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Transportation and Mobility

2021 Was The Deadliest Year For LA Crashes In Nearly 20 Years. How Did It Get So Bad?

The aftermath of a car crash shows a damaged car and a large pole and traffic light knocked down, with police tape surrounding it.
The aftermath of a crash in South L.A. last year.
(Courtesy LAPD South Traffic Division via Twitter)
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More than five years after top Los Angeles officials vowed to eliminate traffic fatalities in the city, 2021 instead marked the highest death toll on L.A. streets in nearly two decades.

Last year, 294 people were killed in collisions, according to preliminary data provided by the Los Angeles Police Department. Traffic deaths rose about 22% from 2020. By comparison, there were379 homicides reported last year in the city of L.A.

In addition to traffic deaths, hundreds more people were severely injured in crashes. The LAPD puts the number at 1,479 — 30% higher than 2020. That averages out to roughly four people injured each day, every day last year.

About half of those killed in L.A. collisions were not in a vehicle. Of those who died:

  • 132 were pedestrians
  • Another 17 were on bicycles
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Both numbers are higher than the previous year, according to data released. The number of deaths in 2021 mark the highest yearly toll since 2003.

“This makes our work to reduce and ultimately eliminate traffic deaths more important than ever,” said Colin Sweeney, a spokesperson for L.A.’s Department of Transportation.

Safety activists believe that work is going far too slowly. Pedestrian and cyclist groups say the city has spent decades prioritizing fast car travel on its streets at the expense of everyone else using the roads — and the rising death toll is the tragic but inevitable result.

“This is not the trajectory of a modern city,” said John Yi, executive director of the pedestrian advocacy group Los Angeles Walks. “The last thing we want is to double down on cars while other cities are reimagining what their streetscapes would be without cars.”

It’s also likely the death toll for 2021 will rise as a more detailed analysis is done. When we first reported on 2020 numbers, 238 deaths had been recorded. That’s now been updated to 241 deaths in LAPD’s records.

Understanding What’s Going On

L.A.’s streets have become more deadly in recent years — a trend that dates to well before the pandemic and continues despite an initiative meant to reduce traffic deaths. That program, Vision Zero, was launched by Mayor Eric Garcetti back in 2015 with the city committing “to eliminate traffic deaths by 2025.”

Since then, traffic deaths have jumped 58%.

Put another way, back in 2015 someone was killed in a traffic collision in the city every 48 hours on average. In 2021, a life was lost every 30 hours on average.

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How Did It Get This Bad?

Sweeney said one glaring common factor in surging traffic violence is “a deadly combination of dramatic increases in speeding and reckless driving.”

Unsafe speed was cited in 78 fatal crashes between January 2020 through June 2021. In a longer time frame of two years, 2018 and 2019 — 80 fatal crashes were attributed to unsafe speeds.

In the 18 months between January 2020 and June 2021, 50 fatal crashes involved a driver hitting a fixed object, like a pole or wall. Compare that to 39 fixed-object crashes for all of 2018 and 2019 combined.

This is not the trajectory of a modern city.
— John Yi, executive director for Los Angeles Walks

The troubling rise in Los Angeles is not unique; traffic deaths are up across the U.S., with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg calling it a national crisis.

Sweeney also pointed to “design trends that make cars deadlier than ever before for individuals outside of the vehicle, with heavier frames and the addition of distracting features.”

LADOT’s Vision Zero work focuses on redesigning streets to compel people to drive slower and with more awareness of others on the road. Sweeney said the department has completed over 5,500 “critical safety improvements” on the city’s High Injury Network since 2017. That’s the 6% portion of city street miles where 70% of pedestrian deaths occur.

“As we systematically address projects and prioritize limited resources, we expect to see improvements in collision patterns along these corridors and will continue to prioritize our efforts guided by data,” Sweeney said. “Even one life lost to preventable reckless driving is too many and our goal will always be to get to zero.”

Local safety activists say the city’s current approach is clearly not working.

