Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
It often happens in an instant, without warning.
An eruption of crushed metal, shattered glass and screeching brakes. The jarring, yet silent, acrobatics of a figure tumbling through the air.
Last year, in Albuquerque, it happened more than ever.
The number of people fatally struck by drivers on the city’s streets hit record levels in 2021, according to statistics dating back to 1995, helping push the state past its highest pedestrian death toll since such records have been kept.
Drivers struck at least 324 people in the Albuquerque area in 2021 and 49 of those people died, 20 of them in hit and runs – the majority still unsolved.
The death toll dipped slightly in 2020 to 30 deaths after 2019, when there were 42.
In New Mexico drivers fatally struck 99 people in 2021, the highest tally recorded by the Department of Transportation and 10 more fatalities than the previous record of 88 deaths in 1995.
The state has a track record of being worst in the nation for pedestrian safety.
New Mexico has had the highest pedestrian death rate in the country for five years running, according to annual reports from the Governors Highway Safety Association. The full GHSA reports for 2020 and 2021 have not been released.
Despite the state’s abysmal ranking, traffic deaths in general are increasing at record levels nationwide, according to a projection by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The data shows that the first nine months of 2021 saw the highest percentage increase, 12%, in the history of the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, which has tracked data since 1979.
The NHTSA found New Mexico, which already had sustained high levels of traffic fatalities, saw an almost 20% increase over that same time period – the seventh highest recorded in the country.
While pedestrian error is cited as a factor in most fatal crashes, local authorities blame much of the spike in traffic deaths on lawlessness on the road by drivers who got accustomed to being reckless during the pandemic shutdown. Local traffic safety advocates point to the city’s culture and say the problem is ingrained in Albuquerque’s generational history of designing roads to get from A to B faster.
Whatever the root cause, Lt. Nick Wheeler, with APD’s Traffic Unit, said the end result has left grieving families in limbo as investigators grapple with an overwhelming workload.
“If I was a family member of the victim of a crash, especially a hit and run, where I don’t have any answers, I’d want to know, like right now, ‘What are you guys doing?'” he said. “But we’re not just putting them to the side, we’re trying. … We pester everybody that we need to get these cases complete.”
Eight months later, Randy and Linda Casper are still waiting for answers.
The couple, who live in Maxwell, received a voicemail from the Office of the Medical Investigator on July 2 that their daughter Kristin was dead.
“That was probably the most cruel thing – they left a voicemail that your daughter is in the morgue,” Randy Casper said. The 39-year-old, a Navy veteran and mother of three with vibrant green eyes and wavy blonde hair, had been fatally struck by a car in Albuquerque weeks earlier.
Linda Casper said, by the time they saw her body, she had been dead for weeks and was “in bad shape.” She added, “That’s our last memory.”
New year, similar story
Although the numbers have risen, the picture has stayed largely the same.
The biggest cluster of fatal pedestrian crashes occurred in the Southeast part of the city, many of them along Central. There were also several people struck and killed on Interstate 40 and Interstate 25. At least three of those killed were apparently homeless.
A few are not identified in crash reports provided by APD.
Of the 17 fatal pedestrian crash reports released to the Journal by APD, all cite pedestrian error, most due to the person not being in a crosswalk. At least nine cite driver inattention or excessive speed as contributing factors.
In one crash a woman told police her boyfriend, who had recently attempted suicide, ran into traffic after the couple fought near a McDonald’s on the West Side. She waited beside his body until police arrived.
In another, an officer was using his vehicle’s loudspeaker to tell a man to get out of the road when the man was struck on a stretch of Southeast Albuquerque that, according to police, “doesn’t have street lights, making it hard to see a person wearing dark clothing crossing the street.”
Sometimes nobody sees the crash. Just the aftermath.
In one case, a person told police they saw a car – its passenger side streaked with blood – driving down East Central after fatally striking a woman. In the North Valley, a man stopped when he saw “debris” in the road and was soon directing traffic around what he discovered to be a woman’s body.
A ‘terrible thing to behold’
On June 24, Patrick Gallagher was headed home on Carlisle around 9 p.m. when a woman began to cross the street “like she expected traffic to stop.” He said he slowed down to let her pass but the driver behind him swerved around him and struck the woman.
Kristin Casper, the daughter of the couple in Maxwell, tumbled through the air before crashing to the ground. Her parents said most of her bones had been broken and Gallagher, who tried to render aid, said she “died instantly.”
“It was pretty horrific – I wouldn’t want anyone to see that (or) be a part of that,” he said.
The driver, a 17-year-old boy, “broke down and started crying.”
“He didn’t really understand, until he saw the person, that he had killed someone,” Gallagher said. “I had to console him … make sure he understood that it wasn’t his fault.”
He said he knew it would “completely impact” the teen for the rest of his life.
“In some way it would impact me for the rest of my life as well, watching someone die in front of you is a pretty terrible thing to behold,” Gallagher said.
He said it was obvious the police on scene were accustomed to the scenario.
“It was very much ‘this is another day at the office’ for them,” he said, adding that the incident was a “sign of the times” as the city grapples with an ongoing pandemic.
The crash was ruled pedestrian error due to Casper not using a crosswalk.
