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Bogota Mayor Sees Stars Over Pedestrian Deaths

August 10, 2003|Kim Housego | Associated Press Writer

BOGOTA, Colombia — The streets of Colombia's capital have been splashed with hundreds of bright yellow stars with white question marks in the middle -- "death stars."

They mark spots where people have been killed -- not by the leftist rebels and rightist paramilitary fighters of Colombia's long civil war, but by drunk drivers and speed demons who wreak havoc on Bogota's crowded streets.

On average, nearly 700 people die every year in traffic accidents in Bogota, and more than half of them are pedestrians.

The 1,500 or so pedestrians killed in the city over the last five years was roughly equal to 10% of the death toll nationwide from the civil war over the same period, city officials say.

Fed up with the carnage, Mayor Antanas Mockus launched the "death star" campaign in early July to bring home the message that residents risk death when crossing busy streets and should walk to intersections with traffic lights or use footbridges -- at least when there is one. The flamboyant mayor painted some stars himself.

"Just look how many there are," said Sonia Casaldes, a student who pointed from a footbridge at 16 yellow stars spotted around a busy intersection in central Bogota.

"It's disturbing to know somebody died in that place. It scares me," she said.

That's exactly the reaction the mayor wants. He hopes to shock people into giving up dangerous habits.

"It is supposed to send a dramatic and highly visible message," Mockus said. "The idea is to ask ourselves, 'Why are there more than 400 needless [pedestrian] deaths every year?' "

City officials say careless drivers cause some of these deaths but stress that this campaign is specifically targeting pedestrians who recklessly dart into busy streets.

Mockus said victims' families are supporting the initiative. "They don't want the same tragedy that happened to them to happen to others."

But many residents complain of a lack of pedestrian bridges and say those that do exist are too dangerous to cross at night for fear of muggings or worse. A majority of road deaths take place at night.

"City Hall would do better to spend money building more footbridges and improving lighting," said Umberto Giraldo, 60, who works at a parking lot. He also complained that the bridges, which have steep ramps and no stairs, are slippery when wet.

The mayor said a majority of deaths have occurred under footbridges.

"I first want to see greater use of the footbridges that do exist before building new ones," he said, although he said there are plans to build more bridges and improve existing ones.

"The problem is to change the existing mind-set," Mockus said.

That may be an uphill battle.

Pedestrians are still risking life and limb venturing out into fast-moving traffic.

Asked why he just dashed across a busy road instead of using a nearby footbridge, one man confessed: "I'm just lazy."

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