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As Pedestrian Deaths Rise in Virginia, Advocates Push for Vision Zero

The intersection of Monument Avenue and Meadow Street in Richmond, VA
The intersection of Monument Avenue and Meadow Street in Richmond, VA where Tracy Wilson was hit and severely injured while crossing the street. Across Virginia, more than 700 pedestrians and bicyclists have been killed and more than 20,000 injured in traffic crashes since 2010. (Photo: Catherine Komp)

Across Virginia, more than 700 pedestrians and bicyclists have been killed and more than 20,000 injured in traffic crashes since 2010. Advocates say these deaths and injuries are preventable and are pushing for full implementation of an initiative called “Vision Zero.” WCVE’s Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.  

Learn More: Find details about the Vision Zero Network including case studies from other cities; read about Bike Walk RVA's Vision Zero pledge; find details about Richmond Public Work's efforts on Vision Zero and Virginia's Highway Safety strategic plan. Use VDOT's mapping application to see where crashes are happening in your community. 


Six years ago, Richmond resident Tracy Wilson was on her way to get some lunch. At the corner of Meadow and Monument Avenue, she had the walk signal.

Tracy Wilson: You have 20 some seconds to cross, and I waited until a car had finished turning and this car was tailgating behind him and gunned it to try to make the light and hit me.

Wilson was thrown onto the hood. When the driver braked, she flew off the car.

Wilson: I lost consciousness for I guess a couple seconds, so I had a concussion out of the gate.

It was late summer and Wilson remembers the pavement was hot, the sun blinding. Her whole body stung and she couldn’t move her hands.

Wilson: Luckily people rushed around very quickly, one woman had some sort of nursing background and held my hand until the ambulance came, which remarkably was super quickly and I was rushed to hospital. I had my clothes cut off my body, they checked for major injuries, obvious traumas they could spot and I spent the next days in the hospital.

Wilson had severe soft-tissue injuries and walking was difficult for years. She still feels the damage from the concussion.

Wilson: My brain injury which has been the tough, lingering thing introduces frustrating memory hiccups. I have good days, bad days. I have migraines. It’s changed my ability to handle certain bright lights, flashing patterns. I don’t have seizures, but I almost shut down when I’m around flashing lights.

Another symptom for the longtime musician - it’s painful to hear certain frequencies.

Wilson: It’s devastating to suddenly have… a handful of sounds be like torture for me.

On a recent weekday at rush hour, the intersection where Tracy Wilson was hit is busy. While there are stop lights, there’s no pedestrian walk buttons and - no crosswalks. Cars pile up in the middle waiting to turn; three of them proceed after the light turns red.

Wilson: Red light - boom!... If you were trying to cross as a new person to the city, why would think it was okay for a car to turn on red?

In 2016 alone, more than 130 people died and 2500 were injured in pedestrian and bicycle-involved crashes across the state.

Max Hepp-Buchanan: It’s just tragic.

Max Hepp-Buchanan is Director of Bike/Walk RVA, an initiative of the non-profit Sports Backers.

Hepp-Buchanan: We shouldn’t accept people dying on our streets or getting severely hurt as a byproduct of our transportation system.

Hepp-Buchanan pulls up a Virginia Department of Transportation interactive map that documents vehicle crashes. He filters for pedestrians and the map fills with yellow dots all over the city center. Zooming out you see a pattern of red dots - fatalities - along places like Hull Street and Route 1, where the communities are lower-income.

Hepp-Buchanan: So the people who need transportation options the most because they don’t have the means to afford a car or aren’t able to drive for a certain reason, they are the ones getting hit by cars, because they’re forced to walk or bike where they need to go and that’s also where the biggest lack of pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure is.

Hepp-Buchanan points to the number of all vehicle-related fatalities in US which jumped to about 40,000 in 2016.

Hepp-Buchanan: Is that acceptable? How about in the Commonwealth of Virginia, how many is acceptable? Or in the City of Richmond, or in your neighborhood, how many is acceptable? The answer is zero.

There’s also the economic cost of traffic crashes, which the U.S. Department of Transportation estimates is more than $800 billion annually. Looking just at pedestrian and bicycle crashes, DOT researchers say they’re “responsible for $90 billion or 10 percent of the overall societal harm.”

