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Why U.S. pedestrian deaths are at their highest level in almost 30 years

U.S. pedestrian deaths are at their highest level since 1990. Possible explanations include wider roads, sprawling cities, heavier traffic in residential areas due to navigation apps and increasing distractions from digital devices. And according to victims’ families and safety advocates, the problem is a crisis state and local governments have been slow to address. Arren Kimbel-Sannit reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Pedestrian deaths are the highest they have been since 1990. Nearly 50,000 people have died on U.S. roads since 2009, according to federal statistics.

    The reasons vary. Some blame cell phones and distracted driving. Others say sprawling cities and wide roads are the bigger culprits.

    A team of student reporters from the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at Arizona State University has been investigating what victims' families and advocates says are slow changes to a deadly problem.

    Here's Arren Kimbel-Sannit with that report.

  • Arren Kimbel-Sannit:

    Above a busy intersection in Los Angeles, a sign cautions motorists to drive with care. It's yards away from where 17-year-old Christian Vega was struck and killed in February.

    Vega was killed here on Riverside Drive. Residents have complained that navigation apps have introduced new motorists to the stretch of road that can't safely handle the added traffic.

  • David De La Torre:

    Riverside Drive, it's become a fifth lane of the 5 Freeway.

  • Arren Kimbel-Sannit:

    David De La Torre and other concerned residents have called for safety improvements along the street for years. City engineers approved a left turn signal for the intersection in 2017. But it wasn't installed until after Christian's death, because the city says funding was unavailable.

    Across the country, pedestrian deaths are on the rise, jumping from more than 4,000 in 2009 to nearly 6,000 in 2017.

  • Daisy Villafuerte:

    Streets are wider. Streets are so wide that streets are basically freeways sometimes, or they have freeway-like speeds.

  • Arren Kimbel-Sannit:

    Daisy Villafuerte with the advocacy group Los Angeles Walks says the city wasn't designed for walking, which leaves pedestrians vulnerable.

  • Daisy Villafuerte:

    If you try to walk a street, you will spend a good 10 minutes without ever seeing a crosswalk.

  • Arren Kimbel-Sannit:

    Unlike older, denser East Coast cities that were built before automobiles ruled the roads, Sunbelt cities like Phoenix and L.A. were built with cars as the dominant mode of transportation.

  • Randy Dittberner:

    We're seeing an epidemic of pedestrian crashes happening on arterials.

  • Arren Kimbel-Sannit:

    Engineer Randy Dittberner says that pedestrians and vehicles use the same major roadways, which creates conflict.

  • Randy Dittberner:

    But that's that's where the pedestrians want to be, just like that's where everybody wants to be. That's the way to get through our cities and towns.

  • Arren Kimbel-Sannit:

    A good example, Southern Avenue in Phoenix. It's where 15-year-old Keshawn Hubanks was killed by a car in December. Hubanks was crossing the street, when, his family says, a driver sped out of her lane and hit him.

    His mother, Nydea Richards, found him on the curb.

  • Nydea Richards:

    Once I took his hood off his head, I just knew he was gone.

  • Arren Kimbel-Sannit:

    The Hubanks apartment complex is half-a-mile away from the signal crosswalks on Central and Seventh avenues. That's a long way to walk for people who need to catch a bus to school or work.

  • Nydea Richards:

    And it makes no sense. Kids are going to be kids. I can't sit up and tell you I walk to Central just to go to the Dollar Store.

  • Arren Kimbel-Sannit:

    National advocacy groups say deaths like Keshawn's are more common in low-income areas. It's evident in Southern California, where residents in underserved neighborhoods are waiting for safer streets.

  • Nury Martinez:

    Early infrastructure that a lot of other parts of the city take for granted just never got to this part of the area.

  • Arren Kimbel-Sannit:

    District 6 Council member Nury Martinez knows this intersection lacks some crucial road safety elements, things like sidewalk accessibility ramps.

  • Nury Martinez:

    For a mom who's trying to get to work every morning and drop off her kid a with a stroller, how is that mom supposed to be able to cut across the street and use that sidewalk or that side of the sidewalk when there is not an acceptable way for her to do so?

  • Arren Kimbel-Sannit:

    These ramps are now being built as a part of Vision Zero. It's an initiative that many cities across the country and world have adopted.

    The goal for Los Angeles is to have zero traffic fatalities or serious injuries by the year 2025.

  • Nury Martinez:

    But that's the infrastructure needs that I think that we have been waiting for a really long time. We're finally starting to get to make sure that the communities of color in particular, that those needs are starting to get addressed.

  • Arren Kimbel-Sannit:

    Families who have lost loved ones are often the people pushing for change.

  • Debbie Hsiung:

    I think we need to get more people like me, a family who's been affected or a survivor, to actually go to one of their meetings and talk to the residents themselves.

  • Arren Kimbel-Sannit:

    Debbie Hsiung and Phillip Tam started the organization Southern California Families for Safe Streets. They did so after their oldest son, 7-year-old Aidan Tam, was killed while crossing the street.

  • Debbie Hsiung:

    And, all of a sudden, I saw a driver make a right turn into the crosswalk. Aidan got hit. We ran over. The truck was on top Aidan.

  • Arren Kimbel-Sannit:

    The couple wants safer roads and safer drivers. They know changing laws and minds is a challenge. But it's not impossible.

    The European Union has seen a 36 percent decline in pedestrian deaths between 2007 and 2016. Experts say it's because, unlike the U.S., the E.U. has found ways to redesign vehicles and roads to reduce pedestrian deaths.

  • David De La Torre:

    It should not necessitate a death. It should not necessitate a lawsuit for action to occur.

  • Arren Kimbel-Sannit:

    At the end of the day, community leaders and advocates like de la Torre say they want government agencies to take a more proactive approach to roadway design and pedestrian safety. And while they keep working to make streets safer for pedestrians, the families of Keshawn, Aidan and Christian keep working through their grief.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Arren Kimbel-Sannit with the Cronkite School of Journalism in Phoenix.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, again, that story came to us from the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at Arizona State. It's an initiative of the Scripps Howard Foundation.

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