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Inequities in Pedestrian Deaths

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Luis Bosch Guzman served as a U.S. Army sergeant in Panama and Pearl Harbor before moving to Echo Park to enjoy retirement with his three children and wife of nearly 50 years. But on a rainy February morning in 1996, he became another pedestrian fatality on the increasingly crowded streets of Los Angeles.

The 77-year-old native of Puerto Rico was hit by a speeding pickup truck as he crossed busy Alvarado Boulevard to buy a newspaper near his Echo Park home. The driver, who was never cited, told police he was in a hurry to get to work and didn’t see the man in the crosswalk until it was too late.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Aug. 28, 2002 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 28, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 ..CF: Y 10 inches; 372 words Type of Material: Correction
Pedestrian deaths--An Aug. 19 Section A story about pedestrian deaths misidentified Alvarado Street and Vermont Avenue as boulevards.

In several respects--his age, his ethnic background and the location of the accident--Bosch’s death is typical of those that have made Los Angeles County the nation’s leader in pedestrian fatalities.

A Times analysis of more than 2,500 pedestrian deaths from 1993 through 2001 found that although the fatal accidents are concentrated in densely populated urban neighborhoods, the county’s deadliest streets are not necessarily its busiest. The study also found that government efforts to improve pedestrian safety have not always occurred in areas with the most deaths.

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The deaths occur in crowded urban neighborhoods that, like Echo Park, are bisected by busy thoroughfares that commuters use to avoid crowded freeways. The communities of Westlake, Hollywood, Boyle Heights and South and Central Los Angeles have been especially hard hit.

African Americans and Latinos are killed in disproportionate numbers in pedestrian accidents and particularly in hit-and-run collisions. And older pedestrians, like Bosch, also suffer disproportionately. The analysis found that nearly 30% of pedestrians killed from 1993 through 2001 were 65 or older, even though that age group represents only 10% of the population.

Who is at fault is not always clear. The point of impact in more than 80% of the accidents was outside an intersection, where traffic moves faster and where pedestrians aren’t expected, according to the study.

Still, police say motorists often share the blame by speeding or driving drunk.

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Traffic planners say they have taken steps to improve pedestrian safety, from adding pavement striping at intersections to installing so-called smart crosswalks that flash overhead warnings when someone steps off the curb.

Police sting operations at crosswalks and pedestrian safety classes at local schools have also become common.

But The Times’ analysis shows that the streets with the most pedestrian deaths have not always been at the top of the list for improvements.

The computer-assisted analysis studied the dates, locations and circumstances of each pedestrian death during the nine-year period, as well as the age and race of the victims. Each death was also mapped to identify patterns.

According to the analysis, the most dangerous streets and intersections in Los Angeles County include:

* Vermont Boulevard from Hollywood Boulevard to the Santa Monica Freeway. There were 17 fatal pedestrian accidents in that 3 1/2-mile stretch during the nine-year study period. The thoroughfare, which runs through Westlake, the most densely populated neighborhood in Los Angeles, is often plagued by speeders, according to police. Pedestrian fatalities have been particularly heavy around the Metro Rail station at the corner of Sunset Boulevard.

* The intersection of Alvarado and Glendale boulevards in Echo Park, a few blocks south of where the Glendale Freeway ends abruptly, dumping nearly 30,000 cars per day into a heavily residential neighborhood. Speeding is a stubborn problem on both streets, according to police. Nine pedestrians--including Bosch--were killed on those two streets between the Glendale Freeway and Sunset Boulevard.

* Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles between Goodrich Boulevard and the Long Beach Freeway. The four-lane road runs through a busy shopping district and is heavily used by commuters heading into downtown Los Angeles. Eight fatal pedestrian accidents took place on that stretch of road.

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* Near the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Western Avenue in Hollywood. Both streets are wide, busy roads that have become popular commuting routes for motorists heading to West Los Angeles. Five pedestrians have been killed in the quarter-mile around that intersection in the last nine years.

John Fisher, assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, said the city is concerned about protecting pedestrians.

Still, he concedes that his department often struggles to strike a balance between improving traffic flow and safeguarding pedestrians.

“We want to provide pedestrian amenities, but the policymakers don’t want more congestion,” he said.

