Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
It’s the night before Thanksgiving. The body of 19-year-old Isaiah Herrera lies on a darkened stretch of Central. Just up the street, pedestrians jaywalk on the shadowy street as cars approach.
An officer yells at them to get out of the street, but they don’t listen. This is not an uncommon scene in Albuquerque.
More than 400 people have been struck by vehicles in Albuquerque this year – with 34 of them dying from their injuries.
That means that of the 68 fatal crashes across the city, just under half of those killed were on foot.
“Cars are becoming safer, and I think there’s a complacency that comes with that,” state traffic safety advocate Scot Key said. “The streets are not.”
New Mexico has one of the highest, if not the highest, pedestrian fatality rates in the United States, according to state Department of Transportation safety division director Franklin Garcia. And that dubious distinction is driven in large part by fatalities here in Albuquerque.
The most recent numbers represent an ongoing spike of pedestrian deaths in the city and state as a whole, with authorities finding those who were struck at fault in almost all cases.
Sometimes the drivers in nonfatal crashes are given a citation. Then there are those who speed off before police arrive, like the driver who killed Herrera.
While the cause of the rise in pedestrians getting hit eludes authorities, Key said combatting the spike must start with safer roadways. But, he says, such endeavors are stunted by potential costs and a general apathy toward pedestrians.
The Mid Region Council of Governments, which studies traffic safety issues and plans roadway changes in Albuquerque, didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.
According to NMDOT numbers, New Mexico has tallied 82 pedestrian fatalities as of Dec. 21 – the highest number in decades – and one that Garcia said could rise.
That death toll crept up from 79 in 2017 and 77 in 2016, when a study by the Governors Highway Safety Association found that New Mexico had the highest per capita rate of pedestrian deaths in America, followed by Florida.
For a better comparison, the state with a population closest to New Mexico, Nebraska, had 11 deaths in 2016, a fraction of what our state experienced.
The GHSA has not released its data from 2017 or 2018 yet, so it’s anyone’s guess if New Mexico still leads the nation.
Like most states, New Mexico gives pedestrians the right of way in crosswalks and lighted intersections. But it is also up to drivers to pay attention.
‘Most are pedestrian error’
Having watched the numbers rise, Albuquerque police Lt. Zak Cottrell has theories about the reason behind the grim trend – low lighting, dark clothing, intoxication and faster drivers. But he stresses that they’re just theories.
“I really don’t have a good guess anymore than you do – why all of a sudden we’re seeing a huge spike,” he said.
It’s nothing new in Albuquerque, which claims the lion’s share of crashes and fatalities around the state.
Cottrell, who joined APD’s traffic unit in 2013, said there’s one definite: The blame lies with the pedestrian in almost all crashes.
“Most of ours are pedestrian error,” he said.
Cottrell said that so far this year there have been 408 crashes involving pedestrians. Nineteen drivers in nonfatal crashes were given citations, which were often settled in court with a fine.
He said 31 of the 34 fatalities were caused by “pedestrian error.”
Autopsies found that seven of those pedestrians were intoxicated at the time, Cottrell said.
Five hit-and-run drivers, meanwhile, are still on the loose after fatally striking a pedestrian, including whoever struck and killed Herrera.
“We have no leads on who that driver was,” Cottrell said.
He said only one of the hit-and-run drivers has been tracked down, a man who fatally hit a pedestrian off Tramway.
“We questioned him and we forwarded that case to the District Attorney’s Office,” Cottrell said. “So we’re waiting to see if they’re going to charge him. I would hope they would, but it’s kind of up to them.”
He said the case against that person is strong, with multiple witness statements, and Cottrell anticipates a charge of leaving the scene of an accident involving death that can result in up to 20 years in prison.
Cottrell said most pedestrian fatal crashes happen between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. with the hot spots being low-lit areas, out of the crosswalk, along two busy roads: Coors and Central.
He said every crash is investigated to determine who is at fault with police looking at everything, including lighting, car speed and driver intoxication – but one factor stands out above the rest: “The biggest thing is where is the pedestrian.”
