Transportation

Sacramento pedestrians at high risk from speeding drivers. Here’s what the city is doing

Alarmed by data that show Sacramento has some of the highest crash rates of any large city in the state, Sacramento officials have ramped up their efforts to reduce traffic crashes and injuries.

The city recently put up signs lowering the speed limit to 15 miles per hour in front of 115 school sites. And this week, traffic officials will temporarily close a small street section next to Broadway in Oak Park that has become one of the most frequent crash sites in the city.

The city eventually plans to squeeze Broadway from four traffic lanes to two through Oak Park and into the Tower Theatre area to slow drivers and make the corridor safer for cyclists and pedestrians, traffic managers said.

For now, though, the city will temporarily close Second Avenue at 34th Street, a key bicycling route, where there have been 21 automobile crashes in the last eight years, prompting numerous resident complaints. The city will turn the spot into a temporary pop-up park with grass and seating for a few hours each day from Thursday to Saturday.

“We want to ensure we are bike and pedestrian friendly and that we are safe,” Councilman Jay Schenirer said. “It is about making our streets safer for folks to get places they want to go.”

A review of eight recent years of automobile crashes involving injuries and fatalities shows Sacramento typically ranks poorly among large cities in several categories, notably crashes involving alcohol, where the capital city’s crash rate was highest in four of the eight years.

Sacramento also ranked first in five out of eight years on a composite index of crashes that included a mix of alcohol, speed, night-driving and hit-and-runs, according to the data from the California Office of Traffic Safety.

Children are among the victims in a disproportionate number of crashes. In 2016, the most recent state data year, 40 children under age 15 were injured or killed while walking next to or crossing capital city streets. That was the highest rate among the state’s large cities. That same year, 29 children on bicycles were injured or killed, second worst among big cities.

The data is no surprise to Laura van der Meer of South Natomas. West El Camino Avenue in her neighborhood has become congested and dangerous, she said, since officials closed a portion of the nearby Garden Highway for levee work. The result has been that drivers in a hurry over-react during rush-hour, some of them pulling into bike lanes to get around stalled traffic and even riding onto sidewalks.

“I was inches away from getting hit yesterday (again) walking home from my RideSacRT,” she tweeted to The Sacramento Bee and city leaders last week. “People are passing on the right shoulder unsafely and often on the sidewalk. Someone is going to get killed!”

The new data has prompted some Sacramentans to say local drivers are among the worst in the state. Residents posting comments on Nextdoor websites around the city constantly lament dangerous and irresponsible driving in their neighborhoods.

In response, the city two years ago launched a long-term program called Vision Zero, aimed at reducing deaths among drivers, riders, pedestrians and cyclists. The Vision Zero concept is based on analyzing crash data, and then making both quick and longterm fixes focused on key trouble areas, such as the intersection of Second Avenue and 34th Street in Oak Park.

They acknowledge they are battling an increasingly complex transportation landscape. The city and its suburbs are growing and traffic congestion is more intense than ever. That includes busier streets around elementary schools.

Car commuters now find themselves sharing asphalt with commuters on bright red Jump rideshare bikes as well as Jump and Lime electric scooters.

In response, Sacramento police say they are changing their crash reporting forms to take note of instances of crash injuries involving scooters and bikes, a first step toward determining what additional problems the new vehicles may pose.

City traffic safety officials also have identified five major street sections as the most dangerous in the city, and have launched community discussion in each of those areas to determine what safety measures are appropriate for each corridor.

Those corridors are:

  • Marysville Boulevard: North Avenue to Arcade Boulevard
  • El Camino Avenue: Del Paso Boulevard to Steelhead Creek
  • Broadway/Stockton Boulevard: Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to 13th Ave.
  • South Stockton Boulevard: McMahon Drive to Patterson Way
  • Florin Road: 24th Street to Munson Way

The city also is writing up its first “complete streets” regulations, rules that describe how to design new streets in a way that makes them safer for multiple users, not just cars.

Debra Banks, interim director of Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates, said new complete streets guidelines will be important.

“Our streets have not been set up to be bike, walk, or roll friendly,” she said. “It shouldn’t be streets are made first and foremost for cars and then everyone else squeaks by as they can.”

That was driven home when she recently broke her pelvis. Using a cane, she found it difficult to cross a downtown J Street intersection as a pedestrian before the light changed. “I felt nervous I wasn’t going to make it across the street in time,” she said.

“The culture change that’s needed is for all modes of travel (or transit), to be safe for any individual, at all times.”

Alcohol-related crashes high

Uber and Lyft rideshare services are available to ferry people home from restaurants. But as the city sees a surge in new cocktail bars, beer gardens, and restaurants, the risk of more people drinking and driving is increasing.

The California Office of Traffic Safety data suggest law enforcement has not kept up.

Sacramento had the highest per capita rate of alcohol-involved injury crashes in 2016 (the most current data year), but the city is in the middle of the pack among cities for drunk driving arrests, lagging similar-sized cities Bakersfield, Fresno and Long Beach.

The Sacramento Police Department cut its traffic safety “motor unit” during the recession a decade ago. They’ve begun to rebuild it and will add two more motorcycle officers this fall to help patrol for drunk drivers and other vehicle code violators, spokesman Karl Chan said. “We are growing it back and that is a good thing; we take this issue seriously.”

Notably, Sacramento had the most speed-related injury crashes among California’s largest cities in the most recent data year. The County of Sacramento suffered the same problem, ranking third worst in the state out of 58 counties for injury crashes caused by speeding drivers. The number of injuries to young pedestrians and bike riders was also high in the unincorporated areas of the county that year.

The state Office of Traffic Safety database shows more is at play here than just poor driving.

Sacramentans drove an average of 12 miles a day, the most of any large city in the state, according to a Bee calculation based on state data. It was followed by Bakersfield and Los Angeles drivers, each of whom averaged more than 11 miles a day. San Francisco ranked lowest at six miles per day.

Those “daily vehicle miles traveled” numbers are an estimate, but likely are one of several potential crash factors, said Cal Poly Pomona engineering professor Wen Cheng, who conducts the crash data analysis for the state.

Other reasons may include growing pains among drivers not used to the area’s increased congestion, and aggressive or unsafe driving by frustrated motorists.

The area’s generally fair weather and flat terrain also encourage more pedestrians and cyclists. Councilman Steve Hansen said you can add to that mix the increased number of people who are drawn to the central city by the surge in entertainment venues.

“We have definite cultures clashing on our roads,” Hansen said. “It can sometimes feel like a real street fight. How they treat each other. That is where we need a reset.”

He and others in the city say Sacramento needs to upgrade its infrastructure, including adding more sophisticated crossing signals and more bike lanes. Distracted drivers are one of Hansen’s peeves. “We can add all the stop signs in the world, we can put spikes on the road, but if drivers are not paying attention, all the flashing signs won’t stop people from hurting others.”

The state Office of Traffic Safety has been using its crash data to highlight the need for more safety.

“Traveling safely should be a top priority in every community, rural and urban,” OTS Director Barbara Rooney said. “The OTS is committed to reaching our goal of zero deaths and injuries on California roads. We will continue to work with cities – Sacramento being one of them – and all of our partners to develop programs that steer us toward that goal.”

City officials say they hope their recent efforts will improve Sacramento’s crash numbers in the next round of state rankings, which are scheduled to be released this fall.

That included lowering the city speed limit to 15 miles per hour a few weeks ago on streets in front of 115 schools when children are present.

“Although this was identified as a long-term goal of Vision Zero, we were able to make the change happen much quicker than expected,” said city transportation official Jennifer Donlon Wyant said. “Traffic safety really is a community health issue.”

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