Last month, I was nearly responsible for the death of three small children.
I was in Reykjavik, Iceland on vacation, driving to dinner in the city center with my girlfriend. Suddenly, three kids on bicycles burst into a crosswalk directly in front of us. It was dusk, and thick bushes along the road had obscured their path.
If the exact same scenario had played out in Los Angeles, those children might be dead. Even traveling the speed limit (and it’s a rare hungry Angeleno who drives the speed limit on the way to dinner) we would have had no time to slow down.
Mercifully, we were not in L.A.
Though the speed limit that night in Reykjavik was comparable to a busy surface street at home, it was far safer. In Reykjavik, most “unprotected” crosswalks (painted crosswalks that lack a stop sign or traffic light to command drivers’ attention) are raised to sidewalk height, creating a speed bump in the road that forces drivers to slow down or suffer the consequences to their vehicles.
Anticipating this bump, we had already slowed down significantly by the time we saw the kids — and we were able to stop just short of a tragedy. Iceland’s smart infrastructure saved these children’s lives and saved my girlfriend and me from a lifetime of regret.
I share this story because Los Angeles is in the midst of a street safety crisis. Although the number of vehicle collisions with pedestrians is roughly the same as it was two years ago, fatalities are up 58%. High speeds are almost certainly the culprit. While pedestrians have a 10% chance of dying when hit by a car going 20 mph, the risk of death quadruples if the vehicle is going 30 mph. Absent Reykjavik-style innovations, deadly speeding is likely to grow worse, as Waze and other navigation aps direct hurried drivers off clogged freeways and onto surface streets.
City officials’ lackluster response to the rising body count seems to indicate that pedestrian safety falls somewhere between tree trimming and gum removal on their priorities list. In fairness, though, they face a political backlash whenever they try to improve pedestrian safety.
Here’s a play in three acts.
Last June, City Councilmember Mike Bonin championed the redesign of several deadly streets in Playa del Rey, which removed lanes of traffic in each direction. Such “road diets” have a proven track record of saving lives.
Angry motorists, furious that Bonin had allegedly worsened their morning commutes, launched a recall campaign against the councilman.
Cowed, Bonin agreed to remove the improvements.
But L.A. needs more car control, not less.
In October, Damon Eric Shear was struck and killed by a vehicle on Pacific Avenue in Venice. Unlike my juvenile Icelandic cyclists, Shear waited for traffic to stop before crossing. But the crosswalk was not protected by a light and was not raised. And Pacific, like many L.A. surface streets, was built wide, with vehicular speed in mind.
Unwilling to wait for even a moment, a driver sped around the traffic that had stopped for Shear, striking him and sending him flying 30 feet through the air to his death.
The city had known since 2014 that this crosswalk was dangerous, but failed to take action. Now a family has lost a loved one and L.A. taxpayers will surely foot the bill for our city’s negligence.
On Nov. 10, in Boyle Heights, 11-year-old Elektra Yepez was killed while she stood on the sidewalk in front of a taco stand, her life taken by a speeding driver who lost control of his vehicle. Days later, Manuel Alonzo, a grandfather of four, was killed while trying to cross busy Figueroa Street in Highland Park.
The stories go on.
How can we stop the bloodshed, and stop it right now?
What’s clear is this: Painted crosswalks, signs, flashing lights and the fear of speeding tickets are not enough to keep Angelenos safe. Fully 70% of pedestrian deaths and severe injuries occur in intersections, according to the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.
We need infrastructure that forces drivers to slow down and respect the rights of pedestrians.
Raised crosswalks are one such option. They condition drivers to pay attention to the road and slow down or risk damage to their vehicles.
We need to explore other ideas as well, including unfairly maligned road diets.
Accidents happen. Drivers can be careless. So can children. But when vehicles speed, those accidents become deadly. We need smart infrastructure that protects motorists, cyclists and pedestrians from each other and from themselves.
Matthew Fleischer is the senior digital editor of The Times’ Opinion section and the editor of its Livable City vertical.