*

Los Angeles County regularly leads every county in the nation in pedestrian fatalities--with 230 deaths last year. In fact, the county’s pedestrian death toll surpasses that of all but three states.

When adjusted for population, however, the county ranks seventh, behind the Detroit area’s Wayne County, the Phoenix area’s Maricopa County and San Bernardino County, among others.

And the county’s pedestrian death toll has declined steadily, from 310 in 1993 to 230 last year. Experts attribute the decline to improved police enforcement, an overall drop in fatal street accidents and greater spending on pedestrian safety improvements.

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The biggest city in the county, Los Angeles, has not followed that trend.

According to coroner’s records, the number of pedestrian deaths in the city of Los Angeles seesawed between 1993 and 1997 but has remained steady for the last four years, with 104 fatalities last year.

It’s no wonder Los Angeles has earned a national reputation for being a place where cars are king and pedestrians are often second-class citizens. That image was even put to music in the 1980s pop hit with the lyric, “Nobody walks in L.A.”

Transportation officials and law enforcement agencies throughout the county have attacked the image with several tactics.

City and county records show that dozens of pedestrian improvement projects are planned throughout the region in the next two or three years.

Among the most popular are smart crosswalks, which use flashing lights to warn drivers when a pedestrian steps off a curb.

But such upgrades are scarce or nonexistent on the streets and intersections where The Times’ study has determined that pedestrian fatalities have been heaviest.

For example, on the 3 1/2-mile stretch of Vermont Boulevard that has claimed 17 lives, there are no smart crosswalks, flashing lights or ladder-striped crosswalks.

Fisher, at the city’s Transportation Department, said the city has never created a map that identifies the location of each pedestrian death. Instead, he said, the city regularly examines streets and intersections where pedestrian deaths occur to determine whether street improvements will reduce future fatalities.

Safety improvements are sometimes rejected, he said, when it is determined that the accident was due to human error that could not have been prevented by a costly fix.

“Sometimes when people dart out at mid-block, we can’t control that with a new crosswalk,” he said.

Pedestrian activists have demanded more spending for extensive improvements, such as extending curbs to force motorists to slow when making right turns, landscaping medians to give pedestrians a refuge when crossing streets, and narrowing wide streets to reduce vehicle speeds and shorten the distance pedestrians must cross.

But some transportation experts say such improvements, which are more commonly found in smaller cities like Santa Monica and West Hollywood, would be prohibitively expensive in Los Angeles, a city that maintains about 6,400 miles of streets and 40,000 intersections.

“If you consider the miles of street and the number of intersections in Los Angeles, it’s more than what the city can afford,” West Hollywood City Engineer Sharon Perlstein said

Fisher agreed, noting that the city can afford to install only 10 smart crosswalks a year, at a cost of $45,000 each.

“I wouldn’t say that it’s for lack of effort that we have some of these accidents,” Fisher said.

The city more than doubled its spending on new sidewalks from $8.2 million last year for 46 miles of sidewalks to $17.6 million for 98 miles this year.

But at the same time the city has received less funding for pedestrian projects from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the regional agency that distributes federal and state transportation dollars. The agency approved $21.3 million for pedestrian projects countywide last year--more than double the amount spent in 1995--but the city’s share dropped from $8.4 million in 1995 to $8 million last year.

Deborah Murphy, founder of LA Walks, a pedestrian advocacy group, charges that transportation officials in Los Angeles won’t invest in such expensive improvements because the city is primarily concerned with improving traffic flow. She noted that Los Angeles has removed dozens of pedestrian crosswalks between intersections on busy streets in the last several years.

State law requires motorists to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks and at intersections, even if there is no crosswalk painted at the intersection.

But pedestrians also bear the responsibility of crossing at crosswalks and intersections and only when conditions are safe.

Fisher confirmed that the city removed 21 crosswalks last year. He said studies have shown that pedestrian accidents are reduced when mid-block crosswalks are removed, forcing pedestrians to cross at intersections.

Officials also point out that spending on pedestrian improvements does not always guarantee a drop in pedestrian deaths.

For example, Santa Monica has spent $2.5 million since 1998 to install flashing pedestrian crossings, extend curbs, landscape medians and make other improvement on several major streets. But since the improvement campaign began, pedestrian deaths there increased from four in 1998 to seven last year.