A memorial for Monique Muñoz at Olympic Boulevard and Overland Avenue. On Feb. 17, 2021, Muñoz was killed by a speeding teen driver who prosecutors later said was going over 100 mph as he approached the intersection before crashing into her car.
(Brian Feinzimer for LAist)

“The formula and the campaign that is being run by the city in terms of reducing traffic fatalities to zero is a failure,” said Damian Kevitt, executive director of the nonprofit Streets are for Everyone. “The biggest factor is there's not the political will to make the hard decisions to save lives.”

John Yi agrees, saying the increase in traffic violence “just goes to show the failure of Vision Zero.”

“It’s a complete explanation of how we failed as a city to really lead on fighting traffic fatalities,” he said.

Sweeney said reducing deaths “will take time and require persistence.” It will also require money, something community activists say L.A.’s leaders have been slow to provide enough of.

Take what happened in 2017.

Seleta Reynolds, the LADOT director, estimated her department needed about $80 million to reduce traffic deaths 20% by the end of that year. The percentage wasn’t arbitrary, it was an early goal of Vision Zero.

Instead, LADOT ended up getting about $27 million, roughly a third of what was requested. That year overall traffic deaths dropped 5% — far short of the 20% goal — and pedestrian deaths increased.

A jeep is smashed up against a pole after a crash on a local street.
The aftermath of a violent crash in West L.A. in Feb. 2021.
(Courtesy LAPD West Traffic Division via Twitter)

Kevitt said it’s clear more money is needed, but he’d also like to see an independent audit of Vision Zero for more clarity on where project dollars are going.

“We can spend more money, but if we're spending more money in the system that's not working, it just means we're gonna spend more money on something that's not working,” he said.

Do We Know Which Intersections Are The Most Dangerous?

Yes. The LAPD keeps a record of traffic collisions on city streets and publishes updated reports on its website. Those reports are broken down by patrol bureau — Valley, West, Central and South — which shows that overall collisions increased everywhere but in Central bureau, which includes downtown L.A., Silver Lake, Eagle Rock and Boyle Heights.

The LAPD’s preliminary data for 2021 includes a list of the “greatest risk intersections” in each patrol area — for overall collisions, drivers hitting pedestrians and drivers hitting cyclists.

For pedestrians:

  • Caesar E. Chavez Ave. and Soto St.
  • Avalon Blvd. and Imperial Highway
  • De Soto Ave. and Lassen St.
  • Hollywood Blvd. and Highland Ave.

For cyclists:

  • Humboldt St. and San Fernando Road
  • Anaheim St. and King Ave.
  • Valley Vista Blvd. and Van Nuys Blvd.
  • La Brea Ave. and Sunset Blvd.

For total collisions:

  • San Pedro St. and Washington Blvd.
  • Florence Ave. and Vermont Ave.
  • Oxnard St. and Van Nuys Blvd.
  • Hollywood Blvd. and Highland Ave.

LAPD’s 2021 data also shows more drivers fled the scene after killing or injuring someone compared to 2020. The number of fatal crashes where a driver was under the influence was virtually the same last year compared to 2020, and the number of people seriously injured by DUI drivers went up 31%.

Traffic Violence Takes An Unequal Toll

Just as in previous years, the majority of fatal and severe-injury collisions are happening in South L.A. and the San Fernando Valley:

  • Of the 294 traffic deaths last year, 200 people died in those communities
  • Over 60% of the victims injured in crashes were in the Valley or South L.A.
  • 65% of pedestrian deaths happened in those two areas

As Seleta Reynolds explained to me last summer, it’s not a mystery why more people are dying in those communities:

“We've got a lot of freeways that bisect the southern part of the city. And we've got a lot of arterials adjacent to those freeways… that have not received the kinds of safety treatments that we've been trying to get to across the city… The Valley is another part of the city that has a lot of really wide, fast streets — I think about streets like Victory and Vanowen — because it's been historically a very car-heavy and car dependent part of the city, due to its land-use patterns. Long distances that people travel to live their lives on a daily basis requires them to drive.”

City officials have recognized that residents in L.A.’s underserved communities are disproportionately killed in traffic collisions. This is especially true of people walking. UCLA research published in 2020 found that Black residents are killed at rates notably higher than their population share.

