Char­lotte near­ing last year’s record 27 pedes­trian deaths

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY ELY POR­TILLO ely­por­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

On the morn­ing of March 17, Franziska Bruckner was walk­ing her dog, a Pomera­nian named Cookie, when she tried to cross Moores Chapel Road in north­west Char­lotte on her way home.

She never made it to the other side of the two-lane road that Satur­day. Bruckner, 85, was hit and killed by a Hyundai Sonata just be­fore 10 a.m. Cookie died be­side her.

“She took that lit­tle dog ev­ery day for three to five miles,” said her daugh­ter, Chris­tine Bruckner, who raced to the scene only to learn that her mother had been de­clared dead by paramedics. Franziska Bruckner, who sur­vived World War II as a girl in Ger­many and moved to the U.S. af­ter mar­ry­ing an Amer­i­can G.I., had crossed that road hun­dreds of times, Cookie by her side.

“It was a to­tal shock,” said Chris­tine Bruckner. Her mother was in such good shape that the fam­ily as­sumed she’d live at least an­other decade. “It’s been awful.”

Bruckner was one of 25 pedes­tri­ans killed so far this year in Char­lotte, a num­ber that’s ap­proach­ing the record 27 pedes­trian deaths in 2017. With six weeks left this year, Char­lotte could eclipse that grim to­tal.

The deaths so far this year have in­cluded a 15-year-old girl try­ing to cross Young­blood Road to reach a school bus in south­west Char­lotte, a 13-year-old girl cross­ing North Tryon Street to get to a friend’s house and a 61-year-old man try­ing to cross Sham­rock Drive near North Sharon Amity Road in a wheel­chair. The to­tal ex­cludes two pedes­tri­ans hit by trains and a man who was run over and shot in what po­lice said was a rob­bery.

While city lead­ers have spent hours in re­cent meet­ings de­bat­ing whether safety rules are needed for new elec­tric scoot­ers, a qui­eter cri­sis is claim­ing two to three lives each month on Char­lotte’s streets. Pedes­trian deaths are still often seen as rou­tine and un­avoid­able.

Bruckner’s death il­lus­trates many of the dan­gers Char­lotte pedes­tri­ans face. There’s a cross­walk a few dozen feet from the scene of the ac­ci­dent, but it doesn’t con­nect to the side­walk on the other side. A strip of mud and weeds, which Chris­tine Bruckner says grow knee-high, sep­a­rates the cross­walk from the side­walk. Bruckner’s fam­ily be­lieves that’s why she was cross­ing on the other side of the in­ter­sec­tion. There’s no stop­light or other elec­tronic aids, such as flash­ing lights a pedes­trian can trig­ger, to make cross­ing eas­ier.

The speed limit on that stretch of the road is 35 mph,

al­ready close to the av­er­age speed at which nearly all pedes­tri­ans will die in a crash. And Chris­tine Bruckner said driv­ers often speed much faster down the straight, nearly level stretch of as­phalt.

“You can feel the wind,” said Bruckner.

On Nov. 26, the City Coun­cil is ex­pected to vote on a set of traf­fic safety mea­sures, in­clud­ing pre­emp­tively low­er­ing any neigh­bor­hood street speed lim­its that aren’t al­ready 25 mph and mak­ing it sim­pler and eas­ier for neigh­bor­hoods to re­quest speed bumps and stop signs.

Those pre­lim­i­nary steps might not have a huge im­pact, how­ever, be­cause most pedes­trian deaths aren’t tak­ing place on neigh­bor­hood streets. An Ob­server anal­y­sis showed that of the 25 deaths this year, 20 were on main or sec­ondary roads such as Tryon Street, The Plaza, Sharon Road and East­way Drive. Five were on lim­ited-ac­cess roads, In­de­pen­dence Boule­vard and Brook­shire Boule­vard.

But city of­fi­cials say the Novem­ber vote is just a first step. To cut down on pedes­trian deaths, Char­lotte is de­vel­op­ing a strat­egy for “Vi­sion Zero,” an in­ter­na­tional ini­tia­tive that three dozen U.S. cities have signed up for. The goal is to re­duce traf­fic deaths to zero by 2035, by en­gi­neer­ing safer roads, en­forc­ing rules like speed lim­its and chang­ing driver be­hav­ior. The Char­lotte Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion is pre­par­ing to un­veil a draft pro­posal with con­crete steps the city could take next month.

“You have to shoot for zero and do the best you can aim­ing for that num­ber,” said An­gela Berry, Char­lotte’s traf­fic safety pro­gram man­ager. “If you don’t shoot for zero, what do you shoot for? Do you say 10 is fine?”

“I re­ally think speed­ing is prob­a­bly the first thing we’re go­ing to tackle,” she said. “En­force­ment is def­i­nitely a com­po­nent.”

