Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
They pop up all over town.
A cluster of candles, rosaries draped over a small wooden cross and messages like “rest in peace” scrawled on the pavement.
Long after the debris has been cleared away, these silent memorials remain.
There were at least 340 crashes involving pedestrians in the Albuquerque area last year. Among those, 42 people were killed – a 20% increase over the prior year, and the total doesn’t include the deaths of three cyclists. In 2018, the numbers were 331 and 35.
As the state saw a 6.6% drop in pedestrian crashes, from 625 in 2018 to 584 last year, Albuquerque – the largest contributor – continued to see an increase.
For three years in a row, in a 2017 report and preliminary reports for 2018 and 2019, the Governors Highway Safety Association ranked New Mexico as worst in the nation for pedestrian fatalities.
The uptick in such fatal crashes in Albuquerque comes on the heels of local officials signing onto a national initiative to make streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists. As part of that effort they have lowered speed limits in one part of town, assessed school crosswalks and are gearing up to pump legislative money into infrastructure citywide.
But Scot Key, a state traffic safety advocate, said so far he has been underwhelmed by the city’s efforts. As someone who pores over hundreds of crash reports and studies traffic safety measures, Key argues that a “massive overhaul of minds” is needed for change.
“The saddest part is that there is that apathy, that failure to see the need to reduce the numbers and to do something about it,” he said.
Driver rarely faulted
Nearly all of the pedestrian crashes in Albuquerque last year have a common thread. Authorities determined the fault lies with the pedestrian in almost all of those cases.
“It’s very rare” to see a driver face serious charges like vehicular homicide – even in deadly crashes, said Sgt. Michael Loftis, with APD’s traffic unit. When someone is charged in these cases, it’s typically for something like careless driving or leaving the scene of an accident.
“We can debate. … ‘Should the driver have seen this person? Would I expect the driver to see this person?’ ” he said. “We can debate that all the time, usually it’s that pedestrian error.”
Loftis said most pedestrian crashes in 2019 – as with previous years – happened at night, in dimly lighted areas with the person wearing dark clothes and not being in a crosswalk. The fatalities cluster in the languishing Central corridor between San Pedro and Eubank, where street lights are few and far between. Several crashes also dot the length of Coors as a business boom has led to more foot traffic but little change in driving habits or roadway changes. Very few happen in the North Valley or Northeast Heights.
Some crashes are more frustrating, and senseless, to authorities than others.
Loftis said that in two separate crashes last year, a person was struck and killed after jaywalking within 50 feet of the Gibson overpass walkway, near San Mateo and adjacent to the old Lovelace Hospital.
“I think there’s a lot we could do, static-type of obstacles, to keep people from walking in the road,” he said. “But eventually they’re going to walk in the road.”
Many of the people killed in pedestrian crashes last year passed with little notice. Others, due to their circumstances, garnered widespread attention and newspaper headlines – like the 15-year-old struck by a stolen truck as it fled police on the West Side or the mother of two killed when a Kirtland airman struck her near the base.
So far no suspect has been named in the teen’s death, but the airman is set for a court martial in June on charges of reckless driving, voluntary manslaughter and negligent homicide.
A particularly high-profile case in 2018, the death of 12-year-old Eliza Almuina outside Cleveland Middle School, sent shock waves through the community that are still being felt.
“We heard about that for a long time,” Loftis said. “In the same week, we probably had two other people hit and killed around the city, and we didn’t hear anything.”
Within months of Almuina’s death the city put a new $350,000 HAWK signal outside the school and formed a task force to study hundreds of school crosswalks citywide.
“You can attribute it to how much the media cares or how much the general public cares about the people that will walk out in the street, that’s something that I couldn’t comment on,” Loftis said.
‘End of the story’
In the deadliest crash in 2019, two people died and APD didn’t send out a notification or news release.
Around 9:15 p.m. on June 1, Tony Rubio, 49, and Eleanor Cole, 29, used a crosswalk at the intersection of Coors and Fortuna NW. They were both hit by a man in a truck and eventually died from their injuries. The driver told police “it was dark” and he couldn’t see the two until they were “right in front of him.”
The driver was found to be intoxicated and was arrested for vehicular homicide that night. However, further investigation revealed the driver was below the legal limit and Rubio and Cole were walking against a “do not walk” signal. When the case was forwarded to the 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office, prosecutors found there was “not enough evidence to prove vehicular homicide or DWI in this case.”
It’s one case, of many, that shows the complexities of pedestrian fatal crash investigations that can take months to complete. Key said it’s another example of leaning on blame instead of enacting change.
He said changes are needed at state and local levels, including rewording statutes that now make it easy for police and prosecutors to blame pedestrians and enacting policies that require marked crosswalks at specified distances.
“You have to change the mindset to ‘Oh. yeah, maybe we should actually start doing stuff that reduces it’ as opposed to ‘These are the reasons the victim should be blamed and that’s the end of the story from our perspective,'” Key said.