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‘I just dropped to my knees and cried.’ San Diego still plagued by pedestrian deaths despite progress in 2019

Laramie Logan answered the door at her Coronado home one afternoon in early December to be greeted by a chaplain with the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office.

“He told me the devastating news that my brother was hit by a car and didn’t make it,” said the 40-year-old mother of three. “I just dropped to my knees and cried.”

Her brother, David Henry Hill, was one of 22 pedestrians killed in traffic-related accidents in the city of San Diego last year, down from 34 in 2018, according to data obtained from the San Diego Police Department.

David-Hill-4.jpg

Lt. Cmdr. David Henry Hill, 37, was killed crossing India Street near West Olive Street and an off-ramp from north I-5 in Bankers Hill on Dec. 2, 2019.

(Courtesy of Laramie Logan)

The city of San Diego, which has pledged to end all traffic-related fatalities by 2025 as part of the nationwide Vision Zero campaign, has invested in safety improvements such as upgrading crosswalks at crash-prone intersections.

Those efforts appear to be paying off. In 2019, officials recorded 213 traffic-related deaths and serious injuries, down from 294 in 2018. The number of pedestrians killed or seriously injured totaled 84 last year compared to 127 in 2018.

However, progress is not being made across the board. There were six bicycle deaths in 2019, up from zero in each of the previous two years. Also, three people died and 19 others were seriously injured riding scooters in 2019, their first year listed as a category.

“While 2019 was better than 2018, clearly we need to be doing more to save lives to get to zero,” said Maya Rosas, policy director for the transportation nonprofit Circulate San Diego. “Reaching Vision Zero doesn’t need the intervention of some new technology. It’s about making the political decision to make our streets safer.”

Any improvements will come too late for Hill. The 38-year-old Navy doctor was hit by a minivan around 4:55 a.m. on Dec. 2 while he was jogging across India Street near the Interstate 5 off-ramp at West Olive Street. He died within an hour at UC San Diego Medical Center in Hillcrest from blunt-force injuries to his brain and body.

Logan said she was excited to spend more time with her brother after she and her husband moved to San Diego about 18 months ago. She said Hill would attend weekly dinners at her house to spend time with their family.

“He was becoming this amazing mentor to my kids, teaching them about medicine and playing Legos with them for hours, just being a great uncle,” she said.

“You think you’ll grow old with your brother,” she added. “You never prep your heart for your 38-year-old brother to be taken so tragically.”

The pledge

Many cities across the country have pledged to end all traffic-related fatalities by 2025 as part of the Vision Zero initiative. However, curbing those deaths has proved to be challenging, especially in Southern California.

Since Los Angeles embraced Vision Zero in 2015, traffic fatalities have risen in the city from more than 180 five years ago to at least 239 last year, including 131 pedestrians and 19 bicyclists.

“In a city where there’s not really great options for walking, biking or transit, everybody’s driving,” said Leah Shahum, executive director of the nonprofit Vision Zero Network. “So those people who do walk or bike are out there on their own. People are not as aware of them.”

New York City has perhaps seen the most progress, attributed in large part to lowering its default speed limit from 30 to 25 miles per hour. Still, the city saw a significant spike in cyclist deaths last year that has led Mayor Bill de Blasio to call for an expansion of the city’s network of protected bike lanes.

San Diego, which joined the movement in 2015, has so far dedicated more than $50 million to achieve Vision Zero. Last year, the city included about $13 million toward the effort in its budget, down from $18.6 million the previous year.

This year, the city’s mobility board has complied a wish list of projects totaling more than $38 million. Recommendations include expanding the city’s network of projected bike lanes to overhauling sidewalks and pedestrian crossings.

Many of the envisioned improvements are aimed slowing down traffic by reconfiguring streets, including by narrowing lanes and installing roundabouts.

“I think no community is going to get really far in advancing Vision Zero without managing speeds for safety,” Shahum said. “That’s the biggest thing they can do.”

Andy Hanshaw, executive director of the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition and chair of the mobility board echoed that sentiment.

“An effort to look at speed limits is something that should be considered,” he said. “That’s something that could save lives and have an impact right away.”

However, that’s easier said than done.

Simply lowering speed limits is usually not an option because of a California rule that requires cities to set limits according to how fast 85 percent of cars travel on a given stretch of road. While conducting such speed surveys routinely results in cities having to raise limits, foregoing the process can prevent law enforcement from being able to issue tickets.

At the same time, overhauling entire city blocks is expensive. City leaders and advocates have started targeting San Diego’s most crash-prone intersections, but statistics have shown that fatalities and injuries are widely spread across the city.

A new approach

The city has, until recently, focused primarily on changes at locations that have experienced the highest number of crashes.

Then in April, officials released a report in collaboration with UC Berkeley’s Safe Transportation Research and Education Center outlining a new approach to Vision Zero. The Systemic Safety Analysis Reporting Program analyzed crash data across the city to identify not specific roads or intersections but rather the types of locations most prone to deadly crashes.

The new approach is not meant to replace the city’s previous hot-stop approach, but complement it by helping to guide low-cost investments that can be rolled out quickly.

“You cannot try to throw a bucket of water on every little fire in the city,” said Offer Grembek, a researcher at UC Berkeley who worked on the report. “You have to think systemically and prevent the places where a fire might happen tomorrow.”

For example, a major issue highlighted in the report was drivers failing to see pedestrians when making right turns at busy intersections.

As a result, the city is re-timing some streetlights to lag behind walk signals. The changes will give pedestrians around five seconds to get into a crosswalk before drivers get a green light. On top of that, LED signs are being installed that temporarily prohibit making a right on red.

A “No Right Turn” sign lights up alerting drivers that they cannot yield for right turn onto Convoy Street in Linda Vista.

A “No Right Turn” sign lights up alerting drivers that they cannot yield for right turn onto Convoy Street in Linda Vista.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Caltrans awarded San Diego a $1.2 million grant in December to make such changes along with countdown timers and high-visibility crosswalks at 66 intersections throughout the city. The city has started upgrades at about 30 locations.

The city also has plans to install pedestrian countdown timers at another 215 locations.

Of course, not every death or injury takes place at a poorly designed intersection. Advocates have also pointed to the need for public messaging campaigns that urge pedestrians and drivers to remain alert and watch out for each other.

Graciela Mondragon was killed in December after being hit by a car on Dec. 16 in front of the North Park Library at a four-way intersection with stop signs. The vehicle was reportedly moving at a slow speed when the driver turned left and hit her in the crosswalk.

Medics rushed Mondragon to Scripps Mercy Hospital in Hillcrest where doctors treated her for a skull fracture and brain trauma. Her husband, Michael Mickels, remembered sitting by her side while his wife vomited and bled from her nose and ears.

“I was sitting there holding her hand trying to let her know I was there,” said the 34-year-old. “I don’t think she knew. I don’t know if she could see or hear.”

The next morning the doctors told Mickels that his wife was almost certainly brain dead.

“I erupted in tears at that point,” he said. “She’s my best friend, you know, and she was gone, taken from me.

“I lost everything. That’s what it feels like.”

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