Across the nation, pedestrian deaths from traffic accidents are rising. In Santa Fe, an analysis shows many of those fatalities involve drinking — but not by drivers
It was near midnight when the man with a half-empty bottle of vodka in his jacket tried to cross the street. He was far from any crosswalk and wearing dark clothes. Perhaps most perilous, he was on Cerrillos Road, where motor vehicles strike people more often than on any other roadway in Santa Fe.
Francisco Navarette, 41, died that night in February, hit by a vehicle driven by a Santa Fe police officer who said he didn’t see the man until it was too late.
Navarette’s death was indicative of a bigger problem: Santa Fe has more pedestrian fatalities on an annual basis than the more populous cities of Las Cruces and Rio Rancho, according to a New Mexican analysis of two decades of data on pedestrian-involved accidents.
So far in 2017, four pedestrians have been struck and killed on Santa Fe streets, up from one in all of 2016 and more in line with the six deaths in 2015.
Three of the deaths this year have been on Cerrillos Road, and all of those occurred outside crosswalks and at night. And each of the victims was found to be intoxicated.
The city’s fourth pedestrian death in 2017 was downtown, a reflection that Santa Fe’s pedestrian accidents aren’t limited to its biggest and busiest roadways.
Alice Sookying Cameron, 49, was crossing Paseo de Peralta at Griffin Street in June when she was struck. Cameron was in a crosswalk with her husband, who later said they had waited for a walk signal. Witnesses told police the driver who hit the woman was using her cellphone.
Data show pedestrian error and alcohol are the top causes of pedestrianinvolved accidents in Santa Fe, but there are other issues, including poorly lit intersections, narrow sidewalks and unmarked street crossings.
“There are improvements we can make,” said Mark Tibbetts, who heads the Metropolitan Planning Organization, which has a master plan to improve pedestrian safety.
But, Tibbetts said, “I wouldn’t say personally it’s unsafe [for pedestrians] in Santa Fe; it’s generally pretty safe. That’s why we’re trying to encourage more people to ride their bikes and walk.”
Data show other New Mexico communities have more pedestrian-involved accidents, and the state has regularly ranked among the worst in pedestrian deaths.
Nationwide, an estimated 6,000 pedestrians were killed in traffic accidents in 2016, according to the Washington, D.C.based nonprofit Governors Highway Safety Association. That would be an 11 percent increase over the number of crashes in 2015, when crashes increased by 9 percent over the previous year.
Researchers attribute the rise to many factors; one that seems to be of particular concern is cellphone or other electronic distraction.
But Jessica Bloom, a data analyst with the Traffic Research Unit at The University of New Mexico, said this state has a bigger issue driving its high rate of pedestrian fatalities.
“If New Mexico wants to get itself out of the top ranks, we have to address the pedestrian alcohol problem,” Bloom said.
From 2001-15, the city of Santa Fe averaged 2.2 pedestrian fatalities per year, according to data from the Traffic Research Unit at The University of New Mexico. During that same period, Las Cruces and Rio Rancho each averaged fewer than one pedestrian fatality per year.
Cerrillos Road, St. Francis Drive, St. Michael’s Drive, Alameda Street and Airport Road — in that order — had the highest concentrations of pedestrianinvolved traffic incidents.
The data for many crashes didn’t show a secondary street, making it difficult to identify the nearest cross-street.
For crash entries that do include a secondary street, there appear to be areas with notable pedestrian crash activity, such as the areas around the intersection of St. Michael’s Drive and Llano Street (10 crashes), Airport Road and Zepol Road (nine), Cerrillos Road and Zafarano Drive (eight), Cerrillos and Richards Avenue (seven) and Old Santa Fe Trail and Alameda (seven).
Of the pedestrian-involved traffic accidents in the city from 1995 to 2015, the most frequently cited primary factor in the UNM data was pedestrian error. Second, close behind, was alcohol involvement.
As it is statewide, most pedestrians who are struck and killed in Santa Fe are found to have been under the influence of alcohol.