But there’s a movement to address this problem. Twenty years ago, lawmakers in Sweden set out to eliminate traffic deaths and injuries with a policy called “Vision Zero.” Communities around the world have followed their lead, focusing on increasing traffic safety through education, enforcement and engineering.

Hepp-Buchanan: And that’s not just for cyclists and pedestrians, that’s for everybody, that’s for everyone driving a car. Nobody should die trying to get from Point A to Point B.

Bike/Walk RVA is asking people to sign a Vision Zero pledge. They also conduct bicycle safety trainings and have considered developing driver safety curriculum. Hepp-Buchanan says the way people talk about traffic related deaths and injuries is an important part of achieving Vision Zero’s goals.

Hepp-Buchanan: We often hear people refer to them as accidents but that implies that it was some act of god and it just couldn’t have been prevented, when in fact it absolutely could have been prevented. When there’s a plane crash, we don’t say a plane accident - we say a plane crash and we try to find out why it crashed and we should be doing the same thing on our streets. If someone is hit by a person driving a car, why did that happen? Who’s at fault? And what can be done to make sure that it’s prevented in the future.

Other advocates of Vision Zero are City of Richmond Transportation Engineer Mike Sawyer and Pedestrian, Bicycle and Trails Coordinator Jakob Helmboldt.

Jakob Helmboldt: [There’s] certainly a lot of activity done here…

At Richmond’s Main Street Station, I meet Helmboldt to take a look at traffic infrastructure and how those traveling by foot, bike and motor vehicle interact.

Helmboldt: It really is a kind of the microcosm of all things transportation…

Helmboldt points out a few problems: a tour bus is parked over the crosswalk; on the other side of the street, two vehicles pull up with passengers wearing yellow vests and actually park on the sidewalk. Both are violations of city code. We head over to Dock and 17th Street, a busy area where you often see pedestrians and cyclists waiting and waiting to cross.

Helmboldt: It’s the terminus of the Capitol Trail on the backside of the floodwall, the Canal Walk comes right to that as well.

To connect with the renovated Main Street Station, Helmboldt says they’re adding two-way bike lanes on 17th street and what’s called a “rectangular rapid flashing beacon.”

Helmboldt: It has these bright high-intensity yellow LEDS to get the attention of the driver. We going to have a crosswalk on that side which gives better visibility than this particular corner and obviously improved access up onto the Canal Walk side.

Helmboldt and other advocates of Vision Zero emphasize that engineering only gets you so far, education about the law and behavior change are essential too. We walk down to Dock and 21st Street to observe some of this behavior. There’s two bright yellow pedestrian crossing signs and a crosswalk.

Helmboldt: I’m stepping into the crosswalk, making the intent known, engaging with the driver...

We step into the street and wave our hands, indicating that we want to cross. Car after car speeds past us, a violation of state law.

Helmboldt: We had 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 cars completely ignore us in a marked crosswalk as I’m stepping out, putting my hand out. People being completely oblivious to the intent to try to cross. So it raises that point that we’ve not created this expectation between motorist and pedestrian.

Up on Main Street, we stand at a corner to see how traffic interacts here. There’s a sign that says turning vehicles must yield to pedestrians and one’s trying to cross.

Helmboldt: She has the light, but she didn’t bother trying to cross, she’s waited for traffic to go even though she has the signal, even though cars are required to yield.

A few minutes later a heavy truck comes up and idles at the corner with its blinker on, waiting to turn right as a pedestrian crosses.

(Truck horn blares)

Helmboldt: This is a good example right there….

Right before our eyes, a moped driver peels around the corner, just as the truck has also started to turn.

Helmboldt: Had that been a few seconds different, potentially he’s under the wheels of that truck.

It’s not just drivers who aren’t paying attention. We also watch a pedestrian moving slowly through the crosswalk, headphones on, staring down at his phone.

Helmboldt: People are weaving while they’re engaged with their phone… You’re compromising your own safety if you’re so engaged in that screen and stepping out into an intersection.

Helmboldt says they’re building the capacity to use more data-driven approaches to determine where and how to increase traffic safety. They’re also working to expand collaboration among departments, so city planning is not siloed.

