Crime

Why are pedestrians dying in Columbus? A look at 2019 fatalities and troubling roads

Attempting to cross this busy Columbus road has cost two men their lives

Two men were killed in the first two months of 2019 while crossing Veterans Parkway near 23rd Street in Columbus. It's on a regular route for homeless people traveling from camps or shelters off Second Avenue to services on the east side of Veterans.
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Two men were killed in the first two months of 2019 while crossing Veterans Parkway near 23rd Street in Columbus. It's on a regular route for homeless people traveling from camps or shelters off Second Avenue to services on the east side of Veterans.

Joseph Scott Locklier sometimes was homeless.

He was staying at Columbus’ Valley Rescue Mission on Second Avenue when he left early on Jan. 9, walking east, aiming to cross Veterans Parkway at 23rd Street to reach Safehouse, another shelter at Rosehill United Methodist Church on Hamilton Road.

“Joseph was coming to the Safehouse to meet a friend, and they were going to go out and do a little shopping,” said Safehouse director Neil Richardson.

“He’d been homeless again, this time about two weeks, so I think he’d been with somebody for a while and had a disagreement.”

At 6:50 a.m., Locklier, 55, tried to cross Veterans north of the crosswalk at 23rd, in front of traffic. Some motorists saw him and braked. One driver did not see him. In the far right, northbound lane, a Dodge Ram pickup slammed into Locklier, killing him.

It was hard news to his friends.

“You know, he got hit pretty hard by a truck and he got thrown forward,” Richardson recalled, “and then having somebody there waiting for him to arrive, we had to do some grief counseling on site that day that it happened, just to approach folks that knew him.”

Locklier was one of four pedestrians killed so far this year in Columbus, where six fatalities were reported for all of 2018.

Across Georgia and nationwide, Locklier will be counted among a rising tide of pedestrian fatalities, which steadily have increased since 2009. Experts point to several contributing factors for the increase.

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Neil Richardson, chaplain at the Muscogee County Jail and director of SafeHouse, points out the dangers of crossing Veterans Parkway near 23rd Street in Columbus. Mike Haskey mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com

Death spike

To those who study traffic safety, the stubborn statistics remain a shock: As other traffic fatalities decline, pedestrian deaths continue to rise, according to the Governor’s Highway Safety Association. That rise follows a drop in U.S. pedestrian deaths.

In 1990, 6,482 U.S. pedestrians were killed.

In 2009, U.S. pedestrian deaths bottomed out at 4,109. From 1990-2009, U.S. pedestrian deaths decreased by 37%.

From 2008 through 2017, the number of pedestrian deaths jumped 35%. In the same period, other traffic deaths dropped 6%.

In 2018, 6,227 U.S. pedestrian where killed, making last year the deadliest since 2009.

“We’ve had a 10-year run of horrific increases in pedestrian fatalities,” said traffic safety expert Richard Retting, who added an increase of 50% in a single decade shows “something went in a different trajectory in 2009.”

Retting, who works for Sam Schwartz engineering, is the researcher agencies and nonprofits consult for reports on pedestrian fatalities. He has worked in the field for more than 30 years.

He said researchers have not pinpointed any single cause for the spike in fatalities.

But studies show corollary trends that likely are contributing factors.

One is the popularity of larger automobiles such as sport-utility vehicles and trucks, like the truck that hit Joseph Locklier.

Fatalities involving SUVs have jumped 50% since 2013, as deaths involving other automobiles increased 30%, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In Georgia, overall traffic fatalities involving large trucks rose from 163 in 2013 to 214 in 2017, says the NHTSA. The agency also notes that crashes involving pedestrian and pickups or SUVs are two to three times more likely to be fatal.

Nationwide, from 2009 to 2016, fatal pedestrian crashes involving SUVs jumped 81%, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The number of registered SUVs increased almost 40% over that period, the institute said.

Death after dark

Among those hit by an SUV in Columbus this year was La’Antoneus Moses.

Moses, 54, from Lumpkin, Ga. was in Columbus crossing Victory Drive near Ticknor Drive around 8 p.m. Jan. 12.

Just east of Fort Benning Road, he tried to cross six lanes of traffic toward the Holiday Inn Express & Suites at 3901 Victory Drive. He made it to the median and across one more lane before a white sport-utility vehicle hit him in the center lane, according to the police report.

The report states that the the driver of the SUV fled. Two witnesses said a second car also ran over Moses, and also left the scene. Moses died in the hospital Jan. 30.

