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Sacramento’s Poor Street Design Is Perfect for Hit-and-Runs

More than 140 people have been killed by drivers who fled the scene in Sacramento County since 2018 and experts blame aging roadways that were designed without pedestrians or cyclists in mind.

two women hold a photo of
Kathleen Smith and Andrea Perea show a photo on a cell phone on March 16 of Christine Wilbur who was killed by a hit-and-run driver in 2019 while walking across the Florin Road freeway off-ramp of northbound Highway 99.
Hector Amezcua/TNS
Drivers who flee the scene after killing a pedestrian or cyclist often do so in an act of self-preservation. They are drunk, driving recklessly or don’t have a license – and the consequences they face for causing a fatal crash would be severe.

That said, Sacramento’s epidemic of fatal hit-and-run crashes is not exclusively the result of reckless behavior. In some ways, the tragedies have become a crime of opportunity, an opportunity made possible by decades of poor planning decisions on some of the county’s most traveled roads.

Of the more than 140 people killed by drivers who fled the scene in Sacramento County since 2018, dozens died on aging, busy corridors designed years ago with pedestrians and bicyclists as an afterthought, according to a Sacramento Bee analysis of law enforcement and Sacramento coroner records.

Some of those thoroughfares once served as intercity commuter and shipping routes in the days before the region’s freeway system was developed. Decades later, buses, delivery trucks and drivers heading to and from work still rely heavily on the county’s network of four- and five-lane traffic arteries. The problem is that densely-populated neighborhoods and commercial districts have also sprung up along the corridors — creating an increased opportunity for hit-and-run crashes.

Such planning decisions — even if well-intentioned — place pedestrians and cyclists into an environment where their lives are in danger every time they walk to the store or ride a bike to school, traffic and pedestrian experts said.

The danger faced by pedestrians and cyclists in Sacramento has been exacerbated by conflicting forces. Local and statewide politicians have increasingly urged residents to trade in their automobiles for bicycles and to walk to work. Yet many of those same policymakers have not invested enough in redesigning the region’s most dangerous thoroughfares to keep walkers and cyclists safe, experts said.

That disconnect is particularly striking in the region’s low-income neighborhoods. The deadliest streets in Sacramento County run through communities where household incomes are far below the region’s median and where a greater share of residents walk to work or rely on public transportation, according to The Bee’s analysis.

Some of those corridors, particularly Stockton Boulevard in south Sacramento, where eight people have been killed in hit-and-runs since 2018, are seeing unprecedented growth in new housing and businesses, but require tens of millions of dollars in traffic safety upgrades to protect new residents and business patrons. Major thoroughfares are also often the site of large homeless populations, and nearly three dozen hit-and-run victims in Sacramento County since 2018 remain unidentified by the coroner, suggesting many were homeless men and women.

“It’s a priority issue; it’s a political will issue,” said Kiara Reed, the executive director of the pedestrian advocacy organization Civic Thread, formerly known as WALK Sacramento. “We don’t prioritize the people in these communities. We don’t prioritize their lives. We know the people in this community are being disproportionately killed, but we don’t prioritize addressing that issue.”

The concept that residents should be able to easily walk or ride a bike to work, the store and to a school has a name: the 15-minute city. In most Sacramento neighborhoods, especially low-income areas carved up by wide, dangerous roads, the idea that residents can safely find everything they need within a 15-minute walk of their home is a dream.

“We haven’t designed roads for the most vulnerable users,” said Brian Chandler, the director for transportation safety at DKS Associates, a national transportation planning and engineering firm. “We have been successful at getting people out of their cars. Yet the facilities that they’re on are not up to date.”

Regional transportation planners realize they are trying to undo decades of poor planning, a costly and time-consuming effort that may never be completed.

“In the mid-20th century, the thought process was to move as many vehicles as possible through communities,” said Jennifer Donlon Wyant, the city of Sacramento’s transportation planning manager. “We have to go back and rethink decisions that were made.”

Dangerous Sacramento Streets

Kathleen Smith tries to avoid Florin Road where it crosses Highway 99 in south Sacramento. But the bank is in that direction. So are the grocery store and her son’s home.

And so Smith reluctantly makes the drive almost daily. Six lanes of traffic, three in each direction, plus a freeway off-ramp merging onto Florin Road at the end of a gentle hill where delivery trucks and cars full of commuters fight for space.

Smith is overwhelmed by questions at the bottom of that hill.

Where exactly on the freeway off-ramp was her daughter when she was struck and killed by a driver who kept going?

