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Is that a leprechaun in the crosswalk? You better stop

John M. Glionna
Reporting from Las Vegas
Most pedestrian deaths in Las Vegas happen far from the Strip

The March morning rush-hour traffic whizzes past Tom Rainey in the crosswalk like he's invisible. But the 43-year-old father couldn’t be any more noticeable if he was decked out in a leprechaun’s outfit.

Because that’s what he’s wearing: long green coattails, shamrock-themed green shirt and striped green-and-white socks.

All in the name of pedestrian safety.

With a Clark County school district police badge strapped around his neck, Rainey time and again strolls through the crosswalk to test the Traffic IQ of residents. He’s part of a task force that has set up a sting to catch hell-on-wheels motorists who fail to brake for people crossing the street.

The reason to pick this spot along Jones Boulevard a few miles west of the Strip is clear: There's no stoplight here, just a painted crosswalk running across four lanes of constant traffic that careens by at 45 miles an hour.

Or even more.

A 14-year-old boy was killed not long ago by a driver while walking his bike in the middle of the crosswalk where Rainey strolls. The very next day, a 15-year-old student was seriously injured when struck by a driver. He's had to learn how to walk and even talk again.

For six years, the veteran Las Vegas police traffic cops have staged these ruses to make a dead-serious point: You take your chances crossing the street in Las Vegas.

So far, 12 pedestrians have been killed this year on Clark County roads — compared with five for the same period in 2015. "This is the worst we've ever seen it," said Erin Breen, director of the Vulnerable Road Users Project at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Last year, 50 pedestrians were killed here, 20 over the last two months alone.

The trend worries officials and the locations of many of these deaths might surprise Vegas visitors: Accidents rarely involve tourists on the city's infamous gambling strip, but locals on major streets far off the visitors' path, authorities say.

In 2012, Las Vegas ranked 15th of 34 major U.S. cities for pedestrian deaths, with 2.51 walkers killed per 100,000 residents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

That bothers Rainey, and officials like him.

Time and again, Rainey walks back and forth across the road. His gait is straight, purposeful, like he doesn’t have a care in the world.

In fact, he's scared to death.

"I've almost been hit a couple of times already," he says. "Every time I walk across this busy street, I think of my kids: What if they were out here? It’s really dangerous."

The morning started off well enough. Maybe it was cautious parents taking their children to nearby schools, but the hours between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. saw few tickets and no major action.

As the cars sped past, two teams of motorcycle policemen waited on either side of the sting site to chase down scofflaws signaled by Rainey.

He walks across the street. Some cars notice and slow. He reaches the other side. Then he waits a few moments, turns and walks back again.

Around 9 a.m., the morning’s luck runs dry: A woman driving a gray late-model sedan isn’t paying attention. When the man driving the white truck in front of her slows for Rainey, she plows into his rear bumper. Her hood crumples like tin foil.

Nearby, Erin Breen shakes her head.

She helps run a pedestrian safety project at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She worries about Rainey.

“He should get hazard pay for this job,” she says. “And sore feet pay, too. He's walking a lot.”

Rainey takes another stroll through the auto zone.

"Look at that guy," he says. "He didn’t even look."

Rainey can't help but look. In the median of the four-lane drag sits a memorial to the two boys who were struck here. It's a poignant reminder of what's at stake.

Rainey changes his costume for the season. He has dressed as a turkey, as Santa Claus and as a 7-foot-tall orange traffic cone -- always wearing his badge and carrying the walkie-talkie to summon his posse of motorcycle backup.

"Each time, the result is the same," he said. "People speed by me."

Officials blame Clark County's wide-open street design. Breen says Las Vegas has numerous four-lane streets that are more like speedways, where drivers can go 45 mph, on roads that stretch for a mile between stoplights, with few convenient crosswalks in the sea of moving vehicles.

On this day, Rainey has an observer: the mother of a man killed on the streets of Las Vegas.

Sherri Bush's 25-year-old son James Spagnoli died in 2013, hit by a car while crossing a wide boulevard outside any crosswalk. Now the 47-year-old corporate events planner preaches pedestrian safety at schools. Sometimes, she rides the bus around town just to experience the challenges faced by pedestrians.

She comes to such stings to show support.

Later in the morning, Breen watches as a man on a motorcycle fails to stop in time. Several cars ahead of him suddenly brake as Rainey walks out in traffic and the motorcyclist is thrown from his bike. He injures his shoulder and an ambulance is called.

Breen hopes that's the last of the day's mishaps. Meanwhile, Rainey continues to dodge cars.

She wears a T-shirt bearing the masked superhero who's the mascot of her program, and the slogan: "Captain Crusader -- Saving One Pedestrian, One Step at a Time."

She knows Rainey needs him now.

john.glionna@latimes.com

Twitter: @jglionna

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