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To Walk and Die in L.A.

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The city of Los Angeles, according to the LA Weekly and the Los Angeles Times, isn't a safe place to walk:

In the United States, 11 percent of vehicle collisions are hit-and-runs. But in Los Angeles, L.A. Weekly has learned, an incredible 48 percent of crashes were hit-and-runs in 2009, the most recent year for which complete statistics are available. According to data collected by the state, some 4,000 hit-and-run crashes a year inside L.A. city limits, including cases handled by LAPD, California Highway Patrol and the L.A. County Sheriff, resulted in injury and/or death. Of those, according to a federal study, about 100 pedestrians died; the number of motorists and bicyclists who die would push that toll even higher.

Another set of statistics, drawn from a University of Michigan study for the years 2002-2009, suggests that pedestrians in Los Angeles are more likely to die by car than are pedestrians nationally. The Michigan study calculated that 32.4 percent of all fatal vehicle accidents in the city of Los Angeles were pedestrians struck by cars as compared to the national average of slightly more than 11 percent.

Those percentages, however, give a distorted picture of the actual risk of walking (or biking) in L.A., since any decline in fatalities inside a vehicle increases the percentage of deaths outside. And driving has become safer for drivers and passengers, through better vehicle technology, tougher DUI penalties, and congestion-induced slower speeds.

Unfortunately, a habit of lax enforcement (as the Weekly has dramatized) and the lack of adequate infrastructure (as described by Los Angeles Walks) will keep the kill rate for non-drivers high. Even slower urban speeds are not much protection for walkers and cyclists in Los Angeles.

The risks should be a cause for action.

Los Angeles is growing more dense, putting more walkers and more vehicles into closer proximity. Some neighborhoods favored by transit spending or victimized by development are becoming extremely dense. More bus and rail use - another policy goal - compels passengers to be at least part-time pedestrians. Already, about one-in-five trips in Los Angeles County is done on foot. That number is intended to increase.

Those pedestrians will cross streets on which hit-and-run drivers are almost never found and rarely suffer much if they are. Those pedestrians will make their way across a sometimes chaotic streetscape nearly impassable because of deteriorated sidewalks and limited access for walkers. Those pedestrians (and cyclists) will be confronted by drivers so insulated by the environment in their car that they often seem oblivious to walkers and bike riders outside it.

To make Los Angeles safer for pedestrians:

  • Collect, analyze, and use accident data to profile the most dangerous places for walkers. (The city doesn't do this, at least for public consumption, out of a real fear of liability.)
  • Prosecute hit-and-run drivers with the same lack of sympathy given drunk drivers.
  • Invest more in pedestrian infrastructure. Currently, something like one percent of all highway funding goes to restore or improve the city's walkability.
  • Change the metric of community safety, which has always focused on a narrow band of so-called "Part 1" crimes like homicide and arson. Crimes like hit-and-run accidents represent more of an actual risk to most Angeleños.

Improve crosswalks and intersection signaling and lighting. The recent announcement of a new crosswalk design for 53 intersections (based on a highly successful European model) is good news, except the rollout doesn't go far enough.

But real safety for pedestrians will have to come from drivers themselves. There is a callousness built into the design of modern vehicles - so perfectly do they respond to every desire in traffic-jammed Los Angeles except the desire for freedom. It's a terrible contradiction for drivers in L.A. to have everything a car can give except mobility.

I can sometimes see the frustration in a driver's face (despite my weak eyes) when he swings into an intersection, aiming his comfortable weapon where I walk. I wonder if he sees me at all.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

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