Where was her body found?

And, the one that hurts the most: how long was Christine Wilbur’s lifeless body laying there before someone finally stopped?

“I don’t understand,” Smith said, sitting just a few feet from the crash scene on a recent warm and sunny afternoon. “It never really goes away, the pain. There are times it gets better, but there are times when it comes back and haunts you.”

Wilbur, 34, was killed while walking across the Florin Road freeway off-ramp of northbound Highway 99 on Sept. 14, 2019. A crosswalk was painted at the intersection at least four years before the crash, but it’s unclear whether Wilbur was in it when she was struck.

If Sacramento’s hit-and-run epidemic is fueled by poorly-designed roads, Florin Road is patient zero. At least 10 people have been killed by hit-and-drivers on the major south Sacramento corridor since 2018, the highest death toll in the region, according to The Bee’s analysis.

A city of Sacramento study of the corridor found that drivers were traveling at unsafe speeds in nearly half the serious crashes on Florin Road between 2009 and 2017. Half the pedestrians struck on the road were in marked crosswalks.

City officials have received $12 million in grants to begin safety improvements on Florin Road, including adding traffic signals and a pedestrian crossing near Luther Burbank High School.

“Florin Road is going to be getting a lot of attention from the city in the coming years,” Donlon Wyant said.

The funding will cover improvements between 24th Street and Munson Way, a stretch of less than one mile. Sacramento County is planning to add bike lanes, upgrade traffic signals and improve bus stops on a three-mile stretch of Florin Road, between Franklin Boulevard and Power Inn Road. The work has been in the planning stages since 2017, but construction has been delayed until next year “due to the need to complete right-of-way acquisitions,” county spokesman Matthew Robinson said.

A year before Wilbur was killed, David Edward Lee Jackson, 29, was struck by a vehicle as he crossed Florin Road near Bowling Drive. The impact was so severe his body was launched into the center median, where he hit a tree, police said. Witnesses told investigators the vehicle that hit Jackson was a green Chevrolet Silverado.

Isis Jones, 16, was killed by a hit-and-run driver while crossing Florin Road near Fawn Way on July 8, 2021. One driver swerved to miss Jones as she crossed the road, but another struck and killed her before fleeing.

And in February 2019, a man walking on Florin Road just 400 feet from the scene of Wilbur’s death was killed by a driver who did not stop.

“Florin Road is crazy. Florin Road is not safe,” Smith said. “You drive down the road and you get honked at, you get yelled at. It’s not pleasant.”

Making Sacramento’s Streets Safer

Major “road diets” — in which traffic lanes are reduced on wide or perilous urban corridors — have been undertaken in Seattle, Los Angeles and Reno, among other cities. Five years ago, Sacramento city officials reduced J Street in midtown Sacramento by one lane and added a bike lane. Other busy streets have gone through similar improvements, but many are in higher income neighborhoods such as Land Park and East Sacramento.

“People want to look at this through an equity lens and say, ‘Well, let’s go to the low-income Black and brown communities and tell them to use active modes (of transportation, such as walking and biking),” said Reed, the pedestrian advocate. “They’re using active modes and they don’t even have an environment that’s conducive to active modes.”

Most experts agree that little can be done to prevent motorists from leaving the scene of a crash in which someone has been clearly injured or killed.

Psychologists say a traumatic event such as striking a pedestrian often triggers intense fear and a sense of self-preservation for drivers, causing them to act irrationally and flee. Traffic experts are skeptical that longer prison sentences will act as a deterrent, given that most drivers won’t even know the penalty for committing a hit-and-run crash.

That said, road diets and other planning steps that slow traffic can save lives.

The American Automobile Association’s Foundation for Traffic Safety conducted a 2011 analysis of hundreds of pedestrian crashes to determine the risk of severe injury or death for pedestrians struck by vehicles traveling at various speeds. The study found that the average risk of death for a pedestrian hit by a car going 23 miles per hour was 10 percent. For those hit by a car traveling 42 miles per hour, that risk jumped to 50 percent.

Pedestrians hit by an automobile traveling 50 miles per hour — a common speed for cars on urban corridors in the Sacramento region — were 75 percent likely to die.

“In the places where we know drivers are driving at unsafe speeds, can we bring those speeds down?” Donlon Wyant said. “If we can make it a forgivable mistake and it doesn’t result in a fatality or serious injury, that’s a good thing.”

Sacramento is painted by vehicle corridors in severe need of overdue improvements.