Other el­e­ments of the plan could in­clude ed­u­ca­tional cam­paigns for driv­ers and pedes­tri­ans, and look­ing for dan­ger­ous stretches of roads where peo­ple have been in­jured cross­ing. The city could con­vert more four-lane un­di­vided roads, such as West Boule­vard, into safer but slower three-lane roads with a mid­dle turn lane, like East Boule­vard. But that strat­egy would take years and tens of mil­lions of dol­lars.

For ex­am­ple, a sim­i­lar change to Park­wood Av­enue would cost $2.5 mil­lion, the city es­ti­mates. And that’s just one of dozens, if not hun­dreds, of com­pa­ra­ble streets in Char­lotte.

Ear­lier this year, the city closed loop­holes in its or­di­nances that had al­lowed de­vel­op­ers to build nar­rower side­walks right next to traf­fic, which are con­sid­ered in­fe­rior for pedes­tri­ans.

The $118 mil­lion worth of trans­porta­tion bonds Char­lotte vot­ers ap­proved this month in­cludes $30 mil­lion worth of fund­ing for side­walks and pedes­trian safety. The city plans to build 10 to 12 miles of side­walks an­nu­ally and con­struct 15 new pedes­trian cross­ings.

“If we’re only chip­ping away by putting in 15 im­proved cross­ings a year, it’s go­ing to be a long time be­fore th­ese fa­tal­i­ties come down,” said Shan­non Binns, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Sus­tain Char­lotte, which pro­motes walk­ing and bik­ing. He’s a sup­porter of Vi­sion Zero, and his group has par­tic­i­pated in the city’s plan­ning ef­forts, but said Char­lotte has a long way to go given its his­tory as an auto-cen­tric city.

“We have a re­ally sad dearth of pedes­trian cross­ings,” said Binns. “We’ve de­signed our en­tire trans­porta­tion sys­tem around mov­ing cars.”

NA­TION­WIDE TREND

The uptick in Char­lotte pedes­trian deaths mir­rors a na­tion­wide spike. There were 5,977 pedes­trian deaths in 2017, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional High­way Traf­fic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion. That’s down about 2 per­cent from the pre­vi­ous year, but a 28 per­cent in­crease from 2007. Ur­ban ar­eas ac­counted for most of that rise, with deaths jump­ing 46 per­cent in cities.

Ex­perts haven’t iden­ti­fied a clear cause, though sev­eral trends are prob­a­bly at work. More peo­ple are liv­ing in close-in ur­ban and subur­ban ar­eas and walk­ing. The re­turn of cheap gas prices means driv­ers are also log­ging more miles on the road. Some point to dis­tracted driv­ing or pedes­tri­ans walk­ing and tex­ting.

Cars have got­ten safer, with ad­vanced safety fea­tures now stan­dard in many mod­els, which have con­tributed to lower crash deaths over­all for driv­ers and pas­sen­gers over the same decade. But the bru­tal physics of a 3,000pound car hit­ting a 200pound hu­man haven’t changed.

“I wish I had a good an­swer,” said Berry. “We’re still try­ing to fig­ure that out. Each crash has dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing it. There’s the added com­pli­ca­tion of not be­ing able to ask ques­tions. You can’t ask, ‘Why did you choose to cross here?’”

Even though there’s no sin­gle cause Berry and oth­ers can point to be­hind the spike in deaths, sev­eral trends are clear:

The most com­mon

● type of road pedes­tri­ans to die on in Char­lotte is a two- or four-lane street with a speed limit of 35 mph or 45 mph. Such roads have ac­counted for about 80 per­cent of pedes­trian fa­tal­i­ties in Char­lotte so far this year. Berry said CDOT is work­ing to map out a “high-in­jury net­work” of roads as part of Vi­sion Zero. So far, they’ve found 10 per­cent of roads ac­count for about 90 per­cent of the city’s deaths and se­ri­ous in­juries, which should help fo­cus ef­forts.

Char­lotte abounds with such roads — think Park Road, Gra­ham Street, Sugar Creek Road, Beat­ties Ford Road — which were the norm in the post­war USA, when Char­lotte and other Sun­belt cities ex­ploded. The car was king, with scant thought given to pedes­tri­ans in road de­sign.

“Char­lotte re­ally grew up as an au­to­mo­bile city,” said Berry.

Those speeds — 35 to 45 mph — might not seem so fast. But at 40 mph, nine out of 10 pedes­tri­ans hit by a car will be killed, na­tional data show.

As with gun vi­o­lence,

● poverty and other dan­gers, black Char­lot­teans are dis­pro­por­tion­ately at risk of be­ing killed while walk­ing. Four­teen of the pedes­trian deaths this year were black pedes­tri­ans, ac­count­ing for over half of vic­tims iden­ti­fied so far. Most of the fa­tal crashes have taken place in the “cres­cent” of low­er­in­come neigh­bor­hoods that has long ringed up­town Char­lotte to the north, east and west, while only two have oc­curred in the higher-in­come “wedge” neigh­bor­hoods in south­east Char­lotte.