For all of Santa Fe County, there was an average of 3.2 deaths in pedestrianinvolved accidents per year from 19952015, according to UNM data.
That ranks well below the less populous counties of McKinley and San Juan, which averaged 7.9 and 7.6 deaths, respectively. Bernalillo County, the state’s most
populous, led with 17.3 fatalities per year.
Through July, UNM’s Traffic Research Unit had documented 38 pedestrian fatalities statewide this year, down from 43 at the same point a year ago. But 2016 was somewhat outside the norm, with 78 pedestrians killed by vehicles, the most in at least a decade.
It is difficult to say why pedestrian fatality numbers might fluctuate from year to year, according to Bloom, who added there are nonetheless certain trends that remain generally stable.
For one, pedestrian error is normally the top factor or among the top contributing factors in a crash.
The term is not strictly defined, but Bloom said pedestrian error is generally taken to mean a pedestrian stepped out in front of a vehicle and the driver did not have enough time to stop.
When alcohol is a factor in a pedestrian crash, it is overwhelmingly the pedestrian who is intoxicated. From 2012-15, according to UNM data, when alcohol was involved in a pedestrianvehicle collision, the pedestrian was under the influence of alcohol more than 90 percent of the time.
New Mexico, in each year from 2011-15, had one of the five highest per-capita rates of pedestrian fatalities in the U.S., a streak that reached its worst in 2014 when New Mexico ranked first, with 3.55 pedestrian deaths per 100,000 residents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Doug Hecox, a spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration, said high-traffic roadways do not necessarily see more pedestrian accidents.
Less-traveled roads, he said, are often the most dangerous for pedestrians, whether because those lightly traveled areas might not have places for pedestrians
to walk or because a pedestrian or driver might not expect to see the other.
“It’s exactly counterintuitive,” Hecox said. “The basic rule of thumb is that there isn’t an easy rule of thumb.”
The blueprint to the improvements in pedestrian safety in Santa Fe is the Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Pedestrian Master Plan, released in 2015.
In the 98-page plan, 10 areas of critical concern are identified: Cerrillos, St. Francis, St. Michael’s, Airport, roadways surrounding the South Capitol area, a section of Agua Fría Street and North Guadalupe Street.
These highlighted thoroughfares are where people move around, said Tibbets of the Metropolitan Planning Organization. The underlying idea of the master plan is to encourage more nonmotorized everyday trips.
Each critical-concern area — determined through roadway analysis and with public input — has distinct characteristics, but the master plan does note recurring problems.
Some of the critical-concern areas are missing sidewalks; other sidewalks are too narrow or obstructed by utility poles, which force a pedestrian into the street. Some intersections are poorly lit, and the crossings are unmarked. Other roadways are particularly wide, and some are high-speed, high-traffic areas.
Downtown Santa Fe is considered walkable, the master plan says, but “for much of the city and rural area, however, the sidewalk network is limited by gaps, obstructions, pinch points, and sidewalks in poor condition.”
Some of the report’s possible fixes in the areas of critical concern — as well potential improvements at 175 other locations — include sidewalk installation, wider or buffered sidewalks in areas where pedestrians feel too close to high-speed traffic, improved markings, signage and lighting at intersections,
and mid-block crossings where there is high foot traffic.
While roadway or sidewalk improvements wouldn’t hurt, District Attorney Marco Serna said, the substance abuse issue, primarily alcohol abuse, is what must be addressed if pedestrian fatality numbers are to come down.
Serna said a forthcoming Santa Fe County behavioral health clinic could be a key part of the fix. A recent county gross receipts tax increase will put millions of dollars toward its operation; another gross receipts tax hike, to be decided by voters in a special election Tuesday, would mean even more money for the center.
“Behavioral health, substance abuse, drug treatment — this facility will cover everything and we need more of it,” Serna said. “That’s not to say we’ll see a huge reduction in pedestrian deaths immediately. But I think eventually we’ll see a decline.”
