Steller column: As pedestrians die, Tucson accommodates bad drivers

Driving up Craycroft Road, then east on Pima Street, I passed three defunct crosswalks. 

The street signs were still there, warning of pedestrians crossing, but workers had removed the paint, deliberately, when they resurfaced the road.

It was Thursday night, 9:30 p.m., and after driving a couple of miles I arrived at a supposedly functional crosswalk, at East Pima Street and North Rook Avenue. One sign warns “Be prepared to stop,” then about 100 yards later is the crosswalk itself, with another sign that says “Stop for pedestrians in crosswalk.”

The crosswalk is easy to see, even at night. A streetlight shines down on it. Yet on March 26 at about 10 p.m., a driver there struck a pedestrian I knew, Dan Benavidez. Later he died of his injuries.

I walked once each way across the street Thursday night, at around the same time Benavidez was struck. I was wearing a light-colored shirt, but three cars whizzed past me without slowing. It was scary enough that I thought better than to do any more test crossings.

This is what we’ve come to in Tucson: Crosswalks are so dangerous that city officials consider it safer to remove some of them than to leave them in place. Otherwise, the officials conclude, pedestrians think they may actually be safe crossing the street at a crosswalk, which is obviously not the case.

As Kylie Walzak of the Living Streets Alliance told me, “We’re giving people fewer options because it’s unsafe. Well, make it safe!”

Removing the crosswalks is an indictment of our drivers’ and pedestrians’ carelessness, and it also rewards drivers for not paying attention. Can you imagine if we removed stoplights because drivers kept blowing through reds? That’s the equivalent of removing crosswalks because drivers aren’t obeying them. 

It has been a bad run around Tucson during the last month — four pedestrians killed. While I was driving from the south side to the west side earlier Thursday, looking at sites where two pedestrians had been killed, a driver turning from North Wilmot Road onto East Speedway struck a woman walking across Speedway and killed her.

The death of  Gladys Blackmarr, 86, represented the ninth pedestrian death in Tucson this year.

Another man, pushing a walker across South Sixth Avenue, was killed in South Tucson March 28, so there have been at least 10 in the metro area this year.

Here’s the kicker: This has become normal. We are on the same pace we were on last year.

And Tucson is not the worst city in the state, by far. The Arizona Republic recently analyzed state crash data for the years 2010-2017 and found that the worst cities for pedestrian collisions, per capita, were Phoenix, Flagstaff, Casa Grande, Glendale, Yuma and Cottonwood. Tucson came in 7th, with 24 deaths per 100,000 residents. 

This is carnage, and the bad drivers are being accommodated by removing the mild nuisance of crosswalks.

Of course it’s not all the drivers’ fault. Anyone out on Tucson’s streets can see that. 

When John Rivera Velasquez was killed the night of March 27, it appears he was jaywalking across South 12th Avenue just south of West Calle Ramona, walking west toward Mission Manor Park. He apparently crossed the street at a spot maybe 50 yards north of a HAWK crossing — the crossings that allow pedestrians to set off a red light by pressing a button. If he had only hit that button and let the light turn, the driver would have been more likely to see the light and stop, whether or not he saw Velasquez.

But as it was, police concluded, Velasquez crossed the street north of the signal, and the driver fled after hitting him. It was a hit-and- run, still unsolved. 

These, by the way, are just the deaths. I attended the beginning of a city of Tucson pedestrian advisory committee meeting Wednesday night. Officer Mark Molina of the Tucson Police Department handed out a packet summarizing the pedestrian collisions in March. There were five with serious injuries, in addition to two fatal incidents that had been publicized. Beyond the five with serious injuries, there were more collisions with lesser injuries.

One crash with serious injuries happened earlier this year at Pima and Rook — a 13-year-old girl was struck in the same crosswalk where Benavidez was hit. Another happened Friday night at Grant and Columbus — a hit-and-run. It goes on, whether we hear about the cases or not.

Even the most tragic cases don’t necessarily bring action. Joana Sendino was a Cholla High student, on the way to school when she crossed West Silverlake Road the morning of Feb. 28. She had to cross Silverlake to get to the bus stop in front of the Pima County jail where she could catch a ride to school. A car struck her as she crossed Silverlake from south to north at Cottonwood.

There are two other memorials at the same corner from the last four years. One is of a motorcyclist, Saxen Hurst, and the other is for a bicyclist, Larry La Croix.

It’s a dangerous intersection. To cross the street in the “implied” crosswalk means taking your life into your hands. An implied crosswalk, by the way, is the place at an intersection where no crosswalk is marked, but pedestrians are permitted by law to cross.

If you want to cross Silverlake at a marked crosswalk, you have to go 3/10 of a mile west, to Mission, or 7/10 of a mile east, to the I-19 frontage road. 

But the city does not want to put a crosswalk there, for the same reason it is removing crosswalks elsewhere. To paint a stripe across the road would mean that pedestrians get a false sense of security. Potentially it could endanger them more than forcing them to wait for an opening, like Joana Sendino thought she had. At least that’s the thinking.

A HAWK crossing has huge potential at this site. But at present, that site ranks 78th out of 157 sites proposed for these flashing red signals. Barring serious political pressure, it won’t happen anytime soon — the crossings cost around $200,000 each.

None of it settles well with Yarelyn Sendino, Joana’s older sister.

“Sometimes I go and I hang out right there, and I see people crossing all the time,” she said. “You know, not everyone has cars. A lot of people walk everywhere.”

Even if people have cars, it seems natural that they would be able to walk a block to get groceries, a coffee or a sandwich. But the management at Villa Hermosa, a senior living complex at Speedway and Wilmot, asks its residents not to cross either of the streets, despite the tempting proximity of Starbucks, Beyond Bread and Trader Joe’s across the street from their home.

“We raise awareness to our residents to not walk across the street. To use our transportation,” manager Mike Soto told me. “We can’t tell them not to. They’re independent.”

So this is where we live now — a city where apartment complexes drive residents across the street rather than have them walk, and the city removes crosswalks because they’re unsafe.

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