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Transportation and Mobility

Traffic Was Historically Low In 2020. The Death Toll On LA's Streets Was Not

(Al Kamalizad for LAist)
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The COVID-19 pandemic upended much of normal life in Los Angeles, but there’s one local norm that stayed the same: people continue to be injured and killed in collisions on city streets at a high rate.

Even with drastically fewer cars on the roads and fewer crashes overall, the number of people killed in traffic crashes in L.A. remained virtually unchanged in 2020.

Based on preliminary data reported by the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, 238 people died in collisions last year, compared to 246 in 2019 — a decrease of about 3%.

That slight dip pales in comparison to how sharply car travel fell in greater L.A. and beyond in the early months of the pandemic. Schools closed, many workers stopped commuting to their offices, and local and state stay-at-home orders drastically limited the places and activities we could drive to in our cars.

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In mid-to-late March 2020, daily vehicle traffic fell as much as 70%. Last April saw traffic volumes decrease by 30% to 50% compared to the start of the year. Daily driving has been increasing since that historic plummet, but still remain below typical levels, according to city traffic data.

That discrepancy in how much we drove last year vs. how many people were killed in traffic crashes shows the immense challenge L.A. faces in reducing traffic violence and saving lives on its streets.

Over the past five years (2016-2020) nearly 250 people were killed in crashes each year on average, up more than 30% from the previous five years, according to city data. A surge in pedestrian deaths has driven much that increase, even as the city established and fine-tuned its flagship street safety plan, Vision Zero.

The international safety program, adopted and launched by Mayor Eric Garcetti in 2015, had initially sought to reduce traffic deaths 20% by 2017 and eliminate them entirely by 2025.

The basic philosophy behind Vision Zero is that humans will make mistakes on the road and crashes will happen, but by redesigning streets to reduce speeding and better protect vulnerable road users, those crashes don’t have to cause severe injuries and deaths. But as the data has shown in recent years, L.A.’s current approach is not working.

Traffic violence is the complicated result of local and state policy, deeply entrenched cultural norms, systemic inequities and plenty of human error. And in 2020, those complications were thrown for a loop by an unprecedented global pandemic.

Like a lot of statistics from 2020, the caveats have caveats. We witnessed a massive disruption to regional travel patterns last year. There was a bike boom. Cooped-up Angelenos found a bit of freedom by walking more in their neighborhoods (and the city created a program to promote and protect their activity).

What we do know is many of us drove our cars less, but some drove more dangerously — and the death toll on L.A. streets largely maintained its status quo.

With all that in mind, here are key takeaways on the state of street safety in L.A.

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LA’s ‘Pandemic Of Speeding’ Kept Deaths High

A speed feedback sign shows a driver was going 57 miles per hour on a street with a speed limit of 35 miles per hour.
(Courtesy LAPD South Traffic Division via Twitter)

Los Angeles Department of Transportation officials point to “significant street safety investments” made last year, including “adding a record number of new or upgraded bike lanes, installing new street designs and signals, and upgrading our crosswalks.”

But as LADOT spokesperson Colin Sweeney told me, the department also saw “a disturbing trend of continued speeding on our streets that left us with more people seriously injured or killed citywide — despite historic decreases in traffic volumes.”

“As we saw in other places in the country, in addition to the public health crisis, 2020 revealed a pandemic of speeding,” he said.

LADOT and LAPD officials first warned of this problem last May, noting that crash deaths were keeping pace with the previous year.

Basically, more open roads are enticing some people to drive at higher, unsafe speeds. So even though fewer drivers meant fewer crashes, a larger share of those crashes were deadly.

Traffic Deaths Went Down Slightly, But Not Citywide

A severely mangled car rests against a pole near a freeway onramp in Los Angeles. A tent in the background covers a dead victim.
The aftermath of a fatal crash in Los Angeles in April 2020.
(Courtesy LAPD Commander Marc Reina via Twitter)

While fewer people were killed and seriously injured in crashes overall last year, not all L.A. communities experienced less traffic violence. According to preliminary data compiled by LADOT:

  • The number of pedestrians killed by drivers fell about 12% overall, but increased in some neighborhoods
  • Slightly fewer cyclists were killed last year (15, compared to 19 in 2019)
  • The number of motorcyclists killed in crashes jumped about 45%
  • Motor vehicle occupant deaths were nearly unchanged

The Los Angeles Police Department reports and investigates severe and fatal crashes in the city from its four geographic bureaus: Valley, West, Central and South.