“Is the pedestrian in an area where they should be, or are they mid-block where a driver isn’t expecting to see somebody crossing the road?” Cottrell said.
Even if a pedestrian is at fault, he said, police will also question the driver, asking if they saw the pedestrian, were distracted by their phone or messing with the radio.
“We do run the gamut, go through everything, try to rule out anything,” Cottrell said.
If a driver was found to be inattentive, or at fault in some way, for a nonfatal crash, they could be given a citation that usually leads to a fine.
‘Walkable streets’ needed
Many issues can lead to high numbers of pedestrian deaths, but change has to start at the street level, said Key, the traffic safety advocate.
Key is creator of Better Burque, a group that strives to make Albuquerque safer for cyclists and pedestrians.
“There has been an explosion of businesses … along these roads, these highways,” Key said. “And there hasn’t been the infrastructure to support people safely going up and down them.”
Using Coors – one of the deadliest roads for pedestrians – as an example, Key said the “highway” needs more crosswalks, lower speed limits, better bus stop access and additional lighting to cater to a boom of business and housing in the area that has resulted in a hot spot for crashes and fatalities.
He said streets across Albuquerque need to be “retrofitted” to decrease fatalities.
“To actually make these walkable streets would involve slowing drivers down and spending a lot of money,” he said. “That’s the hardest decision because it’s by far the most expensive and affects the ability of people to drive the way they want to.”
Key said the pedestrian-related improvements to Central – narrow lanes, wider sidewalks and ADA compliance – installed for the Albuquerque Rapid Transit project have made the area west of Louisiana safer.
Key also said crash investigations could use an update, calling crash reports “antiquated” and forms that lend themselves to “simplistic” findings that too quickly lead to “pedestrian error” classifications: “If they’re outside of the crosswalk, that’s it. End of story.”
“I’m not going to say, ‘It’s not the victim’s fault,’ ” he said. “What I’m saying is; can we get past that simplistic argument? Can we get past that and actually substantively look at all the factors involved?”
One of those factors, Key said, goes deeper than street lights and crosswalks.
“This spike is nationwide, it’s not just Albuquerque,” he said. “There’s a feeling of inertia.”
Unlike cycling, Key said there is no serious advocacy group or organization focused on making streets safer for pedestrians.
“The city doesn’t have a pedestrian committee, (it has) a bicycle committee,” he said. “I think people feel like ‘We are drivers and they are walking. The people walking are not us.’ ”
Key said an attitude change and necessary spending has to come from the top.
“This state is so good at ‘Oh, we’re poor we can’t do anything.’ We’re great at that,” he said. “I think there needs to be a change of political will.”
Sometimes it takes a horrific loss to spark that change.
Such was the case in March, when 12-year-old Eliza Almuina was fatally struck by a vehicle as she and a friend crossed Louisiana to Cleveland Middle School.
At the time Eliza was in the school crosswalk, but it was past school hours and police did not charge the driver – a 76-year-old man – calling the crash a “tragic accident.” A preliminary police report listed both “driver inattention, failed to yield right of way” and “pedestrian error.”
Eliza’s death sent shockwaves through the city, spawning a petition and leading the City Council to approve $400,000 in improvements to the crosswalk outside Cleveland Middle School. As part of the changes, a task force was appointed to see where crosswalk improvements could be made at other schools across the city.
A spokesman for the Department of Municipal Development said that while the task force is still hard at work trying to make schools safer, there are currently no other improvements being made around town, or at hot spots like Central or Coors, in relation to rising pedestrian deaths.
A spokeswoman for Mayor Tim Keller’s Office emailed a statement in response to several requests for an interview.
“It’s our priority to address the root causes of any challenge the City is facing,” Alicia Manzano wrote. “The City is working across departments to improve pedestrian safety — that includes increasing transit accessibility, improving crosswalks near schools, and a comprehensive plan to address homelessness.”