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What can crash data tell us about preventing more drivers from hitting pedestrians?

Posted: 11:30 AM, Jan 10, 2019
Updated: 2019-01-11 17:34:18-05
Bus hits pedestrian in downtown Cincinnati

CINCINNATI — It's been four months since Shawna and Eduardo Rodriguez lost their 15-year-old daughter, Gabriella, to a hit-and-run driver as she walked to catch her bus to school.

The grieving parents are still looking to police and City Council for answers.

"Was it my daughter's fault for jumping on the road? Absolutely it was," Eduardo testified before Council's Law and Public Safety Committee Monday morning. Investigators determined that Gabriella was crossing Harrison Avenue outside of a crosswalk in the dark when two separate vehicles struck her.

"It's her fault," Eduardo continued. "But who's going to be responsible, who's going to be accountable for her crossing the road to get on the Metro?"

The difficult truth surrounding cases like Gabriella Rodriguez's death is that investigators can rarely pinpoint a single cause or factor that contributed to the crash. Instead, these tragedies tend to involve a perfect storm of conditions where, if one of those circumstances were removed, the outcome could have been much different.

What if the sun had already risen when Gabby left for school that day? What if her Metro stop had been closer to a crosswalk? What if Harrison Avenue weren't four lanes wide?

What if?

As WCPO has reported, crashes involving pedestrians have steadily increased since 2013 — and perhaps since before that; available crash data only date back to late 2012. While each of the roughly 2,000 cases have their own individual circumstances, a WCPO analysis of city crash data revealed some trends.

For instance, most crashes involving pedestrians — like most crashes overall — happen on clear-weather afternoons. At the same time, a majority of pedestrian deaths occurred before sunrise or after sunset.

Here's a breakdown of the data.

Environmental factors

Gabby Rodriguez was a freshman softball standout at Western Hills University High School when she became one of 36 people killed while walking through Cincinnati since 2013, and the data show that those fatal crashes had some things in common.

For instance, 19 of those fatal crashes — including Rodriguez — happened at dusk or after dark. This fits with findings from the National Transportation Safety Board, which says the majority of pedestrian deaths occur in darkness.

Another environmental trend among pedestrian deaths in Cincinnati: All but five of the 36 fatal crashes occurred on a straightaway, as opposed to a curve in the road. This was the case in Rodriguez's death, as well. All but seven pedestrian deaths occurred when the weather was dry — although it is likely that fewer people are out walking the streets when it is raining.

If we zoom out to look at environmental factors for all pedestrian-involved crashes, other trends emerge: More than 95 percent of pedestrians involved in crashes, for example, were crossing a straightaway stretch of road when they were hit. As for time of day, the majority of crashes occurred in the afternoon, while the morning and afternoon rush hours account for more than a third of all crashes.

Here's how those factors played into recorded pedestrian crashes:

It also turns out that daylight-versus-darkness can be a life or death difference. Contrary to trends in pedestrian deaths, a slight majority of which occurred at night, more than 60 percent of all pedestrian crashes happened in daylight.

This graph shows the different distributions of lighting conditions among fatal and non-fatal injury crashes:

Are Cincy roads built with pedestrians in mind?

In the weeks and months following their daughter's death, the Rodriguez family began a painstaking investigation of their own into the conditions that led to it.

One of the first things they noticed, Eduardo said, was Harrison Avenue's size.

"I never realized how bad that road was to be crossed until that day," he told council members. "If I would have known that before she died, my kid would never get on that Metro bus (she took to school) because, regardless of whether you're in a crosswalk or not, people don't care.

"It shouldn't be allowed for any kid to cross pretty much a highway, or a race track. That's what you'd call that road," he told Council.

Derek Bauman is a retired Mason police officer, who said wide roads tend to encourage higher speeds and less attention paid by drivers.

"I certainly noticed throughout my career that you can put an arbitrary number on the sign on the side of the road, but if that road looks like a drag strip, because it's so wide, so smooth, no visual or physical clues to slow down, people will naturally drive to the speed they feel comfortable driving," Bauman told WCPO.

Council member Greg Landsman said wide roads like Harrison are a result of the long-held concept within the city's DOTE, that roads should maximize efficiency for vehicles.