Most pedestrian crashes, like the one that killed Moses, happen after dark.

The Governors Highway Safety Administration says nighttime fatalities from 2008 to 2017 jumped 45% nationwide as daytime deaths grew 11%.

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A man crosses Veterans Parkway near 23rd Street, north of the crosswalk at the intersection, as a passing motorist heads south. Mike Haskey mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com

Also fatally injured in a nighttime crash in Columbus this year was Erick Bronson.

Like Joseph Locklier, Bronson was crossing Veterans Parkway near 23rd Street, outside the crosswalk, in traffic. He was in the same right, northbound lane Locklier was hit in, a police report shows.

About 10:30 p.m. Feb. 23, Addison Owen’s 2016 Subaru WRX hit Bronson at 67 miles per hour.

Owen was driving even faster before the impact, police said: Five seconds before the crash, he was going 83 mph. He was charged with reckless driving and homicide by vehicle.

“This was in low lighting conditions, heavy traffic and high speeds,” the police report said.

Speed is a killer: A 2014 study by the nonprofit Smart Growth America found that someone hit by a car going 20 mph has a 6% chance of dying. The risk of death jumps to 65% at 45 mph and to 75% at 50 mph.

Arterial roads such as Veterans Parkway and Victory Drive are built for speed, to move vehicles efficiently. They are not designed with people afoot in mind.

Smart Growth America found that from 2003 to 2012, 75% of Columbus’ 38 pedestrian deaths happened on arterial roads. In 42% of those cases, the vehicles involved were going 40 mph or more.

Downtown Columbus' rapid growth is creating conflicts between pedestrians, who often jaywalk, and motorists, some of whom illegally turn right or left across crosswalks where pedestrians cross. Ross Horner, Uptown Columbus president and CEO explains.

Downtown

A fatality that caught much of Columbus’ attention this year was the death of Columbus State University worker William “W.D.” Feeney.

It did not happen at night, outside a crosswalk, on a highway, but in the heart of downtown, in the morning, in a marked and lighted crosswalk.

Feeney, 30, who used a wheelchair, was hit and killed by a dump truck as he crossed 11th Street at Broadway around 8:30 a.m. Feb. 4.

The 62-year-old driver from Phenix City was in a Volvo dump truck belonging to a Hamilton, Ga., company. He told police that as he drove east in the left lane of 11th Street toward Broadway, he came to a red light, but proceeded as the light turned green.

He never saw Feeney. He just felt the impact.

Police later determined Feeney was not in the crosswalk legally, having disobeyed the crossing signal. The driver was not at fault, they said.

Feeney’s death hit home, eclipsing Columbus’ earlier fatalities.

“W.D. was a friend of a lot of people down here,” said Ross Horner, head of the nonprofit Uptown Columbus Inc. “We considered him really an Uptown guy…. You know down here people look out for each other … so when we have something happen like that, it’s not something we expect, and we take it personally.”

Downtown’s rapid growth is creating conflicts between pedestrians, who often jaywalk, and motorists, some of whom illegally turn right or left across crosswalks with pedestrians in them.

Cars must stop for a pedestrian who’s legally within a crosswalk, said police Sgt. Chris Anderson, an accident investigator with the department’s motor squad.

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Ross Horner, president and CEO of Uptown Columbus Inc. and the Business Improvement District, talks about pedestrian safety in the downtown Columbus area. As the number of pedestrians and motorists continues to rise in downtown Columbus, officials are looking for various ways to make the area safer for all who use it. Mike Haskey mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com

Jaywalking

After this year’s fatalities, Columbus police have focused on citing people for jaywalking, or not using crosswalks. Paying the fine in advance of court cost $200.63.

Besides angry phone calls, police got bashed on social media, said Assistant Chief Gil Slouchick.

That pedestrians ignore the law is obvious, he said. All you have to do is drive out and look: “People just walk in front of you.”

So police started citing those people. “It’s our job when we see a problem to go and try and fix it,” Slouchick said.

Among the jaywalkers cited were homeless people, including those who, like Joseph Locklier, walk from shelters and other services along Second Avenue to those on the far side of Veterans Parkway.

To the west of Veterans, the Salvation Army shelter is at 1718 Second Ave. The Homeless Resource Network is at 2221 Second Ave. The Open Door Community Center is nearby at 2401 First Ave. The Valley Rescue Mission, where Locklier was staying, is a few blocks north at 2903 Second Ave.

Sometimes homeless people camp on the Chattahoochee River west of Second Avenue or occupy nearby abandoned houses they call “bandos.”

