Rise in pedestrian fatalities in Georgia puts spotlight on safety

If you think driving in metro Atlanta is dangerous, try getting around it on foot or in a wheelchair.

Statistics released last week by the Georgia Department of Transportation show the number of pedestrians struck and killed by motor vehicles in 2012 is on track to exceed last year's total of 124 fatalities. As of mid-August, 82 pedestrians had been killed on area roads, compared with 63 at the same time last year.

"The numbers are up," said Meg Pirkle, GDOT's director of operations. "It's certainly a concern for us. We have to provide safe routes for all users, pedestrian or not."

National studies show more Americans are walking for exercise, to avoid paying higher gas prices or because they prefer urban lifestyles. But in car-centric regions like Atlanta, finding a way for drivers and pedestrians to coexist has long been a challenge.

On Thursday, Darlene Jackson and her 10-year-old daughter, Amore, walked down the sidewalk on Jimmy Carter Boulevard as cars whizzed past. Jackson, who lives at an extended-stay hotel in Norcross and has no vehicle, said she and Amore often cross the seven-lane street in the middle of the block to reach a convenience store on the other side. Otherwise, they'd have to walk a half-mile to the nearest crosswalk.

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"The crosspoints are just so far apart," Jackson said. "There's not too many at all, and the light doesn't last long enough to even get across at the intersection."

Pedestrian fatalities in Georgia have averaged 149 deaths annually over the past six years, never dropping below 124 in a given year. But in recent years, the number of total fatalities on Georgia roads has dropped by 27 percent, according to federal and state figures. That means pedestrian deaths now make up a growing share of the state's overall traffic fatalities.

Georgia has the ninth highest rate of pedestrian fatalities in the nation based on population. The Peach State averages 1.73 pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 people, considerably higher than the national average of 1.38 per 100,000, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's latest report, based on 2010 statistics.

Advocates for pedestrian safety say the most perilous areas for walkers are arterial roads in the inner suburbs ringing downtown Atlanta. Densely populated apartment complexes there house low-income residents who rely on public transportation.

Often, those residents have to navigate four- to six-lane roads with posted speed limits of 45 mph to reach bus stops and shops.

Buford Highway is notorious for unsafe passages, but there are other problem corridors scattered around the metro region, including Tara Boulevard, Riverdale Road, Campbellton Road, Covington Highway, Flat Shoals Road, Cobb Parkway and Austell Road.

Not enough is being done to accommodate pedestrians who have to deal with high-speed automotive traffic, said David Goldberg of the Washington-based advocacy group Transportation for America.

"You're lucky to get a sidewalk, you very infrequently see well-marked crosswalks, and you have very long blocks," said Goldberg, a Decatur resident from 1995 to 2011. "Motorists have gotten accustomed to thinking the roadway belongs to them. That width [of road] sends a signal to the motorist that you're supposed to drive at interstate speeds."

It's unclear whether improvements will come quickly. GDOT officials said a statewide pedestrian safety action plan will be drawn up this year. There is some money on hand for audible warning signals at intersections or high-intensity activated crosswalk or HAWK signals, which are button-activated traffic signals designed to help pedestrians cross busy streets.

In Cobb County, where residents approved a penny sales tax last year, $15.5 million will go toward sidewalks. In June, the county installed a HAWK signal on Six Flags Drive that officials say appears to be working well.

Gwinnett County has about $34 million to use for pedestrian improvements because of the five-year penny sales tax voters approved in 2009. Some sidewalks have been added on Bush, Pine and Old Suwanee roads. However, Gwinnett Transportation Director Kim Conroy said there are still about $100 million worth of pending sidewalk requests.

Sandy Springs, the second-largest city in the metro region, built 7.5 miles of sidewalks in the past 12 months as part of a long-term bid to make the city more walkable, spokeswoman Sharon Kraun said.

Around the metro region, much of the hoped-for money for sidewalk repairs, refuge islands and HAWK crossings was tied up in the T-SPLOST project list. That 1 percent sales tax was resoundingly voted down.

Richard Mendoza, Atlanta's commissioner of public works, said the city is moving ahead with plans to spend about $800,000 this year on sidewalk repairs. Rapid-flashing beacons to warn drivers of pedestrians crossing mid-block have been installed on Peachtree Dunwoody Road and 10th Street.

The city is competing for millions of dollars that will be distributed by the Atlanta Regional Commission. Atlanta could use the money for crossings, raised medians and high-intensity LED flashers, said Joshua Mello, a transportation expert in the city's planning department.

Many Atlanta residents have complained about aging and cracked sidewalks. Elderly and disabled people especially have a difficult time navigating the uneven concrete.

"I've been in third-world countries where I could move around better than I can in Atlanta," local actor Daryl Mitchell told a City Council panel this summer. Mitchell has been wheelchair-bound since a motorcycle accident a decade ago.

The Atlanta Police Department also conducted a sting operation in June aimed at drivers who blow through pedestrian crosswalks without stopping. More than a dozen motorists were ticketed.

But Atlanta has a long way to go, said Michael Julian Bond, who chairs the City Council's public safety committee.

Bond cringes when he sees people in wheelchairs try to cross near the Kroger supermarket on Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard, or pedestrians strolling alongside high-speed vehicles on Howell Mill Road.

"It's frightening," he said.

Pedestrian fatalities in Georgia:

Year/ Number of fatalities

2005/ 150

2006/ 148

2007/ 154

2008/ 147

2009/ 152

2010/ 168

2011/ 124

2012 (As of Aug. 13): 82

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