After 2 Pedestrian Deaths On Same Morning, Safety Advocates Ask LA Leaders: Where Is Vision Zero?

Last Friday, about 25 cyclists and mobility advocates gathered at the steps of Los Angeles City Hall to voice their frustration over the lack of progress of the city's Vision Zero street safety program. (Ryan Fonseca/LAist)

Last week, within a span of two hours, two pedestrians were fatally struck by vehicles in separate collisions in Los Angeles.

One of the victims was a 4-year-old girl, who was walking to school with her mother in a marked crosswalk. The other was a 43-year-old man walking in West L.A.

As news of the deaths spread on social media, local mobility advocates aired their outrage over what they see as a lack of political will and meaningful progress to make streets safer for anyone not in a car.

According to L.A. Department of Transportation spokesman Colin Sweeney, the city has been picking up the pace on safety improvements.

"In 2019 alone, we introduced over 700 improvements to increase visibility of crosswalks — more than 2017 and 2018 combined," Sweeney told LAist, adding that 77 speed feedback signs and "dozens of traffic signal and street design improvements" have also been installed.

But despite those efforts, preliminary traffic collision data from the Los Angeles Police Department shows that, with roughly 10 weeks left in 2019, the number of people seriously injured and killed by vehicles while walking L.A. streets this year is keeping pace with 2018's figures.

This comes as the city has worked to revamp its approach to the Vision Zero initiative — part of an international effort to eliminate traffic deaths.


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L.A.'s program was launched by Mayor Eric Garcetti in August 2015 with the goal of zero traffic deaths by 2025, with an emphasis on making streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists. City leaders characterized their own goals as "lofty," even comparing the street safety project to President Kennedy's goal of putting a man on the moon (they even paraphrased Kennedy's famous speech for emphasis).

But so far, the city has fallen short of its moonshot. The number of pedestrian deaths in L.A. surged more than 70% between 2015 and 2018, and the number of people killed while riding a bike rose 40% in that same period. Of the 240 traffic deaths recorded in the city last year, more than half were pedestrians and, combined with cyclist deaths, they accounted for more than 60% of people killed in traffic collisions.

TWO DEATHS BEFORE 8 A.M.

A four-year-old girl was killed after an SUV driver struck her and her mother as they were crossing Olympic Boulevard at Normandie Avenue in Koreatown on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019. The young girl was on her way to school across the street. (Courtesy NBC Los Angeles)

The first pedestrian death on the morning of Wednesday, Oct. 16 was a man who was hit by a truck at the intersection of Sepulveda and Pico boulevards in West L.A. It was about 6:20 a.m. The driver fled the scene, but police later announced a suspect was in custody.

The victim was later identified as 43-year-old Efrain Espinoza, according to the L.A. County Medical Examiner-Coroner's office.

Then, at about 7:45 a.m., a 4-year-old girl and her mother were hit by a car on Normandie Avenue and Olympic Boulevard in Koreatown. According to LAPD officials, an SUV driver was turning left onto Olympic from Normandie when she hit them.

The girl was transported to a local hospital and later pronounced dead. Her mother was hospitalized with minor injuries.

The young girl was on her way to school at Mariposa-Nabi Primary Center, located just across the street from where she was killed, according to Sgt. Rudy Perez of the L.A. School Police Department.

Both crashes are being investigated by the LAPD's traffic division.

Both of last Wednesday's deaths happened on streets that are part of L.A.'s High-Injury Network, which the city defines as a 6%-portion of L.A. streets that account for 70% of all pedestrian deaths and severe injuries in the city.

The scene of the Koreatown crash is also within a project zone slated for safety improvements through LADOT's Safe Routes to School initiative.

According to the project map, those improvements will include curb extensions at that intersection "to shorten the crossing distance for people walking and increase their visibility to people driving."

The upgrades are listed as "planned" and LADOT officials did not provide information about when work on those improvements is scheduled to start.

When asked if a crossing guard had been assigned or would be assigned to that intersection, LADOT spokesman Colin Sweeney replied: "As the collision is the subject of an open LAPD investigation, we are unable to comment at this time. When that investigation is completed, LADOT will review findings and what actions we can take to prevent such a tragedy from occurring in the future."

'WE'RE JUST FED UP'

Demonstrators rally in front of Los Angeles City Hall on Friday, Oct. 18, 2019, calling on L.A. leaders to take bold action to address the number of pedestrian and cyclist deaths on city streets. (Ryan Fonseca/LAist)

Last Friday, about 25 cyclists and mobility advocates gathered at the steps of Los Angeles City Hall to mark the young girl's death and voice their anger over the lack of progress of the city's Vision Zero street safety program.

