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It has long been my suspicion that most people store the words "pedestrian safety" in that part of the brain that ignores well-intentioned advice about the merits of daily teeth brushing and other good-for-you-but-boring activities.
I am not one of those people.
In 1976, in a crosswalk at 10th and L streets in Sacramento, I was hit by a car and tossed several feet. That incident left me with a broken leg that still aches so badly I often have trouble sleeping at night.
Even if that episode hadn't occurred, I would be passionate about the dangers of roadways in Sacramento many of which were built long ago without any major focus on pedestrian safety.
Though I moved away from Sacramento three decades ago, I regularly visit my two sisters there, and they recount the latest crashes and fatalities. In February, I heard, a woman was struck and killed by a car as she crossed El Camino Avenue to bring flowers to a vigil for a man who had died in a two-vehicle accident.
I was haunted by the woman's death. In caring about the death of another, she died herself on that roadway. That tragedy sent me digging for stories of other pedestrian deaths, and that's when I found Michelle Murigi. One winter day last year, 16-year-old Murigi was heading home from Sacramento's West Campus High School when she was struck by a vehicle in a crosswalk on Fruitridge Road. She died a day later.
Her mother, Mary Murigi, who is a Kaiser Hospital nursing assistant, suggested that to save others there could be a billboard featuring her daughter's face and the words: "I am Michelle. I died in a crosswalk. Please drive safely."
Since Michelle Murigi's death, that Fruitridge crosswalk remains unchanged as 10,000 cars stream by daily. It will be one of 70 the city re-evaluates once it gets federal funding, but improvements come slowly: It costs about $400,000 for one stoplight, and Sacramento typically installs one a year.
Last year Murigi was one of four Sacramento pedestrians killed; another 155 were injured. When vehicular miles traveled are taken into account, Sacramento's pedestrian death-injury rate ranks No. 7 among major California cities. San Francisco, where I live, leads major cities in the state: With a population of 750,000 that doubles on weekdays with commuters, San Francisco had 17 pedestrian deaths and 874 injuries in 2011.
Statewide, the picture is also grim: The state Department of Public Health says almost one in five traffic fatalities involves a pedestrian, noting this is more than 1 1/2 times the national average.
California pedestrian data are so bad "because we are a car-centric state," said Holly Sisneros, a state health department program manager.
Despite the high pedestrian fatality rate, only about 3 percent of federal transportation funds flowing into California goes to tackle pedestrian safety, Sisneros added.
"Pedestrian deaths had been going down since 2005 in California, when it reached a high of 742," said Chris Cochran of the state's Office of Traffic Safety. "The low mark was in 2009; then it increased in both 2010 and 2011." The 2012 data are not yet available.
Some causes of pedestrian death exist everywhere. One is "distracted driving," and it's a phenomenon we all recognize: Every day we see drivers and pedestrians using some electronic device as they drive or walk.
"We are so tuned in to our ear buds that hook us up to some electronic device drivers and pedestrians alike," said San Francisco Police Sgt. Bill Murray. Using $140,000 in federal grant money, San Francisco will focus on traffic education and enforcement around schools and areas with high populations of senior citizens. In Sacramento, police use several approaches, including programs to nab drunken drivers in high-accident areas. City officials also say that new road construction is done with all modes of travel in mind.
A crucial piece of the problem in Sacramento is the nature of many of its streets, according to Terry Preston of Walk Sacramento, a nonprofit group.
"We have a city and a region that were built mainly post-World War II with long, fast roads designed to carry cars," Preston said. "We need to prioritize funding for pedestrian and bicycle travel improvements."
Pedestrian fatalities tend to cluster on higher-speed, multilane roadways, said Wendy Alfsen, executive director of the nonprofit California WALKS.
"If a driver is traveling 40 miles per hour when he first sees a pedestrian and then hits them, the pedestrian is likely to die about 85 percent of the time," Alfsen said. She added: "Our driving culture is 'let me get there the fastest way I can.' "
A final ironic piece of the picture is this: People are walking more, putting themselves more at risk.
A 2009 National Household Travel Survey report looking at California observed: Californians walked more than people in the nation as a whole at a rate about 10 percent to 25 percent higher. Also, more than a quarter of school-aged children in California walked or bicycled to school more than double the number for the rest of the nation.
The state health department's Sisneros said more walking is good, in part because of the country's obesity epidemic, but safety must be stressed with the three E's:
Education: Make people aware of the problem's magnitude.
Engineering: Fund improvements such as safer crosswalks and better lighting.
Enforcement: Cite speeders and other drivers and pedestrians who violate traffic laws in areas of vulnerability such as school drop-offs and busy intersections.
At first blush, I admit it may be difficult to get excited about such strategies. They tend to sound bureaucratic and dull. So I suggest we remember the human stories driving the need for such improvements: Michelle Murigi was a big-hearted young woman who won awards for mentoring younger children. She wanted to be a scientist. The driver who hit her pleaded no contest to vehicular manslaughter and received a suspended sentence.
"I told the judge if this man went to jail for 100 years, it wouldn't bring Michelle back," Mary Murigi said. In court, she told the driver that she forgave him.
Now, more than a year after the teen's death, her mother who emigrated from Kenya to this country with her family in 2000 told me, "Michelle was the youngest of our five children. We would cry together, laugh together. According to our culture, it is the youngest child who cares for aging parents. Michelle talked about how she would care for everyone that was who she was.
"I say this thing should not have happened. Did she have to be sacrificed to get something done?"
PEDESTRIAN FATALITIES, INJURIES IN MAJOR CALIFORNIA CITIES
Here is the most recent ranking available, based on National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data from 2010, of cities with more than 250,000 residents with the highest rates of pedestrian death and injuries when vehicular miles traveled are taken into account.
1. San Francisco
3. Los Angeles
4. Long Beach
5. Santa Ana
8. San Diego
9. San Jose
Susan Sward is a writer who lives in San Francisco.