●● large ma­jor­ity of crashes — at least 19 out of the 25, ac­cord­ing to po­lice re­ports — oc­curred with pedes­tri­ans out­side of cross­walks. Berry said that while it’s tempt­ing to blame pedes­tri­ans who cross mid-block, peo­ple need to ex­am­ine the to­tal­ity of cir­cum­stances. In many ar­eas, a cross­walk or side­walk sim­ply isn’t avail­able, or would add a half-mile to a pedes­trian’s trip.

“You can’t fault some­one for try­ing to cross mid-block at a given lo­ca­tion. That’s prob­a­bly be­cause they didn’t have a whole lot in the way of op­por­tu­ni­ties or choices,” she said.

A few ex­am­ples bear that out. Eric Elsea, 34, was killed walk­ing along Lawyers Road in east Char­lotte last month in a hit-and-run crash with a pickup truck. “This sec­tion of the road­way has no side­walks or shoul­der,” Char­lotte-Meck­len­burg Po­lice noted in a de­scrip­tion.

Michael El­lis, 61, died in Oc­to­ber try­ing to cross Sham­rock Drive in his wheel­chair. He was cross­ing in the mid­dle of the block, po­lice said, not near any cross­walk. The near­est marked cross­walk, how­ever, was al­most half a mile away in ei­ther di­rec­tion.

And Tues­day, a ped- es­trian who hasn’t been iden­ti­fied by po­lice died try­ing to cross Sharon Road, near Sharon Tow­ers, at about 6 p.m. The CMPD news re­lease in­cluded a typ­i­cal line.

“The vic­tim was not cross­ing in a cross­walk,” CMPD in­ves­ti­ga­tors noted. “How­ever there are no cross­walks in the area.”

The near­est cross­walk is a half-mile away.

Binns said the lack of cross­walks on older streets is a com­mon thread among many Char­lotte crashes, and it’s un­fair to blame peo­ple on foot for not walk­ing 15 min­utes or more out of their way ev­ery time they need to cross a street.

“Peo­ple are only go­ing to go so far out of their way to cross the street,” he said. “They’re not go­ing to go half a mile or even a quar­ter of the mile out of the way.”

CMPD Sgt. Jesse Wood, who over­sees the Ma­jor Crash Unit, un­der­stands the temp­ta­tion to cross out­side of cross­walks. But he’s seen the con­se­quences too many times.

“I wish they could come with me when we have a fa­tal­ity, and go to that fam­ily’s house and knock on that door and tell them what’s hap­pened, and watch them break down,” said Wood.

Still, he’s used to see­ing pedes­tri­ans sprint across busy roads like Tryon Street and In­de­pen­dence Boule­vard.

“Ninety-nine per­cent of the time they make it and it’s not a prob­lem,” said Wood. “It’s just that one time.”

While drunk, dis­tracted and speed­ing driv­ers cause many crashes, Wood said pedes­tri­ans share re­spon­si­bil­ity for some. It’s not true that pedes­tri­ans al­ways have the right-of-way, he said.

“That’s a myth,” said Wood.

There are some com­mon themes he sees: Pedes­tri­ans wear­ing dark cloth­ing in the evening or night. Peo­ple cross­ing mid-block. Dis­tracted or im­paired pedes­tri­ans — five of the fa­tal crashes so far this year have in­volved im­paired pedes­tri­ans, ac­cord­ing to po­lice re­ports and news re­leases. All of those serve to in­crease the risk of a fa­tal crash.

“It’s usu­ally not just one thing that goes wrong. It’s a se­ries of things,” said Wood.

Bruckner’s fam­ily still has ques­tions about the crash that killed her. Chris­tine Bruckner is up­set that the driver, an 83-year-old woman, wasn’t charged with any­thing.

Her mother’s last act, Chris­tine Bruckner be­lieves, was car­ry­ing her dog Cookie across the street to make sure he was safe. She often did so if the dog was tired or couldn’t keep up.

“If he couldn’t walk, she’d carry him,” Chris­tine Brucker said. “That’s what she was do­ing.”

DAVID T. FOS­TER III dt­fos­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

Chris­tine Bruckner talks about the traf­fic that rolls by a me­mo­rial near Moores Chapel and Tilden roads last week. Her mother, 85-year-old Franziska Bruckner, died at the in­ter­sec­tion in March when she was struck and killed by a car.

Courtesy Christina Bruckner

Franziska Bruckner, 85, died when she was hit by a car while walk­ing her dog. She was try­ing to cross the street.

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