They propped up signs at a barricade overlooking Spring Street and hung a large banner with writing in blood-red letters that questioned Vision Zero's progress.

"[We're] trying to start something — anything — to remind city councilmembers that their lack of forward momentum on Vision Zero has real-life consequences, and that people are continuing to die, continuing to be injured," said Tom Carroll, one of the protest organizers. "Why is this an acceptable standard operating procedure?"

News of the young girl's death resonated with Carroll and a couple of his colleagues who bike to work together from the Highland Park area to Crenshaw.

"A four-year-old girl is 50 feet away from her preschool," he said. "These traffic deaths are accepted as just, 'well, that's just what happens in a city.'"

When Carroll and his friends started expressing their anger on Twitter shortly after the deaths, they found their outrage matched by fellow Angelenos, some of whom joined their protest Friday morning.

Demonstrators are calling on city leaders to take bold action to end "vehicle violence" on L.A.'s streets. (Ryan Fonseca/LAist)

"We're just fed up with people unnecessarily being killed on our streets due to vehicle violence," said demonstrator Adriane Hoff, who sits on the Wilshire Center Koreatown Neighborhood Council.

Hoff, who said she's speaking out as a citizen and not in her capacity as a neighborhood council representative, called on Mayor Eric Garcetti and the city council to "be stern and finally take action."

"For far too long, they have just been blowing off Vision Zero," she said. "And we have so many deaths primarily from pedestrians and cyclists that are unnecessary. That blood is on their hands."

Some demonstrators also called out California Governor Gavin Newsom, who vetoed a state bill that would have required Caltrans to prioritize pedestrian and cyclist safety on state-owned roadways. Newsom said SB 127 "creates a prescriptive and costly approach to achieve [its] objectives," adding that his recent executive order to address climate change includes infrastructure improvements.

"That feels like a direct insult," said Topher Hendricks, a graphic designer who commutes by bike from downtown to Hollywood who joined last Friday's action. "[For] people who are at risk every single day just trying to get places alive, it feels like the state is spitting on us."

TRAFFIC SAFETY IN 2019

L.A. is broken up into four main LAPD patrol regions, or bureaus: Central, South, Valley (as in San Fernando Valley) and West. Officers in each bureau patrol, enforce traffic laws and investigate collisions.

Citywide, from the start of 2019 through Oct. 5, an estimated 179 people have died in traffic crashes, according to preliminary LAPD data.

  • Central Bureau: 35 total deaths | 24 pedestrians
  • South Bureau: 47 total deaths | 25 pedestrians
  • Valley Bureau: 62 total deaths | 26 pedestrians
  • West Bureau: 35 total deaths | 21 pedestrians

While the largest share of deaths, 62, have happened in the Valley bureau, traffic deaths are down from the same time period in 2018 in three of LAPD's four bureaus.

In the West Bureau, which includes the neighborhoods of Hollywood, Koreatown, Miracle Mile and Venice, traffic deaths are up 75% in that timeframe compared to last year, the report shows. According to the police data, 35 people have died through Oct. 5 of this year compared to 20 in the same time last year.

Every year since 2010, more people have died while walking L.A. streets than are killed while traveling in a motor vehicle. (Courtesy LADOT)

Twenty-one of the people who've died in the West Bureau were walking. While that's the fewest number of pedestrian deaths by bureau, it's more than double the number of deaths compared to the same time period last year.

Those figures don't include last week's pedestrian deaths.

West Bureau traffic officials did not respond to months of requests to comment on the increase in traffic deaths.

When we asked LADOT about the increase, spokesman Colin Sweeney cited the improvement work the department had completed this year and added that while the city can re-engineer roadways, the other component to safer streets is safer behavior by motorists.

"Drivers need to realize the responsibility they take when they get behind the wheel," he said. "That means avoiding distractions and slowing down on surface streets which are a shared public space — even 5 mph slower can save a life."

'UNFORTUNATE ACCIDENT'

When we reached out to LAPD officials about the fatal collision in Koreatown, a department spokesperson repeatedly referred to it as "an unfortunate accident."

But LADOT, and transportation agencies in general, have steered away from language that refers to collisions as "accidents" in recent years, Sweeney said.

That shift is also reflected in the language media outlets are advised to use when covering traffic collisions. The Associated Press amended its style guide recently to explain the connotation "accident" can imply.


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