ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Thirty-four people killed.
That’s the number of pedestrians who died in 2016 after being run over or hit by cars in Albuquerque and surrounding Bernalillo County.
The number is record breaking according to statistics kept by the New Mexico Department of Transportation and the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, dating back to 1994.
The statistics clearly indicate there’s a problem. But is Albuquerque doing enough to address one of its most complex, long standing issues? Or, is the community simply dismissing the problem?
They’re questions some advocates now hope people will start asking themselves, while working towards solutions.
A Problem, Normalized
“There’s a lot of impact here that’s not being covered at all,” said Scot Key.
A nearly 25-year Albuquerque resident, local transportation advocate and a member of the city’s bicycling advisory committee, Key is one of the people now raising his voice. He says his concern has grown over the last year, seeing headline after headline about pedestrians being run over, and what he feels is little response towards addressing the issue.
Key says pedestrians “lack a political voice.”
“Without that voice, and without that connection with politicians, you’re not seeing action because the politicians have no need to respond, largely speaking,” said Key. “I kind of cynically say, until more famous people get hit, you know, we’re going to have a situation in which it just gets dismissed.”
Key calls Albuquerque’s deadly pedestrian crash problem an epidemic but says he sees a different kind of attitude held by much of the public, including many drivers.
“The general mindset is, ‘I need to get in this car and get from one place to another as fast as possible, and you’re just slowing me down,’” said Key.
Key wants to change that mindset that pedestrians are like speed bumps.
“If people really thought about this on a human level, I think drivers would drive differently,” said Key.
Over the last year, through his website, Key’s focused in part on writing about the number of pedestrians being run over and killed, the places it happens and ways to think about fixing the issue.
But there are others standing in the way of meaningful dialogue. Key points to one those issues being a lack of information widely released about each pedestrian crash.
“Typically (media reports) don’t include the victim’s name,” said Key. “(The people who are hit) are not even human.”
Often times, any detailed information about what happened is only available in police reports. While those public records are accessible to anyone, most of the details aren’t widely published. Typically, police only release information indicating that are pedestrian was hit, which road it happened on, what time it happened, if the driver stuck around, and whether or not alcohol is considered to be a factor in the crash.
Key thinks that lack of initial information about crashes has helped in part to create a mentality or public perception about pedestrians.
“Why are they on the road? Or why or they anywhere near the road? Why don’t they have cars?” said Key of the public perception towards pedestrians. “We really need to be looking at this more broadly than just blaming the victim, blaming the pedestrian.”
In an effort to look deeper, Key pulled public record, requesting police reports from each deadly pedestrian crash in Albuquerque and Bernalillo County. Albuquerque Police provided 21 reports, while the Bernalillo County provided around 10 reports. Looking at APD’s reports, Key says he found the crashes typically have multiple factors weaving into what happened..
“There’s also a perception that the only victims in these pedestrian cases are people who are drunk,” said Key. “While that is true about half the time, if you look at the statistics, the other half of the time it’s not.”
KRQE News 13 reviewed the same reports Key requested from Albuquerque Police. According to the 21 reports APD provided detailing fatal pedestrian crashes, two pedestrians that were killed in separate crashes are known to have consumed alcohol before their death. In a third separate case, another pedestrian was thought to have been holding a bottle of alcohol before they were hit, according to a single witness statement.
As for drivers, across the 21 reports APD provided, three drivers in three separate cases were said to have consumed alcohol before hitting a pedestrian. Two of those drivers were arrested and charged. A third driver, police determined, was not impaired by the drugs and alcohol he had admitted to consuming.
In the majority of cases detailed in APD records, the sobriety of the pedestrians who were killed is “unknown.” Most drivers involved in crashes hadn’t consumed alcohol, either, according to police.
Key says some of the crashes point to a problem with road design.
“The infrastructure of the roads is a huge part of the problem,”
Key points to places where Albuquerque lacks sidewalks, lacks driver warnings in high pedestrian traffic areas or lack design choices that either help or stop people from crossing the street.
“Our sidewalk infrastructure is far from adequate, people are walking in places because they have to, in ways that they are not safe,” said Key.
A clear example of one of Albuquerque’s unaddressed pedestrian infrastructure problems sits along Louisiana Boulevard, just north of the intersection with Central Avenue. Pedestrians often walk between the nearby casino and EXPO New Mexico parking lot, a CVS Pharmacy, and an Albuquerque city bus stop.
While there’s a crosswalk at the intersection of Central and Louisiana, there’s also nothing stopping people from taking a shorter, straighter route: a direct crossing between the EXPO New Mexico and CVS Pharmacy’s opposite driveways. Every day, dozens of people can be seen weaving in and out of cars, walking between the two business driveways where there are no pedestrian facilities.
Jay White’s Death
Infrastructure and driver mentality may have played a role in a pedestrian crash that killed a retired Albuquerque teacher last year.
November 14, 2016, Jay White was killed after being hit by a car outside of The Pit arena on the University of New Mexico campus. Toward the end of a Monday night basketball game, White left the arena early around 8:30 p.m., before officers had posted routine traffic crossing guards.
White never made it home. A husband, father, and grandfather of two, White was pronounced dead shortly after the crash.
Witnesses saw White get hit by a car while crossing Avenida Cesar Chavez’s seven lanes of traffic. According to police reports and witness statements, White was crossing the street in the crosswalk at Bradbury Drive Southeast.
“At first we thought it was a pole, but then we saw him and his shoe came off,” said one of the witnesses who saw the crash.
The driver stayed at the scene and was one of many people who called the police to report the crash.
“We were just going home… we were just… driving,” the driver said to police when asked what happened.
Lapel camera video recordings captured the concern one police officer had with the crash.
