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Traffic Deaths in California Are on the Rise. Here's How LA and Other Big Cities Are Trying to Change That

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Pedestrians cross a large street at a crosswalk.
Pedestrians crossing the street in South Los Angeles in January 2022. (Saul Gonzalez/KQED)

The worst day of Koi Finley’s life happened last January when she learned her father had just been struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver in downtown Los Angeles during his regular weekend bike ride. He was 46.

"That's the craziest thing that anyone can tell you, that your father was literally hit by somebody," Finley said. "'Somebody killed your dad.'"

More than a year later, Finley, 19, is still grappling with the senselessness of her dad's death, and the understanding that it is part of a larger, ongoing tragedy playing out on California's streets.

There were an estimated 3,246 traffic fatalities across the state during the first nine months of 2021, a 17% increase from the same time period the previous year, according to just-released National Traffic Highway Safety Administration data.

The uptick was even sharper in Los Angeles, where Finley's father was one of nearly 300 non-motorists killed in traffic accidents in 2021 — an increase of 20% from 2020. Of those deaths, 132 people were pedestrians.

A young woman standing in a walkway.
Koi Finley in Los Angeles on Jan. 18, 2022. (Saul Gonzalez/KQED)

“Every single one of those numbers is a tragedy,” said LA Department of Transportation General Manager Seleta Reynolds. “If we cannot get people from A to B and guarantee that they are safe, and that when somebody leaves in the morning, they'll come home safely at night, then we haven't fulfilled sort of a basic responsibility.”

Reynolds says her most important tool to reduce traffic injuries and deaths is a program called Vision Zero.

Inspired by traffic safety initiatives in Europe, and adopted by LA in 2015, the initiative has set the ambitious goal of eliminating all traffic-related fatalities in the city by the year 2025.

Similar programs exist in other major urban areas around the state, including San Francisco and San Diego.

To reach their goal, LA officials are focused on improving what they call “high-injury network streets” — the 6% of all streets in the city that account for 70% of pedestrian deaths and injuries. Most are concentrated in the San Fernando Valley and South LA.

What do these streets have in common? They’re flat and wide, with relatively few traffic lights and crosswalks — all factors that often entice motorists to speed. Reynolds says speed is the No. 1 determinant of the severity of a car crash.

Through Vision Zero, the city is trying to remove lanes of traffic, widen bike lanes, and install additional crosswalks with big signs and flashing beacons to more effectively alert drivers to pedestrians and cyclists.

One example of these changes is a stretch of Adams Boulevard, south of the 10 Freeway in the city's West Adams neighborhood. Like many other dangerous streets, it runs through predominantly lower-income Black and Latino neighborhoods.

“Motorists have used this roadway, this corridor, almost as a speedway,” says Yolanda Davis-Overstreet, a vice president of the West Adams Neighborhood Council and a traffic safety advocate.

Pedestrian safety is very much a racial and social justice issue, she notes, because so many of LA’s most dangerous streets run through communities of color, and Black and Latino residents make up a disproportionate number of traffic deaths.

A woman standing on a street corner.
Yolanda Davis-Overstreet, a traffic safety advocate in Los Angeles, observes traffic on Dec. 18, 2022, along Adams Boulevard, where multiple pedestrians have been killed in collisions. (Saul Gonzalez/KQED)

"It is a justice issue and it is a safety issue in the community," said Davis-Overstreet. "Our Black and Brown lives that have been lost because of the conditions we've lived under for decades."

The recent safety upgrades along Adams Boulevard, she says, like the removal of a lane of traffic in each direction and the placement of enhanced crosswalks with big overhead lights, are a step in the right direction.

“It’s a behavioral change, where we have to slow it down,” said Davis-Overstreet on a recent morning, as she stood along the street watching the traffic go by.

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The U.S. Department of Transportation just announced its own $5 billion safety initiative to fund local projects aimed at reducing dangerous speeding and improving pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure.

But despite LA's efforts, traffic-related deaths and injuries have increased almost every year since the Vision Zero project was launched here in 2015, prompting some city leaders and safety advocates to accuse traffic officials of not moving nearly fast enough to make the streets safer.

Some critics argue that not enough money is being spent on the improvements, while others say local officials are prioritizing the plan's implementation and failing to meet certain per-year metrics to reduce deaths and injuries.

But Seleta Reynolds, of LA’s Department of Transportation, says Vision Zero is only part of the solution to reducing traffic deaths.

She points to factors beyond traffic planners’ control, like America’s continuing love affair with big, heavy vehicles that greatly increase the chances a pedestrian or cyclist will die if hit.

Then there’s the challenge of distracted driving and the development of increasingly sophisticated car infotainment systems that keep motorists' attention focused on screens instead of their surroundings, she said.

“About 80% of people driving are … actively using technology,” Reynolds said. “We also know that the majority of crashes happen when people driving take their eyes off the road for more than two seconds.”

A lone person crossing a broad street, with the sun rising behind her.
A woman crosses a large boulevard in Los Angeles's MacArthur Park neighborhood. (Saul Gonzalez/KQED)

Reynolds also blames her city's persistently high traffic fatality and injury rates on bad driving habits picked up by motorists during the early months of the pandemic, when streets were much emptier, and drivers were more prone to speed — an inclination that she says many drivers have unfortunately retained.

Although Reynolds acknowledges the city probably won’t meet the program’s goal of eliminating traffic deaths by 2025, she says aspiring to reach the Vision Zero goal is still worth it.

“We’ve set a milestone. We’ve set a year. And if we don’t get there, then I hope it will invite a lot of accountability and dialogue and discussion,” she said.

But that offers little comfort to Koi Finley, who is still grieving the loss of her father and worries that the streets are still just as dangerous as they were when he was killed.

“The city has said they want to make changes and fix things, but I feel like it hasn’t been a huge priority,” she said. “Something needs to be done. Something has to come from all of this, all of this heartache, all of this struggle.”

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