One night years ago, I was driving up South Sixth Avenue in the curb lane when the car in the middle lane stopped short. I saw nothing and kept going.
Suddenly, a woman who I hadn’t seen walked out in front of me in a crosswalk, and we were both lucky I was going at a slow South Tucson roll. I jammed the brake and she made it to the curb.
It’s a lesson I’ve tried to remember as I try to keep focus while driving around town. It’s not always easy in this age of distraction. This year in Tucson, we have a growing death toll to show how hard it is.
So far in 2017, 22 pedestrians have died after being struck by vehicles. That compares to 11 over the same period last year. In a rash of incidents since Sept. 27, four have been killed. Another was struck Friday night, but the injuries appeared not to be life-threatening.
The afternoon of Sept. 27, a woman rode a motorized scooter on the sidewalk along East Speedway near North Kolb Road. The driver of a school bus passed out and veered onto the sidewalk, killing the woman, 43-year-old Kimberly Ebersbacher.
On Monday night last week, about 8:10 p.m., 70-year-old Mario Cortes was crossing North Campbell Avenue at East Mitchell Street. A vehicle struck him right in front of the Casa Valencia restaurant, and he later died. The driver took off and has not been found.
Just five minutes later and about a mile north, on East Prince Road just west of Campbell, 66-year-old David Rhoades crossed the street from south to north. As in my South Tucson experience, the car in the middle lane stopped to let him cross, but a car coming in the curb lane didn’t, striking and killing him.
Perhaps the most egregious case of driver error happened on a pretty Friday morning, Sept. 29. Jezzelyn Lankisch, a 56-year-old mother of two grown boys, was out taking her regular morning walk from her midtown home. About a quarter-mile away, she was crossing East Fort Lowell Road at North Columbus Boulevard when a pickup came from the north, turned east onto Fort Lowell and struck her.
The driver told police he was putting his sun visor down to block the glare of the morning light coming at him from the east when he struck her. Tucson police are still investigating and have not issued any citations or charges, Sgt. Pete Dugan told me.
That one mistake — swinging into the turn despite the sun’s blinding light, or while looking up to adjust the visor — killed a woman who had made a remarkable life for herself despite challenges. Lankisch immigrated from the Philippines to the United States in her early 20s, married an American man, had the two boys, and divorced.
Then she went about raising those boys, Peter and Nick, with determination they wouldn’t miss out despite being raised in a single-parent home. That’s what the two leaders of St. Cyril School, principal Ann Zeches and assistant principal Debbie Unger, told me when I visited Friday.
A devout Catholic, Lankisch sent the boys to St. Cyril and Salpointe Catholic High School despite the financial difficulty. She even went back to school at Pima Community College and became a registered nurse during those hard years.
“She struggled during that time for tuition,” Zeches said. “She was the only person who left with a balance and paid it off monthly.”
The principal also remembered about Lankisch, “She would walk everyplace.” And her son Nick told me his mother regularly took morning walks like the one she was on when she was struck.
Now, in Tucson, the city with so few sidewalks and so many speeding cars, that healthy habit seems increasingly dangerous. The reasons why aren’t yet clear, said Dugan, the police sergeant. Some of the crashes occurred because of pedestrians crossing busy streets in unexpected places in the dark. Others were caused by drivers speeding or not paying attention.
It’s a national trend, the increasing danger of walking and biking, Evren Sonmez told me. She works for Living Streets Alliance, the group that puts on the Cyclovia bicycle fests and works to improve life on the streets for pedestrians and cyclists.
One of Tucson’s problems is the mix of wide, straight streets that encourage speed with pedestrians needing to cross them.
Sonmez noted that a person struck by a car driving at 40 mph has only a 1 in 10 chance of surviving, while a person hit by a car going 30 has a 1 in 2 chance.
“When we’re driving, we get our visual clues from the environment,” she said. “When we’re driving along Congress by Hotel Congress, hardly anyone is speeding. Other corridors are designed like freeways.”
That’s true, of course, of most of our busy streets, like Campbell and Prince and Fort Lowell and Speedway, the arteries where the recent crashes occurred.
And it brings me back to my experience on South Sixth Avenue, a crowded street where I was of necessity driving slowly. Pedestrians around here may too often risk their necks by darting out or jaywalking, but when we’re the ones driving the killing machines, it’s our job to anticipate them, to look for them, to know we could unnecessarily end a life the next moment.