Combining collisions in which someone was killed or severely injured (KSI for short), LADOT reported that those crashes were down notably from 2019 in the Valley, Central and West bureaus, but jumped 23% in South Bureau.

Looking at fatal crashes specifically, fewer people died in West. L.A. and the San Fernando Valley compared to the previous year. But more people were killed in Central and South L.A.; traffic fatalities there jumped 17% and 27%, respectively.

(Chava Sanchez/LAist)

Pedestrian deaths were down in three LAPD jurisdictions — notably 50% in the West Bureau. But the number of people killed by drivers while walking in South L.A. rose nearly 15% from the year before.

City Councilmember Joe Buscaino, who represents neighborhoods including Watts, Wilmington and San Pedro, called those increases “clearly alarming.”

“I want to elevate this concern, particularly in South Los Angeles, as we remind ourselves that Vision Zero is [supposed to] eliminate fatalities by 2025,” he said during the council’s Transportation Committee meeting on April 20. “And we're actually increasing these numbers in South Los Angeles.”

The disproportionate death toll in South L.A. is in line with what we know about the racial inequities in crash victims. Neighborhoods there are predominantly Latino and Black, and historic underfunding in those communities has led to neglected, dangerous roads — and more people of color are dying as a result.

People Of Color Face Disproportionate Traffic Violence

LADOT staff is still compiling demographic data for 2020 crash victims, but a recent study from UCLA shows that people of color, especially Black people, are disproportionately hurt and killed in L.A. crashes.

A man runs across the street on Wilshire Boulevard.
(Chava Sanchez/LAist)

In their 2020 policy brief The Need to Prioritize Black Lives in LA’s Traffic Safety Efforts, authors Madeline Brozen and Annaleigh Yahata Ekman analyzed the race and ethnicity of the city’s crash victims from 2013 to 2017.

“Some of the key takeaways are that black people are 14% of victims overall, even though they’re only 9% of the city's population,” said Brozen, deputy director for the UCLA Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies.

Black victims are also overrepresented in traffic deaths specifically, she added, making up 16% of fatalities in that five-year period — nearly double their population share.

One in every four people killed in a crash over those five years was either a Black or Latino pedestrian, the data showed.

 A pedestrian carries a plastic bag as he walks in a crosswalk in Koreatown as cars pass by on busy Olympic Boulevard.
A pedestrian walks across Olympic Boulevard in Koreatown.
(Chava Sanchez

Those disparities speak not just to traffic safety itself, Brozen said, but “to racial equity in the city in terms of whose needs are prioritized, and how are they prioritized.” She said the solution to rising traffic violence in South L.A. won’t be found in more police-based enforcement, but rather in addressing the “distribution of opportunities."

“A lot of people there rely on vehicles, because where they work or where they go are to places that are not in their neighborhoods,” Brozen said. “There is definitely a tension in terms of trying to figure out how to address this problem from a design perspective in communities where there is a real reliance on vehicles.”

For decades, Los Angeles prioritized moving cars at top speed, but disproportionately shut out communities of color from car ownership… LADOT’s legacy of inauthentic community engagement led to further harm, where we spent much more time investing in communities that raise their hands first, rather than communities that need investments the most.
— LADOT Strategic Plan, 2021-2023

For Yahata Ekman, the research “affirms that we need to be better [and] have better policies about alleviating the harm where it's needed most, which is Black and brown communities.”

LADOT acknowledges that people of color in L.A. “are more likely to die in traffic collisions” — a disparity made even worse by the pandemic. In the department’s 2021-2023 Strategic Plan, staff outlined its plan to "deconstruct systemically racist policies and practices that disproportionately and intentionally impacted" communities of color.

The disproportionate death toll in South L.A. is “a direct result of generational underinvestment and harmful transportation planning decisions,” LADOT’s Colin Sweeney told me. “Our safety investments aim to address these disparities.”

LA Is Improving Streets, But Faces 'An Uphill Battle'

(Al Kamalizad for LAist)

So what are LADOT and other city departments doing to create safer streets? According to some local leaders and safety advocates: all they can, but far from enough.

“You're doing the right things with the resources and the tools that you're given,” City Councilmember Mike Bonin told LADOT staff during that Transportation Committee meeting. “But you're just not given enough resources and enough tools.”

LADOT officials highlighted improvements made on 60 of the city’s priority corridors since 2017, which include hundreds of upgrades to crosswalks and traffic signals, plus leading pedestrian intervals, curb extensions and speed feedback signs.