Although the majority of crashes are ruled pedestrian error, Wheeler said they always try to determine if the driver was speeding or looking at their phone.
“We look at a whole bunch of things when we’re putting this together, just to ensure that we’re not just pointing fingers at certain people,” Wheeler said.
Sometimes the fault lies on both sides, like a fatal crash on June 14.
Arriving officers found a motorcycle rider and the man he struck lying on opposite sides of San Pedro at Copper, according to a crash report. Both were pronounced dead soon after.
Witnesses told police the motorcyclist was speeding and the man was standing in the middle of the road. Pedestrian error and excessive speed were both cited as causes.
When the crash is a hit and run, police say determining fault becomes trickier.
In the 17 hit and runs APD investigated in 2021, only two have been solved. Wheeler said drivers speed off for many reasons – drunken driving, no paperwork or a revoked license.
He said many of the unsolved hit-and-runs happened at night and there are few or no witnesses. Sometimes witnesses come forward days after the crash, give conflicting information or provide “real grainy” video or photos.
“For us to try and figure out who these (drivers) are, it’s difficult,” Wheeler said.
What is certain, Wheeler said, is that drivers’ habits are getting worse.
“They don’t care,” he said, point-blank, of many drivers. He added, “you’ve seen it driving on Albuquerque streets, everybody’s in a hurry to get nowhere.”
Wheeler said there were fewer cars on the road during the height of the pandemic in 2020, leading some to drive faster and more recklessly on empty streets.
“Well, now the traffic is coming back and those same people are driving ridiculously fast, like the roads are empty, and they’re not,” he said, adding that drivers will speed past a police vehicle “looking at you like ‘why are you going so slow?'”
Recently, Wheeler was left in disbelief when a man complained to Bernalillo County deputies after he stopped the driver for speeding and gave him a warning.
“At least I wasn’t giving them a ticket, I’m just trying to get these people to slow down,” he said. “They need to think about their family and their loved ones and friends that are out on the roadway. They don’t want to be a victim of someone driving like a bonehead.”
Terra Reed, former Vision Zero coordinator, said reaching the initiative’s goal of “zero traffic deaths by 2040” will take a combination of redesigning roads and changing driver behavior.
Reed, a longtime traffic safety advocate, said a “big hurdle” is moving past the status quo of building “faster, car-centric roads.” When she started as coordinator in December 2020, the idea of narrowing lanes and slowing traffic was “a big fight” with the city.
She said she spent her eight months as coordinator “semi-normalizing” the idea of slowing traffic, hammering out the Vision Zero action plan and getting projects off the ground, including additional lighted crosswalks and a Louisiana “road diet” – which means reducing lanes in various ways to increase safety.
In May 2019, Mayor Tim Keller signed on to Vision Zero, a nationwide commitment to “create safer streets for all.” A year and a half later, Reed was hired as a coordinator.
“As much as I wish I could wave a magic wand – get people to drive more safely and get our streets to be designed for safer driving, I know that change is going to be slow,” Reed said, adding that the cost of fixing all city roads would be “astronomical.”
She said incorporating small segments of road diets and traffic calming measures here and there could get people used to driving slower and change their habits.
“How big of an impact would that have on our community if we all were doing that?” Reed asked hypothetically. “…This is a community problem and we have to come together as a community to do the work to make it better.”
Reed said it was “really tough” for her to leave Vision Zero in August for another job opportunity but she feels positive about the road ahead. And she’s still in the fight.
“When I left it, I was hopeful we had planted enough of a seed to keep it moving forward,” she said. “There’s still work to be done and I haven’t left that work behind.”
Searching for answers
Gallagher, who witnessed the crash that killed Casper, said he still thinks about the incident. He has tried to find out more about her and the teen who struck her and even left messages at the coroner’s office.
“It didn’t make any sense to me the way she crossed the street,” Gallagher said.
Her parents have similar questions.
Randy Casper said he has made the 400-mile round trip to Albuquerque twice trying to get information from police, who only tell him it “is still under investigation.”
“I would like to have answers,” he said.
His wife added, “It’s just not knowing, you know, what happened.”
Kristin had called him on Father’s Day, four days before she died. She was expecting a fourth child – her other three ranged in age from 6 to 18. In what would be their final talk, Casper told her parents she wanted to get her nursing license reinstated, after it expired during a hiatus from her 15-year career in the field.
“She seemed like she was looking ahead,” Linda Casper said. The couple said Kristin Casper’s ex-husband was notified of her death, but word had not reached them until the voicemail from the Medical Investigator’s office.
One of three siblings raised in Maxwell, Kristin Casper grew up to be fun-loving and fiercely independent. Her father still laughed remembering when she would ride on his shoulders as a child, sometimes covering his eyes, when they went waterskiing.
Casper’s parents anxiously await a police report on the crash, not just for answers but also for closure. They want to send a letter to the young man who hit her, so he knows they hold “no ill will” against him.
Randy and Linda Casper, both longtime teachers, said they’d seen their fair share of tragedies hit young people.
“We feel sorry for the young man, that’s something that he’s going to live with the rest of his life,” Randy Casper said. “We want him to live his life.”