Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Time to get serious about pedestrian safety in Tacoma

Students from Mason Middle School cross Proctor Street. Two children were seriously injured in a crosswalk accident a few blocks away.
Students from Mason Middle School cross Proctor Street. Two children were seriously injured in a crosswalk accident a few blocks away. Staff photographer

My reaction was immediate: anger, frustration, and – most natural of all – concern.

That’s what happens when two children, in this case adolescent girls making their way to Mason Middle School on an otherwise quiet Friday morning, are hit by a car while crossing the street.

As the days passed, we learned the situation could have been worse. The girls, who were taken to the hospital from the scene at North 21st and Monroe streets, sustained what were considered serious, but non-life threatening injuries.

Tacoma Police Sgt. Frank Richmond, who was on the scene that morning, described the accident to me as a four-lane “perfect storm,” with one motorist trying to be a “good Samaritan” inadvertently waving the girls into the path of a vehicle traveling in the left-hand lane that “couldn’t possibly have seen these children approaching.”

“It’s just unfortunate that the whole thing occurred,” Richmond told me. “I’ve seen that type of accident happen so many times.”

And that’s where the anger lives.

In the immediate aftermath of this most recent pedestrian-involved accident, I was mad. And I wasn’t alone. Online comments quickly piled up on our story about the accident.

I drive my children to school in the Proctor District every morning, and near misses are common place — and not just on North 21st. While in the days after the accident it became clear that the driver involved in this particular incident didn’t deserve wrath, the regularity with which children in this neighborhood seem to face near-death while traversing roadways on foot is unnerving, to put things mildly.

There simply aren’t enough safe places to cross the street. Drivers in this area, for whatever reason, are often distracted or entitled, sometimes both. Children are children, prone to impulsive decisions that put them at risk.

None of this is particularly new, which is where the frustration comes into play.

Our daughter is a third grader at Washington Elementary, which is just blocks from Mason, and this year the school’s PTA has spearheaded an effort to increase safety on the surrounding roadways.

PTA co-president Audrey Cosgrove (full disclosure: I know her) says they’ve asked the traffic officer assigned to the school to have more of a presence this year, in hopes of cutting down on speeding, drivers “blowing through crosswalks,” and problems related to parents dropping kids off in an unsafe manner.

Cosgrove tells me the Washington PTA is also looking into funding options in hopes of hiring an additional crossing guard.

All of this started long before the most recent accident, though she admits that event “certainly made us all think of our families.”

“It’s a huge concern,” Cosgrove says of issues related to pedestrian safety around Washington. “It feels to me like it’s worse than it was last year.”

Not surprisingly, school district spokesman Dan Voelpel tells me concerns over pedestrian safety around schools in Tacoma are “ubiquitous,” listing six schools off the top of his head where he knows parents have raised issues. Voelpel notes that “many of the potential problems are outside school control.”

All of this raises the question of just how widespread pedestrian safety issues are throughout the city — for children, and anyone else on foot.

The answer, unfortunately, is very.

In the aftermath of the Oct. 2 crash on North 21st, I asked the Washington State Department of Transportation for a list of all the pedestrian-involved auto accidents in the city since 2010.

What I received was revealing.

Key 

Pedestrian-involved accident data in Tacoma since 2010

According to police reports collected by the Washington State Department of Transportation, there were 502 pedestrian-involved accidents in Tacoma between 2010 and Sept. 9, 2015. An Oct. 2 accident involving two school children walking to Mason Middle School in the Proctor District sparked a community outcry, but there are pedestrian-safety trouble spots throughout the city.

According to police reports collected by the state, Tacoma had 502 pedestrian-involved crashes, varying in severity, between 2010 and Sept. 9, 2015. That’s roughly one every four days. Mapping these incidents reveals pedestrian-safety trouble spots throughout the city.

The problem is not just in the North End, not just near schools or in school zones, and not just in areas where a collective community response is likely to loudly sound the alarm.

Some of the particularly dangerous areas — like downtown or South 56th Street near South Tacoma Way — aren’t surprising. But that doesn’t make them any less troubling.

Along the stretch of Sixth Avenue filled with bars and restaurants, for instance, from North Steele Street to North Pine Street, there have been at least 10 pedestrian-involved accidents since 2010.

Predictably, most happened at night.

Meanwhile, on Portland Avenue near First Creek Middle School, not far from where a flashing crosswalk was installed by the city to help improve safety, there have been seven pedestrian-involved crashes since 2010.

Six of those involved minors.

It’s worth noting that Tacoma isn’t alone in its struggle to protect pedestrians. The number of incidents here is comparable to cities across the state of similar size.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t do better.

To its credit, from January 2014 to August of this year, the city made pedestrian safety a priority, improving 157 crosswalks in the process. Evidence of these kinds of improvements can be seen in an area like Mildred Street near Tacoma Community College, where significant strides have been made.

Earlier this year, the City Council allocated an additional $1.5 million to continue this citywide work.

It’s just a start. We need more of it, particularly in underserved neighborhoods, poorer neighborhoods where more citizens are likely to be on foot, and the areas most plagued by safety issues.

As Sgt. Richmond saw firsthand, crossing “infrastructure really does protect you.” Oftentimes, he says, there are “major contributing factors” on the part of pedestrians, like failing to utilize crosswalks, when an accident occurs.

Still, it’s going to take more than crosswalks and increased vigilance from pedestrians to make Tacoma’s streets safe for everyone. It will take moving from a view of our transportation grid as a place intended for cars where pedestrians and bicyclists occasionally rent space, to one that’s intended and designed for all modes and all people.

It’s a tall task.

But until we get there, the anger, frustration and tragedies will only reoccur.

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