In San Diego, Cars Are Deadlier Than Guns
On Feb. 1, 2017, Abebe Woza Antallo stood in front of a small group of cameras and fought back tears as he recounted the death of his brother, Kebede Abera Tura. Tura was jaywalking across El Cajon Boulevard in North Park last September when a motorist hit and killed him. Antallo said his brother's death could have been avoided if the intersection had a crosswalk and light.
"This tragedy happened because there is no light on that intersection," he said. "Safety should be first in our community."
Not quite two weeks later, Mayor Kevin Faulconer held a press conference announcing San Diego's violent crime rate had fallen to its lowest in some 40 years.
The announcement was welcome in a city that has stayed relatively safe despite a chronic struggle to fill vacancies in the police department. But the violent crime rate, which takes into account rape, aggravated assault and murder, does not include deaths or serious injuries caused by traffic collisions.
In pure numbers, more people die from car crashes in San Diego than are murdered. The city's police department counted 260 traffic deaths on city streets from 2012 to 2016, and 206 murders over the same time period. Adding in the number of people who die on San Diego freeways, which are governed by Caltrans, there were more than twice as many traffic deaths as there were murders.
Mark McCullough, a traffic officer with the San Diego Police Department, said the numbers should not be all that surprising given the many factors that contribute to traffic deaths — like texting while driving, or driving while drunk or high on drugs.
"It's one of those ratio things," he said. "How many people in San Diego County carry guns openly and out and about? Very few. How many of us drive cars? All of us."
Earlier this year, the Governors Highway Safety Administration projected an 11 percent increase in pedestrian fatalities nationwide in 2016, the largest increase it had ever recorded. The National Safety Council likewise found a 6 percent nationwide increase in all traffic deaths, linked in part to more driving fueled by cheap gas prices. Traffic deaths in California rose 13 percent — more than double the national increase.
Kathleen Ferrier, policy and communications director for the national Vision Zero Network, said those increases were just a continuation of a trend lasting nearly a decade.
"Our culture has decided that traffic crashes are part of modern life," she said. "But this is unacceptable. The numbers keep going up. And worse, the people who are getting hit more often, who are getting killed more often, are older adults, children and people of color and living in low-income neighborhoods."
Ferrier was one of the leading advocates that in 2015 got San Diego to approve its own "Vision Zero" plan to eliminate all traffic deaths by 2025. The plan calls for greater enforcement of traffic safety laws, a media campaign to encourage safer behavior by motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians and a substantial re-engineering of city streets to make them safer.
Engineering is proving to be the most difficult component of Vision Zero in San Diego. Safer street design involves slowing cars down — which can upset drivers — and sometimes removing a travel lane or on-street parking to make room for wider sidewalks or bike lanes. Earlier this year, city planners backed away from plans to install painted bike lanes on a section of El Cajon Boulevard in City Heights because it would have removed parking from one side of the street.
Another project in City Heights has seen a different fate. The city this year accepted a $5.4 million grant to redesign part of University Avenue with new bike lanes, roundabouts and wider sidewalks. Ferrier called it the "first proactive action" the city has taken to redesign a street for Vision Zero.
But the project is not quite fully funded, and its estimated completion date is in 2022 — three years before the city's self-imposed deadline of zero traffic deaths. It also represents a tiny fraction of what is likely necessary — a half of one mile out of thousands of miles of streets, many of which are very dangerous for anyone not inside a car.
Ferrier said if San Diego is serious about meeting its Vision Zero goals, it has to spend more money on engineering safer streets.
"We hear so often about police in San Diego and how we need to clearly keep a strong police force, which is true, to keep our streets safe," she said. "But it's really the design of our streets and the way we design our cities that impact how people behave."