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Pedestrian Deaths in City Surge 51% in 2001 After 4-Year Decline

Safety: Officials say jaywalking remains a stubborn problem despite efforts to improve sidewalk and street crossings.

January 30, 2002|HUGO MARTIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After a steady four-year decline, pedestrian deaths shot up 51% in Los Angeles last year despite new efforts to improve sidewalk and street crossings around schools, senior centers and in low-income neighborhoods.

In a city notoriously unfriendly to people who walk, the number of pedestrians killed in traffic accidents dropped from 104 fatalities in 1996 to a low of 71 in 2000--an indication to some city officials that the city's efforts were saving lives.

But that positive trend came to a halt last year, when 107 pedestrians were killed, according to statistics released this week by the Los Angeles Police Department.

Law enforcement officials, transportation experts and pedestrian advocates said they can't pinpoint a cause for the increase, although police say jaywalking continues to be a stubborn problem on many busy commercial streets.

The good news is that, despite the recent upturn in the city of Los Angeles, pedestrian deaths have continued to drop in Los Angeles County and statewide.

In Los Angeles County, pedestrian deaths dropped from 336 in 1996 to 230 in 2001--a 32% decline, according to the Los Angeles County coroner's office.

Local officials attribute the drop to a regionwide upgrade of sidewalks, street crossings and bike paths. Increased police enforcement and new education programs for children also received credit.

In California, pedestrian fatalities dropped from 795 in 1996 to 689 in 2000, according to the California Highway Patrol.

The number of pedestrian fatalities has not changed significantly in Orange County, where pedestrian deaths dropped from 41 in 1996 to 39 in 2000, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In Ventura, pedestrian deaths rose from six in 1996 to nine in 2000.

Advocates Say Walking Is Still Dangerous in L.A.

While pleased with the declines, pedestrian advocates said they are hesitant to celebrate decreases that they say remain unexplained.

"I'm nervous about everyone patting themselves on the back because we still have a long way to go," said James Corless, California director of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a nationwide group that promotes safe and clean transportation alternatives.

He added: "Walking is still one of the most dangerous things to do in L.A. and California."

Pedestrian accidents account for less than 7% of all traffic mishaps in the city, but because pedestrians are more vulnerable to serious injuries, they account for more than 40% of traffic fatalities.

Police say pedestrians share some responsibility in the problem. In Los Angeles, some jaywalkers have become so brazen they will shoot across a busy street in plain sight of a uniformed police officer.

Officer Jack Richter said he was issuing jaywalking tickets on Broadway near 6th Street in downtown a few months ago when he noticed a woman step off the curb.

"I said to myself, 'She is not going to jaywalk in front of me,' and boom, she got hit," he said. The woman was badly injured but survived.

Many pedestrians are not so lucky.

"Those 107 people who died last year--that was needless," Richter said.

But many pedestrians on Los Angeles streets say it is the drivers who are usually at fault.

"I was almost hit the other day when I was taking my grandson to get ice cream," said Jesus Rodriguez, a retired Highland Park resident, who was waiting to walk the youth home from school in northeast Los Angeles. "The drivers have to be more careful."

For Los Angeles, the latest increase only bolsters the city's reputation as a metropolis designed for the benefit of motorists--at the expense of walkers.

John Fisher, assistant general manager for the city Department of Transportation, said that reputation is undeserved. He cited dozens of projects the city has launched in the last few years to improve pedestrian safety. The latest increase in fatalities could be due more to chance than to the actions of drivers or pedestrians, he said.

Fisher noted that, despite the rise in deaths, the number of pedestrian accidents has remained about the same--about 4,800 each year--for the last several years.

"Whether a pedestrian is killed or seriously injured is often by the grace of God," he said.

But pedestrian advocates say the higher death toll signals a need for the city to redouble its efforts to improve pedestrian safety.

Deborah Murphy, founder of the advocacy group Los Angeles Walks and head of the city's Pedestrian Advisory Committee, charged that the city's Department of Transportation is more interested in moving cars than improving conditions for pedestrians.

"The city feels pedestrians are a minor participant in the operation of the streets," said Murphy, who worked in the department for 11 years.

City Made Efforts to Improve Sidewalks

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