“The problem’s going to be… he’s in the crosswalk. Second problem’s going to be, you know, she’s not going slow,” said the police officer on lapel camera video recording.
However, that concern doesn’t appear to be expressed in reports. After determining that the driver wasn’t impaired through field sobriety tests, APD wrote in its report “no driver error.”
To date, no charges have been filed against the driver who killed White. The Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office told KRQE News 13 that White’s case is currently under review, and that no final determination has been made as to whether or not charges will be filed.
Key notes how wide of a roadway Avenida Cesar Chavez is, likening it to an airport runway.
“The road is designed for the event at The Pit, but on an average basis, the weekly, the daily traffic is nowhere near enough to warrant how wide the road is,” said Key. “It’s set up to just be as fast as you can possibly go,” said Key.
Since White’s death, flashing pedestrian signs have been installed on the roadway near The Pit, University Stadium, and Isotopes Park. Those signs are posted right next to multiple crossings. However, today, there are no warning signs posted further away from the stadiums that indicate high levels of pedestrian activity ahead.
“I mean the emphasis is on how the car will safely get into its little parking spot, but in terms of on-the-road and people crossing the road, there’s almost nothing,” said Key.
A Crash Survivor’s Perspective
It is something that we really, really do need to address,” said Petra Morris.
Morris’ opinion about pedestrian safety comes from personal experience. In December 2010, her leg was crushed between a car and a concrete bench at a bus stop at one of Albuquerque’s most dangerous intersections. Morris was waiting to take a city bus to work from Central and San Mateo to downtown Albuquerque.
“I’ve always used transit in Albuquerque,” said Morris. “It’s a personal choice, I don’t particularly enjoy driving and I love riding a bike.”
As Morris was standing the bus shelter, she heard screeching tires nearby.
“And the car was coming straight for me,” said Morris.
Morris was standing along the sidewalk when a sedan slammed into her leg, breaking her tibia.
“The car behind felt that the car was going too slowly as he turned left, and so, chose to overtake the driver, and in his uninsured vehicle with bald tires, lost control and hit the driver that he was trying to overtake,” said Morris. “(The car) ricocheted off that (other car) and onto the sidewalk and hit me and the bus stop.”
Morris nearly lost her leg due to several medical complications.
“(The crash) was the start of a year and a half of surgeries, five surgeries, two hospital stays,” said Morris. “It was about a three-year recovery period.”
In court, Morris says the driver apologized to her. While he faced a reckless driving charge, Morris says under the rules of the court, the driver was only forced to make a “good faith” payment toward the medical costs she incurred. Morris says she received about $100 from the driver who could have killed her.
By the time Morris filed a civil suit, she says the driver’s address had changed and it wasn’t worth the expense of trying to track him down.
“It did make me feel a little bit frustrated with the system here,” said Morris. “There are so many drivers in New Mexico who don’t have insurance and who do drive cars that are not roadworthy and there don’t really seem to be any repercussions for that.”
Despite the issues, the crash continues to cause her, Morris keeps a positive outlook.
“I’m very grateful that, A. I’m alive, and B. my leg is still attached,” said Morris.
But there are many more victims who haven’t been as lucky at San Mateo and Central. Thirty-eight pedestrians and bicyclists have been seriously injured and two pedestrians have been killed at the intersection of Central Avenue and San Mateo Boulevard since 2009.
The intersection is now being revamped, but it only comes as a consolation of the Albuquerque Rapid Transit bus project.
“We’re all pedestrians at some point and we all have a right to have a safe environment, said Morris.
Fixing the Problem
“We could do a lot better job with safety,” said Julie Luna.
Luna is a transportation planner for Bernalillo County. Her work, in part, seeks to answer a tricky question: how do we make roads safer for people who aren’t in cars?
Luna points out that the problem isn’t unique to just Albuquerque, but one that’s statewide.
“New Mexico in 2014 ranked first in the nation for pedestrian fatalities per capita,” said Luna.
Luna admits, there’s no “silver bullet” towards fixing the problem.
“There’s so many aspects to this,” said Luna. “It really does take a holistic approach.”
Aspects to the problem include things like addressing behavioral health and substance abuse problems, Albuquerque’s traditionally wide roadway engineering, the city’s lack of community density and sprawling development, police traffic enforcement, education, driver/pedestrian perceptions, and driver responsibility.
But most crucially, Luna points toward funding as one of the biggest challenges.
“Of course there’s always limited resources,” said Luna. “Less than 1 percent of federal funds are going towards these pedestrian bicycle infrastructure.”
Luna says her work has focused on incremental improvements in hopes of making a difference. Most recently, Bernalillo County has focused efforts on making Second Street SW safer for pedestrians and bicyclists, near Mountain View Elementary School and the Valle del Oro National Wildlife Refuge.
“It takes significantly less money to build a sidewalk than it does to widen the roadway,” said Luna. “We can’t keep building roads as wide as we have been in the past, there simply isn’t enough money, simply, there’s not enough space.”
In order for Albuquerque to make a difference in pedestrian safety though, Luna, who helps run public meetings as part of her work, says it will take broad advocacy. Something she hasn’t seen in the realm of pedestrian safety, yet.
“In New Mexico, we don’t have that quite of an organized or systematic, or such a broad base to address pedestrian safety issues,” said Luna.
But talking about the issue may be the first step in addressing Albuquerque’s pedestrian death problem.
“Let’s face it, the number of people getting killed is getting higher,” said Scot Key.
Having survived a closer encounter with a car, for Petra Morris, pedestrian safety is an issue that can affect anyone, at any time.
“It does need to be a priority,” said Morris.
A priority issue that some hope Albuquerque can take on starting now.
“We’re all trying to get somewhere and it’s important to get there safely,” said Julie Luna.