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Ga. city tackles pedestrian deaths
Macon adopts Australia's 'Vision Zero' philosophy
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Macon-Bibb County's Pedestrian Safety Review Board is looking for ways to address the problem of pedestrian deaths, which reached 14 last year. (Special to the Herald)

The highways in Macon have long stretches with fast-moving traffic, poor lighting and very few crosswalks. And they have a problem with pedestrian deaths.

"I found that Macon was leading the state in pedestrian deaths, and it bothered me," said Macon-Bibb County Commissioner Elaine Lucas.

Lucas helped start the Macon-Bibb County Pedestrian Safety Review Board four years ago. The group consists of regular citizens, traffic engineers, public health and education officials, and the Bibb sheriff's office.

"Macon should not lead the state, and be way up there in the nation for pedestrian deaths, we just shouldn't be," she said. "It's an important health issue, public health issue, public safety issue, and one that we are finding that we can address."

It's still a problem. Pedestrian deaths last year in Macon/Bibb County reached 14, the highest total in at least seven years. Three deaths occurred over just one weekend.

The state's statistics are equally troubling. The Governors Highway Safety Association, a national nonprofit that represents state and territorial safety offices, recently reported that Georgia had 133 pedestrian deaths from January through June last year, up from 101 during the same period the previous year. Its 2018 total trailed only California, Florida and Texas, the three most populous states in the country.

And the national trend is grim as well. GHSA estimates the nationwide number of pedestrians killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2018 was 6,227, an increase of 4 percent from 2017. This projection would be the largest annual number of pedestrian fatalities in the nation since 1990.

 

So many factors to deal with

What's behind these increases? GHSA cites factors that include increased exposure, unfriendly infrastructure, unsafe driving and an increased presence of sport utility vehicles.

"Traffic safety doesn't get the attention of many things that kill far fewer people, because we regard that risk as part of everyday life," said Lila Ralston, project coordinator at the Traffic Safety Research and Evaluation Group at the University of Georgia College of Public Health.

"I can't think of anything that's really drastically different in Georgia from the rest of the country," Ralston said. "I mean, most of the trends we are seeing in Georgia match with national trends, mainly a worrying increase in the last eight or nine years."

She cites distracted drivers and the types of vehicles on the road as factors in the increase in deaths.

"It's a thousand tiny factors," she said. "I think there's an increase, as I said, in people walking or driving ... looking at the cellphone and handling it. I think there's the increase of SUVs and light trucks, which are both more dangerous for pedestrians."

About a third of pedestrians and one-fifth of drivers involved in pedestrian fatalities are drunk, she added. "Alcohol is always a concern, but the combination of alcohol with other drugs and the combination of drugs is an increasing factor."

Some of Ralston's research also shows a higher number of pedestrian deaths in rural areas, something which has long been known among traffic safety experts.

Ralston believes that pedestrian fatalities are a problem that can be fixed, although not easily. She pointed to Australia, where efforts have brought a sharp decline in the number of pedestrian deaths, which is "an indicator that we're not doing everything that we could be doing."

"The innovative approach is something called Vision Zero," Ralston said. "Vision Zero is the philosophical statement that the acceptable number of traffic fatalities is none, not this number per year, this number per mile, this number per population, but none."

The Macon-Bibb County's Pedestrian Safety Review Board is the only group in the state that has adopted Vision Zero so far.

Board Chairman Tom Ellington, who was previously on the Macon City Council, became involved with the group after attending a meeting where he expressed his unhappiness with victim blaming rhetoric around pedestrian fatalities.

They have also done specific projects, where citizens will tell them about a problem area and they work to come up with solutions and recommendations. There is also an educational facet to the Review Board, teaching people to be safe within the transportation network as it now exists.

"People are dying and it's avoidable," he said. "Every single fatality leaves a void that is never filled."

Lucas says the board has been a success. 

"Even though we still have a lot of traffic deaths, we are having an impact on our citizens because we are working with children and folks of all ages to have them consider safety in everything that they do," Lucas said.