A record number of pedestrians have been killed in car crashes in the Tucson area this year.
Twenty-one people have died when they were walking or hit by a vehicle since the beginning of the year.
The average for the Tucson area is 15 pedestrian deaths per year, and typically 300 more pedestrians are involved in nonfatal incidents each year. The numbers don’t include cases from tribal police or the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
The trend is alarming, and it comes at a time when Tucson is launching a number of new pedestrian-safety projects, said Emily Yetman, a member of Tucson’s new Pedestrian Advisory Committee.
Police and pedestrian safety experts say at least part of the increase is due to pedestrians being more distracted. In the first fatal incident this year, a man was wearing headphones and looking at a handheld device while crossing Valencia Road.
Pedestrians have a responsibility to be aware of their surroundings, just like drivers, said Tucson police Sgt. Mary Kay Slyter.
“Pedestrians think, ‘I can see them: They must be able to see me,’ but that’s not the case,’ she said.
Even in a crosswalk, people need to be aware of vehicles around them, she said. “You may be right, but you don’t want to be dead right.”
In the most recent fatal incident, Eric Beier, a 53-year-old cook, stepped onto East 22nd Street near South Wilmot Road the night of Oct. 11 and was hit by a car.
He suffered two broken legs, a broken arm, a broken pelvis and head injuries. He died nine days later.
The driver hasn’t been cited.
His father, Henry Beier, said he wishes drivers and pedestrians could learn from the crash: “Stay alert and look both ways. Make sure you have plenty of time to cross. Be careful.”
The issue of distracted pedestrians isn’t a new one but it’s getting worse, said Charlie Zegeer, a pedestrian-safety expert at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center who visited Tucson this week to train local leaders.
And drunken or distracted drivers still are responsible for a large number of fatal pedestrian crashes, he said.
Sometimes it just comes down to people taking an extra minute when they’re in a hurry.
Tina Rieger, 36, was killed by a driver near East Broadway and Rosemont Boulevard in December 2011. She had dropped off her six children at school, took the bus to her college class and was crossing the street in a marked crosswalk.
“I think there would be a lot less accidents and pedestrians run over in crosswalks – if they’re in the crosswalk they have the right of way, and everybody knows that – if people didn’t try to outrun that yellow light,” said Rieger’s father, Tom Haver. He and his wife adopted the kids.
“It’s one lousy, stinkin’ minute. That’s what cost Tina her life.”
Public-safety messaging is lacking in Tucson, said Yetman, who is executive director of the Living Streets Alliance.
A push for pedestrian safety programs came in 2011, when there was a previous spike in fatal crashes.
“We looked around and realized there were a lot of small pieces addressing it but nothing comprehensive to make walkability a real and safe thing in our community, so we’re trying to bring all the pieces together, looking at how to make it safer but also to encourage people to walk for health and environmental benefits,” Yetman said.
The alliance created a Pedestrian Safety and Comfort Campaign, and helped establish the city’s new Pedestrian Advisory Committee. Now it is working on new public service announcements with the city and private backers.
Future funding could come from the Arizona Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, which plans to pay for media campaigns in the next fiscal year.
“We see the increase in pedestrian fatalities and we need to emphasize more mutual respect” between pedestrians and drivers, said director Alberto Gutier.
He especially wants to see education for drivers about High-Intensity Activated Crosswalk beacons, called HAWK lights for short, which activate in crosswalks between traffic signals when someone is waiting to cross.
“HAWK works,” Gutier said. “The problem with HAWK is not pedestrians or engineering:” It’s drivers who don’t know what to do.
Drivers should stop for pedestrians when a HAWK light is red and wait for them to cross completely. Then when the light blinks red, drivers may proceed when safe, he said.
Awareness campaigns are sorely needed in Tucson, said Guy Hansen, 59, who walks everywhere with his 6-year-old daughter in midtown.
They are always “in defensive mode” because they see near misses between cars and pedestrians each week, he said. He thinks everyone needs a reminder about safety.
“It goes both ways. Pedestrians and drivers — but more so drivers — don’t know the rules,” he said. “People are too much in a hurry. They just zoom on by, and they should stop.”
Recently “we were walking and crossing and somebody takes off from a drive-through, peeling out, and then hit the brakes really hard or we would have been hit,” he said. “It’s really terrible.”
What works to reduce pedestrian crashes is a comprehensive approach to safety, including infrastructure improvements, enforcement and education, Zeeger said.
Police enforcement can lead to a reduction in pedestrian crashes, and a study showed educating kids about how to cross streets safely led to a 60 percent drop in pedestrian crashes involving children, he said.
In South Tucson, that kind of comprehensive program helped reduce the number of pedestrian-involved crashes in the last five years.
“It’s very avoidable, not only on the driver’s side, but on the pedestrian’s side,” said South Tucson Police Lt. Jeff Inorio.
In 2008 the city had 11 pedestrian-involved crashes, one of them fatal. In 2012, the number of pedestrians hit by vehicles had dropped to four. So far this year, there have been only two incidents of pedestrians being hit.
Inorio attributes the reduction in crashes to the addition of two HAWK lights at crosswalks along South Sixth Avenue, as well as better street lighting. All of the new and improved lighting has been installed in the last several years.
South Tucson police officers stepped up traffic enforcement and launched an education campaign to reduce pedestrian incidents. Officers cite jaywalkers and speeders and educate drivers on the road rules regarding HAWK lights.
A reduction in the number of bars along South Sixth also helps, since in the past, a lot of the pedestrians who were hit were inebriated, Inorio said.
“That was always our big thing, the intoxicated guys stepping out in front of all the vehicles,” he said. “We still have a lot of jaywalkers, and we’re using a lot of positive enforcement trying to get them to use the crosswalks.”
Tucson has plans in the works, too, said Ann Chanecka, who coordinates the city’s pedestrian programs. These include:
•Expanding the Safe Routes to School program, which uses grant money to pay for things like pathways, sidewalks and educational promotions.
•A plan to evaluate lighting on arterial streets and apply for funds to add more streetlights.
• Prioritizing a list of 80 potential locations for new HAWK lights.
• Completing a project to increase the length of time for pedestrian signals by 25 to 30 percent and convert all pedestrian signals to include countdown numbers. Zegeer said a study found replacing “walk” signs with countdowns reduces pedestrian crashes at those crossings by 25 percent.
• Installing new high-tech sensors to “see” pedestrians in crosswalks and lengthen the crossing time on the traffic light. Tucson has three such sidewalks so far.
• Paying police officers overtime to do pedestrian and bicycle safety enforcement programs. The Arizona Governor’s Office of Highway Safety is giving the Tucson Police Department a $12,000 grant for such programs.
• Creating a Pedestrian Advisory Committee, which collects input from the public and advises the City Council.
The group has met twice and plans to meet monthly. At the November meeting, the committee will review crash data, said chair Maia Ingram, who is the deputy director of the Prevention Research Center at the University of Arizona College of Public Health.
“This is important to the whole city, this issue of safety,” she said, and public interest in the matter is growing with the recent tragedies.
“Where we’re sitting as a committee,” Ingram said, “is wanting to make Tucson a better place for walking and dealing with the reality that right now Tucson doesn’t appear to be safe for pedestrians.”