Foon Rhee

Foon Rhee: Pedestrians pay high price for being poor

“Pete Walker,” who wears car parts as protection, is featured in a pedestrian safety PR campaign being tested by the state in the Sacramento region.
“Pete Walker,” who wears car parts as protection, is featured in a pedestrian safety PR campaign being tested by the state in the Sacramento region. tbijak@sacbee.com

Many of us have had scary close calls with pedestrians while driving, or have nearly been hit crossing the street ourselves. I know I have.

A couple months back, I was in too much of a hurry to make a right turn and almost hit an older woman. If I hadn’t seen her out of the corner of my eye at the last second, I would have. (Whoever you are, I’m really sorry.)

Especially now as we get used to commuting in darkness, we all need to be more vigilant for pedestrians. That’s particularly the case in poorer parts of town.

There’s troubling research showing that pedestrian fatality rates are worse in census tracts with more poverty – twice as high in low-income areas as higher-income ones across the country.

And among California metro areas, Sacramento has the biggest disparity. Between 2008 and 2012, Sacramento’s overall pedestrian death rate was 7.9 per 100,000 people. That rate was twice as high – 15.7 deaths per 100,000 – in census tracts with a poverty rate of more than 25 percent.

The disparities are smaller in the state’s other metro areas, according to the analysis by Governing magazine. And while Sacramento’s overall rate was among the lowest in California, only Bakersfield had a higher death rate in poor neighborhoods. Sacramento’s fatality rate in low-income areas was also far higher than the national average.

We sometimes forget that pedestrians – not other motorists – are often the victims of crashes. They account for nearly 1 in 4 traffic deaths in California, significantly higher than the 14 percent nationally. California also has the most pedestrian deaths of any state by far (701 of 4,735 nationwide in 2013).

In 2013, 39 of those deaths were in Sacramento County. Over the last decade, the pedestrian death toll here is 390.

So it makes perfect sense that the state Office of Traffic Safety picked the Sacramento region to test a ramped-up public awareness campaign on pedestrian safety. The $900,000 effort is focused through the end of October with billboards, TV and radio spots, and ads in malls, movie theaters and on the Internet.

Launched last week at Sutter Middle School, the campaign features “Pete Walker,” a real-life action figure who wears car parts as protection and carries a car door as a shield. The slogan: “Pedestrians Don’t Have Armor.”

If audience research shows that any of the PR blitz worked, those components will be used in an expanded statewide campaign in 2016. In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, the Office of Traffic Safety awarded $2.2 million in grants to 17 local governments and the Highway Patrol to promote pedestrian safety.

More awareness is great. If it can be targeted to danger zones, even better.

But it’s not enough.

Preventing pedestrians from getting killed also requires sidewalks, crosswalks, signs, streetlights and other measures to keep them out of harm’s way. And that means spending money, especially in poorer neighborhoods.

While poverty doesn’t directly cause pedestrian deaths, the Governing study points out that poorer people are more likely to walk to work, or ride buses that don’t get them all the way to their destination. Also, low-income neighborhoods are more likely to have busy roads with higher speed limits running through them – and less likely to have sidewalks and crosswalks.

Nearly 70 percent of pedestrian deaths are not at intersections, and more than 70 percent happen when it’s dark, according to federal highway safety officials. They strongly recommend that pedestrians use sidewalks and only cross at intersections or well-lit areas.

The city of Sacramento has some projects underway that should help. It has $258,000 budgeted in 2015-16 specifically for pedestrian safety, and is finishing a $200,000 project downtown to add those “countdown” pedestrian signals. It is also spending $900,000 to add sidewalks and traffic signals so it’s safer for children walking to three schools in Rio Linda. Next year, it plans to start a $1.1 million project to build a sidewalk on 12th Street near Richards Boulevard.

City officials also say that pedestrians will be safer, thanks to broader projects for new bridges, bike lanes and streetscape improvements.

Sacramento County says that in 2014-15, it added sidewalks near Power Inn Road and along Howe Avenue to make the routes safer to schools. The county also points to other projects that included sidewalks, and says it addresses pedestrian safety as much as possible in every road construction project.

It’s encouraging that the city and county are at least trying to make it safer for pedestrians, including in low-income neighborhoods.

Being poor is a hard enough life. You shouldn’t have to risk it just to cross the street.

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