Judy Rambeau, a Santa Monica spokeswoman, said street improvements help reduce pedestrian accidents but often do little to change the dangerous behavior of drivers and pedestrians.

*

One of the worst spots for pedestrian deaths has been the Echo Park neighborhood where Bosch was killed.

Bosch’s daughter, Lourdes Bosch-Taylor, said that even though her father was aware of the dangers of crossing Alvarado Boulevard, he continued to make it part of his regular morning walk.

On that dreary February morning six years ago, Bosch had almost made it all the way across the wide boulevard when the traffic signal changed, according to police reports.

A landscape worker in a pickup truck, who later told police he was running late for work, hit Bosch in the crosswalk, throwing him to the pavement. He died five hours later.

“Something has to be done because innocent people are being killed because other people are late for work,” Bosch-Taylor said.

Experts say the elderly are more likely to be victims of fatal pedestrian accidents because they take longer to cross a street and are less likely to survive their injuries than younger victims.

Los Angeles Police Officer Carlos Sanchez, who patrols that Echo Park neighborhood, blames such deaths on speeding commuters who drive Alvarado and Glendale boulevards as if they were freeways.

“Unfortunately, this neighborhood is dead center of a major artery,” he said. “The attitude of commuters is: ‘I have to get to work.’ ”

The higher speeds have turned some city streets into mini-freeways, putting pedestrians in mortal danger just by standing on the sidewalk.

Three months after Bosch died, two toddlers, Luisa Cornejo, 2, and Edwin Camacho, 3, were killed at the same intersection. The children and their parents were standing on the corner, waiting to cross Alvarado Boulevard, when the driver of a Chevy van made an illegal turn and struck an oncoming car that went spinning into the group of pedestrians, according to a coroner’s report.

The impact threw Luisa out of her stroller and up against a concrete retaining wall. Edwin, who was standing alongside his father, suffered severe head injuries.

*

Latinos and African Americans make up 55% of the county’s population, but they represent 59% of the victims of fatal pedestrian accidents and 70% of the victims of fatal hit-and-run accidents, according to the Times analysis.

Why do these groups suffer in such disproportionate numbers?

Police and transportation experts say blacks and Latinos often live in densely populated communities and typically have less access to a car than whites. Thus, they have a greater tendency to walk and use public transit to get around, experts say.

The Times’ analysis of pedestrian deaths in Los Angeles County supports that conclusion.

Fatal pedestrian accidents, including hit-and-run deaths, are heaviest in communities with large black and Latino populations, such as South and Southeast Los Angeles. In contrast, the analysis found that pedestrian deaths occurred infrequently in high-income, predominantly white communities such as Marina Del Rey, Beverly Hills and Calabasas.

Fisher said his department plans to launch a pedestrian safety campaign that will include literature in Spanish to reach the region’s growing Latino population.

Nearly a quarter of all pedestrian deaths in Los Angeles County are blamed on hit-and-run drivers, according to the analysis. Police say hit-and-run drivers often flee because they have no license or insurance or are wanted by the police for other offenses.

No one knows why the driver who killed 8-year-old Ionon Harris Jr. fled.

On Aug. 5, 2001, Ionon, his sister, I’yana, 7, and their father, Ionon Harris Sr. were returning to their Compton home after spending a Sunday afternoon at Earvin “Magic” Johnson Recreation Area. The three were crossing busy El Segundo Boulevard at Clovis Street--an intersection without a painted crosswalk--when a man in a white Ford Tempo struck the boy and sped away. A $25,000 reward has been offered for information leading to the driver’s arrest.

LAPD Det. Scott Sherman said it is common for motorists who hit children to panic and flee. “When you run over a child, there is a certain stigmatism,” he said.

Ionon’s mother, Audrey Kay Ellis, described her son as loving and generous.

“He would go to McDonald’s and if he saw a homeless person, he would give them his hamburger,” she said.

A week after Ionon died, a 55-year-old woman and her 7-year-old granddaughter were struck and killed while crossing El Segundo Boulevard, just three blocks west of Clovis Street.

Los Angeles County officials say that stretch of road does not meet state standards for a crosswalk. Instead, county crews recently installed flashing pedestrian warning lights and a plaque in memory of Ionon Harris Jr.


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