On the east side of Veterans, the Safehouse that Neil Richardson runs is at 2101 Hamilton Road. Two dollar stores are nearby. Health Department services are at 2100 Comer Ave. An outpatient clinic’s at 1800 10th Ave.

Sgt. Chris Anderson, an accident investigator with the Columbus Police Department’s motor squad, offers advice to pedestrians on how to safely and legally cross Columbus roads and demonstrates what jaywalking is.

Because of obstructions between these destinations, the homeless are funneled to 23rd Street, to cross Veterans.

“Whether they’re coming out of a camp or coming out of Valley, they’re going to come up 23rd and come across,” said Richardson.

Part of the problem with that crossing is that northbound drivers are driving through a 45-mph zone on a curve, and cresting a rise right before the intersection, leaving them little time to react, he said.

“They’re not coming around that corner at 45 mph,” Richardson said. “You don’t see that intersection until you’re on it. When they’re on it, they’re on it.”

Richardson believes police would generate more revenue ticketing speeding drivers instead of jaywalking pedestrians.

“A homeless person can’t pay a ticket, so now we’re going to end up arresting them for not showing up to court, and they’re going to have a contempt of court charge, plus the traffic ticket … so we’re going to have to incarcerate them when we do arrest them, and feed them for an extra 20 days to deal with the fine,” said Richardson, who also serves as a chaplain at the Muscogee County Jail. “I mean, we’re not going to win in that situation.”

Anderson, the police sergeant, said he sees pedestrians take deadly risks that cannot be ignored, particularly on four-lane roads that have no median, only a double-yellow line in the middle.

“I’ve seen pedestrians coming out to the double-yellow lines, standing on the double-yellow lines, with cars passing them from behind and in front,” he said. “That is a big no-no. You’re just asking to get run over by a vehicle.”

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A crosswalk light in downtown Columbus indicates there is no time left to safely cross the intersection. As the number of pedestrians and motorists continues to rise in downtown Columbus, officials are looking for various ways to make the area safer for all who use it. Mike Haskey mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com

Design

Retting, the traffic safety expert, said two short-term measures can improve pedestrian safety on busy roads:

One is adding a “refuge island” on multi-lane roads, where those on foot can wait for traffic to pass.

Another is adding more light to dark pedestrian crossings, he said.

“They’re not sexy. They’re not new,” he said, but they work.

So do roundabouts, a frequent topic of derision here in Columbus. Retting said converting a standard traffic-light intersection to a roundabout can cut pedestrian crashes 50%, because roundabouts slow traffic.

Rick Jones, the city’s director of planning, said Columbus steadily has been upgrading pedestrian crossings, particularly where its web of hiking and biking trails cross major thoroughfares.

Where the Fall Line Trace trail crosses Hilton Avenue east of Talbotton Road, the city installed flashing beacons trail users can trigger to stop traffic.

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Pedestrians use the crosswalk and crossing lights to legally cross Veterans Parkway at 23rd Street in Columbus, Ga. Mike Haskey mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com

Installing crosswalks with flashing lights doesn’t mean pedestrians will use them, he said: “The problem we have is getting people to use that system.”

Pat McHenry, an avid cyclist, CSU professor and member of Columbus’ Citizen Advisory Committee for transportation planning, advocates for road design that’s not focused solely on moving automobiles as fast as possible.

He said he’s never surprised to hear Columbus had another pedestrian death:

“It’s because the streets are so fundamentally designed for cars and specifically so cars can go fast,” he said, noting studies show a pedestrian can survive a crash at 20 mph, but the impact grows increasingly lethal at 35 mph or more.

McHenry said neighborhood street design should use fewer lanes to slow traffic, and incorporate crossings wherever nearby residents habitually cross the road, not just at intersections.

In some areas residents wear down trails walking to where they regularly cross streets. Some of those paths are west of Veterans Parkway, near the Wilson Homes housing complex. Jones calls them “goat trails.”

McHenry calls them “demand paths.” He said some are along Talbotton Road near Hilton Avenue, running from apartment complexes toward stores on the far side of Talbotton Road.

Talbotton Road is in the midst of a massive widening project there.

McHenry believes the consistent rise in pedestrian fatalities is a public health issue people pay no attention to, because blaming the pedestrian’s easier than rethinking road design.

One day someone will try to cross a widened Talbotton Road, outside a crosswalk, he said:

“And they’re going to get killed, and we’re going to say, ‘They didn’t use the crosswalks like they were supposed to.’”

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