Helmboldt: Really making sure we’re all singing from same sheet of music. Trying to really be much more collaborative; having that understanding when we’re communicating with [City] planning, making sure they’re understanding why we’re making decisions. If we’re saying at this particular location, an intersection or a corridor, we need to be looking at traffic in this content and so that it’s not adversarial so people understand why decisions are made the way they’re made and where we can be working in tandem to accomplish our mutual goals, so there’s been a lot of improvement on that more micro collaboration and understanding.

Another change is the Richmond Highway Safety Commission is now the Safe and Healthy Streets Commission.

Helmboldt: It seems minor in that you’re just changing the name of something but it reflects who's on that commission now and the recognition that it’s more than just road projects, it’s how do those road projects shape safety, mobility.

Advocate Max Hepp-Buchanan applauds this work, and as well as the City’s efforts to expand bike and pedestrian infrastructure.

Hepp-Buchanan: Through state revenue sharing and local capital improvement dollars and federal grants, the city has started to build out a network of protected bike lanes, which will be a big improvement once they’re on the streets.  You’ll start to see a lot more people riding once the bike lanes are actually built because people will start to feel more comfortable and feel that they are welcome on our streets.

In March 2016, Richmond City Council passed a resolution supporting the development of a Vision Zero program “with the goal of reducing traffic fatalities and serious injuries in road traffic to zero by the year 2030.” Hepp-Buchanan says that’s progress, but wants to see it backed it up with action, like Washington, DC, Austin, Boston, Fort Lauderdale and other cities have done.

Hepp-Buchanan: They’ve developed an action plan that comes out of Ccity government and it’s a coordinating document across agencies and departments, stakeholders, non-profit groups, AAA for example - all around the shared goal of how do we get to zero traffic related deaths and injuries by a certain year, in our case it’s 2030. It is a guide, with clear strategy, measurable goals and a fixed timeline: this is how we’re going to do it, this is how we’re going to work together and this is how we implement it. We don’t have that document yet. And without it, we can talk about Vision Zero and we can get sad when people are hit by people driving cars and dying on our streets, but we’re not taking a coordinated approach to fixing this epidemic.

An action plan was recently prepared with recommendations for the Mayor, according to Levar Stoney’s press secretary James Nolan. But a copy was not available for review before press time. Nolan said the 2018 budget did not specifically include funding for Vision Zero, but $100,000 was allocated for city engineers to develop “Complete Streets” standards; that’s a planning model that considers the safety of all users, including pedestrians and cyclists. He added that a meeting to discuss the action plan should take place in the coming weeks.

So far in 2017, 22 bicyclists and pedestrians have been killed in crashes in the Greater Richmond region. Some of those make the news, like retired VCU professor Richard Priebe who died in early June. Another 300 people have been injured in pedestrian and bicycle involved crashes in Greater Richmond this year. Sometimes you’ll hear about these survivors when a crowdfunding campaign to pay for medical expenses is shared on social media. But often their stories aren’t known, outside of family and friends.

Returning from the scene where Tracy Wilson was hit six years ago, she opens the trunk of her car, where she keeps a metal, houndstooth cane.

Wilson: It’s sort of like, some people have a blankie or something, my little security blanket is my houndstooth cane in the trunk of my car.

Beyond her injuries, Wilson’s life changed in other ways. She had to deal with lawyers and insurance companies scrutinizing her injuries. The ambulance company sent her bill to debt collection. She no longer felt safe in her Monument Avenue neighborhood, so after 12 years there, she moved.

Wilson: For me, the biggest thing is even with the lawsuit and talking about how long my recovery period was, I wasn’t thinking it was going to be forever.

But she says, surviving is possible.

Wilson: I definitely want to get that message out there. There are definitely days when I’m like, “I’m not sure how this is going to get better." But if I can be that voice - it’s possible, I promise!

More than two dozen U.S. cities have signed on to the Vision Zero network. These cities must, at a minimum: “have a Mayor publicly committed to Vision Zero, set clear goals to eliminate traffic fatalities and injuries; have a strategy or plan in place, and engage multiple city departments, like police, transportation and public health.” The first and so far only Vision Zero city in the Commonwealth is Alexandria. For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.


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