Las Vegas pedestrians are gambling with their lives
Tom Rainey is dressed in a flashy leprechaun costume, out to play the odds: Just before St. Patrick’s Day, he strolls through a marked crosswalk in the middle of a block — with no stop sign or traffic light — amid the grinding teeth of traffic.
His question: Will someone stop?
In the past, Rainey has dressed as a white-bearded Santa, a lumbering tom turkey, even a towering 8-foot-tall orange traffic cone. The result: Motorists still sped past. (And got ticketed.)
FOR THE RECORD:
Las Vegas pedestrians: In the March 17 Section A, an article about the dangers that pedestrians face on Las Vegas roads did not fully identify Tom Rainey, who has dressed in costume to use the crosswalk as part of a police operation. Rainey is a member of the Clark County School District Police Department. —
“They didn’t stop because they didn’t see me,” Rainey says. “If you can’t see a man in green, how can you see a person in regular clothes?”
Over four hours, many people didn’t stop for the leprechaun and police wrote numerous tickets.
For six years, Las Vegas police have staged these ruses to make a dead-serious point: This city can be a dangerous place to walk.
It’s not the most perilous place in the nation for pedestrians, but the trend worries local officials, and the locations of many deaths might surprise Vegas visitors. The accidents rarely involve roll-the-dice tourists on the Strip, but locals on major streets far off the usual visitor path.
In 2012, the last year such statistics are available, 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.
Detroit led the list with 3.99 pedestrians killed per 100,000. Los Angeles tied for 11th with Fort Worth with 2.57.
But officials fear Las Vegas is moving up the list.
So far this year, 12 pedestrians have been killed on Clark County roads, compared with five for the same period in 2014. “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.
“It’s frustrating because nobody can explain why this is happening,” Breen said. “At one point, we killed 10 pedestrians in a two-week period. How did we do that?”
At times, the streets of Las Vegas seem like some violent video game. Pedestrians from grade-schoolers to senior citizens are struck both in and out of crosswalks at all hours. One January day saw three pedestrians killed.
In 2012, a graveyard-shift bartender rammed into a bus stop, killing four people. When pulled from his wrecked vehicle, the driver asked firefighters: “Did I make it to the liquor store?” In that year, pedestrians died at a higher rate in Clark County than in Manhattan.
Rainey’s recent leprechaun walk took place in a crosswalk near a school, the spot where a 13-year-old boy was struck and killed this year. The next day, another student was hit and critically injured at the same crosswalk.
Police have responded with decoy stings. They’ve visited schools to distribute day-glow bracelets and use a simulated crosswalk to demonstrate safety tips. State transportation officials approved adding $10 million to their annual budget to protect pedestrians from distracted drivers, bringing the total to $31 million.
Officials also blame Clark County’s wide-open street design. Breen says Las Vegas has numerous four-lane streets that are more like speedways and can stretch for a mile between stoplights, with few convenient crosswalks.
There’s also the new generation of distracted pedestrians who cross streets engrossed in their smartphones. But officials also point to another factor that looms large here:
Walking while drunk.
Only 16% of drunken pedestrian accidents take place on the Strip; most happen outside local bars, where patrons booze it up and then try to walk home. Experts estimate that every mile walked drunk is eight times more dangerous than a mile driven drunk.
And unlike places that limit alcohol sales, “in Vegas there’s no last call,” said Michael Lemley, a veteran traffic cop here. “It’s 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Such access to alcohol has contributed to another troubling trend across Nevada: At 39%, the state tied for 13th — with Rhode Island and Texas — in the U.S. for the year 2013 for the percentage of deceased pedestrians with a blood alcohol content of 0.08% or over.
New Mexico led the nation that year with a rate of 50%. North Dakota had zero alcohol-rated pedestrian deaths.
At the T-Bird Lounge and Restaurant in the Las Vegas suburbs, there’s a dark joke that goes something like this: “It takes me five minutes to walk home, but 10 when I’m drunk — because I’m weaving.”
Bartender Dale Moon makes sure that never happens on his watch. He’s solicited rides home for inebriated patrons. The bar has also consulted with the Vulnerable Road Users Project at UNLV to devise better ways to monitor people who drink and walk.
“You don’t want anybody to fall into the road and get killed, so you stop them before they get loaded,” Moon said. “If they’re staggering to the bathroom, they probably can’t walk home.”
Patron Willie Dimick said his son was injured while trying to walk home from another bar. “He was so intoxicated that even though he was clipped by a car, he didn’t get hurt much,” he said. “The next day he showed up at my door and said, ‘Dad, I need help with my drinking.’”
In 2013, Sherri Bush’s 25-year-old son, James Spagnoli, was struck by a car while crossing a wide boulevard outside any crosswalk. He wasn’t drinking, and neither was the driver who hit him.
Now the 47-year-old corporate events planner preaches pedestrian safety at schools.
The other day, she placed flowers and balloons at the site where her son was hit after he dashed out of the house to get a drink at a convenience store. She watched him being treated by paramedics, his Boston-logo baseball cap and sneakers strewn on the roadway.
“I never dreamed my son wouldn’t return from walking to the store,” she said.
As she stood at the crash site, Bush saw a youth carrying a backpack walk by. “Be sure to use the crosswalk,” she warned him.
Moments later, he sprinted across four lanes.
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