"There's still a mentality within DOTE that isn't helpful," he said during City Council's Jan. 9 meeting. "It's not that people don't care, it's the idea that our streets are about getting people from A to B as quickly as possible."

WCPO reached out to DOTE for a response, but did not immediately hear back.

In November, lifelong West Sider John Eby joined the 2,100-plus individuals struck. He was crossing Epworth Avenue at Harrison in Westwood, after sunset, when a driver struck him in a crosswalk. He told WCPO that once he came to his senses, he felt sympathy for the driver who hit him, and blames the intersection configuration, signal timing and street lighting in the vicinity for causing the crash.

"We've got this street light here, but if you're over here in the evening, it's pretty dark over here," Eby said. "So let's illuminate this entire intersection better." He said he would also like to see traffic signals re-timed to give pedestrians a head start before vehicular traffic lights change.

"It should be, this light turns red, that one doesn't turn green yet, and we're already walking," he said.

One DOTE program in Northside proved last year to reduce crashes, at least initially. Reducing the number of travel lanes on Hamilton Avenue through the neighborhood's business district resulted in a 70 percent reduction in rush hour crashes in the eight months since DOTE removed parking restrictions that previously allowed for more lanes in each direction.

Speed, impairment and distraction

City data do not immediately indicate whether impairment, speed or distraction were factors in a particular pedestrian-involved traffic incident, but experts agree they all play a role.

Sharon Garry, with Hamilton County Safe Communities, said these factors play "an enormous role."

Hamilton County Safe Communities is an educational outreach group, sponsored by TriHealth, that promotes a host of initiatives meant to help county residents maintain healthy and safe lifestyles in their neighborhoods. Much of their work, Garry said, revolves around pedestrian and driver safety.

"The choices of distractions are endless," she said. "Anybody needs to just drive down the road and see that there's young people, old people, everybody's either driving with their phone up, or they're texting, or they're looking at directions. We as drivers have to decide to remove that. Much easier to say than to actually do and put into practice."

And it's not just drivers who can be distracted, she said. "If you're not paying attention as a pedestrian, you have your head down, looking at your phone, you're not doing simple things that you were taught as a little kid. If you don't take some of the responsibility to keep yourself safe, it's putting you at risk."

Bauman said the opiate crisis in our region has caused what he saw as a spike in daytime impaired driving cases.

"In my career, I didn't start seeing daytime (operating a vehicle while impaired cases) until 2009, 2010," he said. "There were daytime OVIs, but not to this extent. It was mostly a night-time phenomenon."

'No quick fix'

Because so many factors play into these incidents, most agree there is no "magic bullet" or quick fix.

"I wish there was an easy answer," Garry said. "It's not a quick fix. I wish it was. That would be great. I always say, I wish I were out of a job. I wish mom's didn't have to tell their kids, 'Be safe getting to school.'"

Even law enforcement has its limitations, with Cincinnati police resources perpetually stretched thin, and traffic stops can be time-consuming.

"A run-of-the-mill traffic stop, as fast as possible, is probably 10 minutes. At a more comfortable pace, we're closer to 15 minutes," Bauman said. "If you're talking about making a real impact, that's a lot of manpower to do that. If we're saying we need additional enforcement, then what is the most effective way of doing that?"

WCPO submitted multiple requests to Cincinnati police for comment on this story, but did not hear back.

Eby — whose daughter also was struck four years ago on the University of Cincinnati's campus -- said his experience has him thinking differently about what it means to walk through the neighborhood where he's lived his entire life. He now carries a flashlight with him whenever he's walking.

"Every morning, I carry this bad boy," he said pointing to a small, red handheld Maglite flashlight. "I keep it on me all the time. If I'm walking down the street or crossing the street, I'll shine it at a driver. I"m doing everything I can to possibly be seen while we're out.

"It's tough. I didn't realize how tough it is to walk across the street until I got hit," he said. "Now, I'm paranoid, right? I'm looking all over the place so I don't get run over."

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation and mobility for WCPO. Connect with him on Twitter ( @pat_laFleur ) and on Facebook.