that he would no longer operate Metro Transit vehicles.
The Westlakes believe more can be done to improve safety along light-rail lines. They’d like to see automatic braking systems, better alerts for LRT drivers when traffic lights turn red and cameras focused on train operators.
“We have no idea why the driver missed the red light in our case,” Peter Westlake told a reporter. “There are cameras from every other angle [in light-rail trains]. We can’t tell what’s going on, especially with someone operating a huge vehicle that impacts thousands of people every day.”
The family also recommends that Metro Transit stop allowing advertising wraps to cover the front cab of trains. The train that struck Nic Westlake’s car was wrapped in a dark purple sheath, making it difficult to spot at night.
Howie Padilla, a spokesman for Metro Transit, said he couldn’t comment on the Westlake family’s suggestions because of the pending litigation.
When trains are operated aboveground in heavily trafficked urban areas, accidents will happen. But Metro Transit and representatives from the union that represents LRT operators should be in lockstep on making safety improvements.
The ideas offered by the Westlakes are an excellent place to start.