John Romero, the city’s engineering division director, said the city addresses pedestrian issues as they come up, either through staff observation, tip or complaint.
On Sandoval and Guadalupe streets, near where pedestrian traffic might concentrate around the First Judicial District Court complex or bars and restaurants, the city not long ago added curb extensions and pedestrian refuges in medians, Romero said.
But “every location has different things that we can or can’t do,” Romero said. Where a street might not have space for a median refuge, Romero said, an intersection can be redesigned to make pedestrians more visible to drivers, as was the case at the nexus of Galisteo Street and Montezuma Avenue.
Not every pedestrian danger zone can be remedied by simply adding a crosswalk. An additional crosswalk in a hightraffic area could encourage aggressive driving, Romero said.
One example: the section of Cerrillos Road between Camino Carlos Rey and Siler Road.
Many homeless people congregate in the area. Pete’s Place, the shelter, is on the west side of the road. A bus stop sits almost directly across Cerrillos, not particularly near either Carlos Rey or Siler.
The city erected signposts there, instructing pedestrians to cross at the intersection.
“We can’t put a signal every 100 feet; it’s unreasonable and just wouldn’t work,” Romero said, referring to the possibility drivers would then speed to beat the bunched-together lights. “You may be trying to improve one thing but worsening another.”
The signs encouraging crossing at an intersection are scattered about, with posts in front of the shelter, near the bus stop and closer to the intersections. Some have been vandalized with graffiti.
Not far from this spot on Cerrillos Road is the location where Francisco Navarette was struck and killed.
‘One step at a time’
Hospital staff told medical investigators Navarette (whose name was spelled “Naverette” in a city police report) had a high blood-alcohol content, according to a report by the Santa Fe County Sheriff ’s Office. Navarrette’s clothes were dark, with the exception of his white tennis shoes, and he was outside the crosswalk in a dimly lit area.
“The crash would have been avoidable had these factors not been present,” the report states.
Lucas Sena, the officer who hit Navarette, was cited for driving 12 miles an hour over the 40 mph speed limit, according to online court records. The officer pleaded no contest, paid $80 in fees and was placed on unsupervised probation for 90 days.
Sena resigned in April to work for a police department in Arizona, where he has family, Santa Fe police spokesman Greg Gurulé said.
Hecox, of the Federal Highway Administration, said pedestrian and driver behavior have to improve alongside enhancements to make roads safer for pedestrians.
“Ultimately, roadway safety is a complicated problem,” he said. “You can’t put all the burden on infrastructure. A lot of it is the human equation — the person behind the wheel and in the crosswalk who need to look out for each other. And we seem to be seeing a growing number of people who aren’t.”
Bloom of the Traffic Research Unit agreed infrastructural changes alone won’t improve pedestrian safety in New Mexico. “I just know the state has to work on modifying the behaviors of pedestrians, and that starts with alcohol,” she said.
Tibbetts said the Metropolitan Planning Organization hopes to create and convene a pedestrian advocacy committee to begin the process of evaluating possible improvements to the roadway areas of critical concern.
Once potential improvements have been outlined, Tibbetts said, the hunt for funding would begin.
That “could be a process of many, many years,” he said. “It’s one step at a time.”
Ultimately, roadway safety is a complicated problem. You can’t put all the burden on infrastructure. A lot of it is the human equation — the person behind the wheel and in the crosswalk who need to look out for each other. And we seem to be seeing a growing number of people who aren’t.” Doug Hecox, a spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration
A pedestrian crosses Cerrillos Road near Zafarano Drive earlier this year. Cerrillos Road has the highest concentration of the city’s pedestrian-involved traffic incidents, with 12 pedestrian deaths between 1995 and 2015.
A residential one-way portion of Galisteo Street with no sidewalk, adjacent to an intersection with West Coronado Road near downtown. According to a city pedestrian master plan, in much of the city, ‘the sidewalk network is limited by gaps, obstructions, pinch points, and sidewalks in poor condition.’