A white car turns into the street where a pedestrian wearing a backpack is still in the roadway. A red hand can be seen on the walk signal.
A pedestrian crosses Olympic Boulevard as a driver turns left from Normandie Avenue.
(Brian Feinzimer for LAist)

LADOT’s 2021-2023 Strategic Plan commits to "deconstruct systemically racist policies and practices that disproportionately and intentionally impacted" communities of color. As part of that, the department has formed a “Racial Equity Core Team” and says it will work to apply an equity framework to how it “pursues and allocates resources.”

What Role Has The Pandemic Played In Traffic Safety?

It’s been a bit of a wild card, especially in the first year of life in COVID times.

Technically, slightly fewer people were killed overall in 2020 compared to 2019. But there’s a big asterisk attached to that small decrease.

When lockdown orders took effect, many of us stayed home. We worked remotely, we got groceries delivered, we stopped making most — if not all — of our daily trips. Traffic volumes fell, and it seemed to make sense that with fewer drivers on the road, there would be fewer crashes.

But those open roads enticed some people to drive too fast and too recklessly. While there were fewer crashes in total, the numbers didn’t dip as much as safety officials expected based on how many fewer cars were on the road.

Once people were back on the roads last year at roughly the same levels as pre-pandemic, and the death toll rose.

What Is The City Doing To Make Streets Safer?

Stock Traffic Safety Vision Zero
A cyclist rides across a busy intersection in Koreatown.
(Chava Sanchez

There’s a big distinction between what can be done and what is being done. And in some cases, street redesigns have been challenged and even reversed after negative community feedback — mostly drivers upset about slower speeds; others have been scrapped in the planning phase.

L.A. City Councilmember Mike Bonin, who announced this week he will not seek reelection, got so much backlash in 2017 over traffic calming efforts he’d backed that he faced a recall effort.

Yi said that points to a systemic issue: the power structure within city hall and a lack of mayoral leadership.

“You have 15 city council districts acting as 15 individual cities almost when it comes to their streets,” Yi said. “If we had a strong mayor or political leader that was going to corral these offices and have a unified vision of what L.A. can be like and move like, I think we would have been able to get more done, but we just don't have that kind of leadership right now.”

Asked for comment, Jen Marroquin, a spokesperson for Garcetti’s office, said the city “will continue to pursue our goal of zero pedestrian deaths until we meet that mark,” adding:

“We’ve seen an increase in speeding and reckless driving during the last few years in Los Angeles and across the nation, so we’re pushing harder than ever for common sense projects that can reduce traffic fatalities… This is a problem we need every Angeleno’s help to solve. So while the mayor has made record investments in infrastructure to make the roads safer, he also urges everyone to do their part by staying off their cell phones in the car and using our streets as safely as possible so that we can save lives together.”

Right now LADOT has 63 safety improvement projects in some stage of planning, construction or completion. In early 2021, eight additional “priority corridors” — roadways with higher rates of deaths and injuries — were identified in the Valley and South L.A., but the improvement plans for those streets are not yet finalized.

It’s far from enough, Kevitt said.

“The city has identified hundreds of miles of streets that are known death traps… streets that are known to cause serious injuries and fatalities on a regular basis,” he said. “They're still sitting there, not improved.”

A speed feedback sign stationed on a street next to a police motorcycle shows a speed limit of 35 miles per hour and reads "slow down."
(Courtesy LAPD West Traffic via Twitter)

There’s also the persistence of speeding on local streets, and it’s only gotten worse over the years. Safety officials have said a major factor is a longtime California rule for setting speed limits which requires the actual speed drivers are going to be a consideration in legal speed limits. That method, known as the 85th percentile rule, generally leads to speed limits increasing over time. And the faster people drive, the greater the risk of injury and death — especially for victims walking or rolling.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill last year to give cities more control over how speed limits can be set, taking into consideration the safety of people using the road who are not in vehicles.

Bonin and fellow councilmember Paul Koretz authored a motion last October calling on LADOT to identify sections of city streets where speed limits should be reduced, especially streets with a history of severe and fatal crashes.

Sweeney told us the list is not finalized, but the department intends to have it ready to present to the council’s transportation committee in February. Once that list is approved by the full City Council, LADOT could start placing new, reduced speed limit signs on L.A. streets.

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