In 2020, LADOT’s Vision Zero upgrades included:

  • 6.5 miles of lane reconfigurations along Avalon Boulevard and 1 mile along Broadway
  • 10 pedestrian refuge islands
  • 204 traffic signal improvements, including 20 protected left turn upgrades and 167 leading pedestrian intervals (giving crosswalk users a head start before car traffic gets a green light)
  • 385 crosswalk upgrades
  • 156 intersection tightenings or painted curb extensions (designed to slow turning drivers)

“Despite all those efforts, an epidemic of disrespectful and selfish behavior continues in our streets,” Dan Mitchell, assistant general manager for LADOT, told the committee. “People are driving their cars in a way that fails to acknowledge the basic dignity of people who have a right to walk and ride and share space in our streets.”

Vision Zero has made an effort to focus on some of these key corridors, and I think that they are making headway in some of those. But what we're seeing is that the scale of traffic-related deaths and severe injuries in the city of Los Angeles is just much greater than the current level of investment.
— Madeline Brozen

As for that goal of zero traffic deaths by 2025, LADOT Director Seleta Reynolds told me late last year that it’s absolutely “the right goal,” but achieving it will require a dramatic shift in both traffic safety policy and how it's prioritized by city leaders.

“Absent some changes in the way we set speed limits, the presence of cameras, additional funding, more support or a mandate for faster, transformational projects — I think it's going to be an uphill battle to get to that number,” she said.

The proposed 2021-22 budget for the city of L.A. calls for $65.6 million in total Vision Zero funding, which would represent the highest investment in the program to date. LADOT would receive $29.8 million of those funds, with the rest divvied up among other city departments and bureaus that handle street improvement work.

More Deadly Streets Identified

(Chava Sanchez

LADOT staff analyzed crash data from 2015 to 2019 and identified eight new “priority corridors” — city roadways where people are killed and severely injured in crashes at high rates. The goal is to launch improvement projects on those streets, which “see a minimum average 15 people killed or severely injured per mile” (KSI/mile) in those five years of study, department staff reported.

Four corridors are in South L.A. and the other four are in the Valley. They are:

  • Central Avenue from 101st St. to 109th St. (17.1 KSI/mile)
  • Central Avenue from Florence Ave. to Manchester Ave. (24.2 KSI/mile)
  • Foothill Boulevard from Apperson St. to Sherman Grove Ave. (15.9 KSI/mile)
  • Nordhoff Street from Balboa Blvd. to Collett Ave. (16.0 KSI/mile)
  • Pacific Coast Highway from Broad Ave. to Wilmington Blvd. (15.3 KSI/mile)
  • Roscoe Boulevard from Oso Ave. to Tampa Ave. (15.18 KSI/mile)
  • Vanowen Street from Sepulveda Blvd. to Van Nuys Blvd. (19.0 KSI/mile)
  • Wilmington Avenue from 106th St. to Imperial Highway (16.4 KSI/mile)

LADOT also used the data to identify 30 additional intersections where people are more often killed and injured in crashes.

The streets join the growing list of priority corridors and intersections where LADOT and other city departments have planned, started or completed safety upgrades.

In 2021, Not All Car Crashes Are Being Counted

A tow truck driver prepares to roll over a car that landed on its side following a crash in an intersection in South Los Angeles as several LAPD officers work the scene.
(Courtesy LAPD South Traffic via Twitter)

In February, the LAPD enacted new policies aimed at reducing officers deployment for nonviolent incidents, including traffic crashes.

Under the approach, officers only respond to crash scenes and file collision reports when someone is killed or seriously injured — or when another crime is involved, like drunk driving. Minor collisions are now supposed to be self-reported online.

But officials believe there’s now a “severe underreporting of crashes,” Mitchell told the council’s Transportation Committee.

“When people do not self-report, this reduces the data available, impacting LADOT crash analysis and safety improvement identification, and potentially reducing future Vision Zero programming,” LADOT staff wrote in a memo outlining the 2021 Vision Zero strategy.

2021 Is Off To A Deadlier Start

Whatever piecemeal progress could be gleaned from 2020 is quickly evaporating in 2021.

Citing collision data through April 17 of this year, Mitchell noted that the LAPD “has recorded 60% fewer crashes compared to the same time period [last year].” That speaks to the underreporting of crashes LADOT suspects is now happening due to that police policy change.

“But actually if we look at the number of people who have died on our streets, we've seen 94 people die so far this year,” he said.

That’s roughly one life lost in a crash every 27 hours in L.A. — and it's nearly 50% more people killed by drivers than in the same time period last year.

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