Marysville Boulevard is the main street of Del Paso Heights in North Sacramento. The neighborhood’s only grocery store, its post office and busiest park are all within a one-mile stretch. Students walking or biking to Grant Union High School must cross the boulevard to get to neighborhoods to the east.

Most of the fatal crashes that occur on Marysville Boulevard involve a cyclist or pedestrian, data show, including a 56-year-old man killed by a hit-and-run driver in July 2018. Motorists often far exceed the 35 miles per hour speed limit and residents of nearby communities have told city officials they don’t feel safe walking on the boulevard.

City officials have once again applied for federal grants to redesign Marysville Boulevard after being denied in previous attempts.

At least six pedestrians have been killed by hit-and-run drivers along a two-mile stretch of El Camino Avenue in North Sacramento. The neighborhood has one of the highest rates of people who walk to work in the city, yet many crashes involve drivers exceeding the speed limit of 30 miles per hour.

“The city has been built over decades and decades,” Chandler, the national transportation expert, said, “and it’s not going to be fixed in five years. These streets were our way to get from place to place. Now you’ve got this exact same facility that has everything from semi trailers to delivery trucks to normal commuter vehicles, plus families walking to and from schools. And it’s all happening on the same roads.”

Stockton Boulevard: Where Progress Meets Danger

Four-story wooden frames rise from the ground on a formerly vacant lot on Stockton Boulevard and Lawrence Drive in south Sacramento. The affordable housing community under construction will soon be home to hundreds of residents who will walk to a Smart & Final grocery store and a fitness center across the street.

Just before 3 a.m. on May 24, 2018, a 43-year-old woman named Suzanne Russell was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver at the intersection.

The New Happy Garden restaurant a few blocks south at Stockton and Jansen Drive has been a gathering spot for generations of Sacramentans, its vast dining halls playing host to Mother’s Day celebrations, birthday parties and one of the most popular Sunday dim sum menus in town. Across the street, the former San Juan Motel grounds — for years the site of a large homeless camp — is about to be turned into a $74 million housing community for low-income families.

Samuel Treas, 54, a retired Sacramento Regional Transit operator, was struck and killed at the intersection by a hit-and-run driver five months after Russell died.

And in March of this year, 54-year-old Victor Guillen was riding a bicycle on Stockton Boulevard near 20th Avenue when he was hit and killed. Police officers found him in the roadway near a public library, where he was pronounced dead. The driver took off before emergency crews arrived.

For decades, long before Highway 99 opened, the fastest route between Sacramento’s central city and the rural communities to the southeast was Stockton Boulevard. The road ran all the way to Stockton, serving as a de facto expressway in the days before high-speed commuter routes.

Years later, many sections of Stockton Boulevard still have the foreboding feel of an expressway. A 2021 city of Sacramento analysis noted a long stretch of the road “feels loud and uncomfortable for walking or biking, with high traffic volumes and high-speed drivers.” A higher percentage of residents in the ZIP codes surrounding Stockton Boulevard walk to work than the Sacramento regional average, according to census data, but in most places, pedestrians need to walk at least five minutes up or down the boulevard just to find a crosswalk.

The bicycle lane on Stockton Boulevard is barely two feet wide in most places, leaving cyclists a few inches from speeding traffic. Cars, pick-ups and delivery trucks regularly speed along at nearly 50 miles per hour.

Since 2018, eight people have been killed on Stockton Boulevard by hit-and-run drivers, among the highest death tolls in the Sacramento region. They included a man crossing the road in a wheelchair and a 17-year-old boy killed in 2022 by a driver who allegedly struck another vehicle before careening onto a sidewalk, hitting three pedestrians.

City, county and regional public transit officials know Stockton Boulevard requires a major overhaul to make it safe for pedestrians and cyclists. Donlon Wyant estimates it would take $100 million to pay for safety improvements that include adding pedestrian crossings and wider bike lanes, improving public transit stops and removing some vehicle traffic lanes.

After recently receiving a grant from the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, local transportation officials have raised just $5.2 million for the work.

Competition for the kind of money it will take to fix Stockton Boulevard and other major thoroughfares is fierce between local governments trying to undo years of transportation planning mistakes. Donlon Wyant said the city applied to three different programs through the Biden administration’s infrastructure package in 2021 for transportation upgrades. It was unsuccessful in all three attempts.

While they fight for a limited share of money, cities across the nation are attempting to play catch-up.

“The best way to address infrastructure (challenges) is to slow traffic down,” Donlon Wyant said. “The problem is that the money to change the infrastructure is limited.”

©2023 The Sacramento Bee. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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