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Pedestrian deaths lead to stunning record Austin traffic fatalities

Pedestrian deaths are higher than fatalities in any other type of crash this year, and Austin is close to matching last year’s record number of traffic deaths.

December brings its own set of traffic challenges, including drunken drivers leaving seasonal parties and cold weather dangers, such as icy roads. As Austin residents prepare to hit the highways for the holidays, Lt. William White, head of the Austin Police Department’s vehicular homicide unit, said now isn’t the time to relax behind the wheel.

“December is notoriously a month with a lot of alcohol usage, holiday celebrations, combined with increased travel and bad weather,” White said. “Avoid unnecessary travel, especially during late hours and bad weather. And, if you do go out, don’t drink and drive.”

As of Friday, at least 108 people have died so far this year from injuries sustained in Austin traffic, a number inching close to the record death toll last year, when Austin tallied 120 road fatalities — the most in the nearly four decades that Austin police have kept such records.

In the most recent case, police responded at 5:35 a.m. Tuesday to reports of a crash between a sedan and a motorcycle in East Austin.

“The preliminary investigation shows that the sedan was traveling north in the outside lane of the 300 block of Airport Boulevard,” police said in a statement Friday. “The motorcycle, driven by Ernest Costilla, attempted to merge into the outside lane and hit the sedan.”

Costilla died at the scene. Police said the sedan’s driver stayed at the scene and cooperated with the investigation.

Anyone with more information about the case should call Austin police at (512) 974-8111 or submit a tip anonymously through Capital Area Crime Stoppers at austincrimestoppers.org or by calling (512) 472-8477.

What’s to blame for rise in pedestrian deaths?

This year, 45 people have died after being hit by a vehicle while crossing or near a city roadway, according to Austin police data as of Friday. That matches the city’s total pedestrian deaths for all of 2021 — with three weeks still remaining in 2022. Last year, the city had tallied 37 pedestrian deaths by this time in December.

The pedestrian deaths reported so far this year make up more fatalities than among those who died in vehicles, excluding motorcycles, bicycles or scooters. Forty-two people died while driving vehicles with four or more wheels so far this year, followed by 18 motorcyclists, one bicyclist and two people on scooters.

“Based on my knowledge of it, I’ve never seen where they’ve had more pedestrian fatalities than motor vehicle fatalities,” police Lt. White said about the increase.

Kara Kockelman, a University of Texas civil engineer, said the rise in pedestrian fatalities is linked to several factors, including jaywalking and unsafe infrastructure.

Kockelman, who has studied European road infrastructure in comparison to the United States, said our roads are much wider than of those in Europe, leaving pedestrians crossing them vulnerable for longer periods. Americans also have to walk longer distances to get to a crosswalk, encouraging many to jaywalk for convenience.

Lastly, because bicycling and walking are not as common in the U.S., drivers are much less aware of safety measures they could take to protect the most vulnerable on the road. As a result, Kockelman said it appears many of the deaths could have been avoided by both the pedestrians and drivers this year.

For example, 25 of the 45 pedestrian deaths so far this year involved them failing to yield to oncoming traffic or not using a crosswalk. In 20 of the pedestrian deaths, the drivers who hit them failed to stop and render aid.

“Pedestrian deaths are on the rise across the nation,” Kockelman said, adding that in many of the cases it’s caused by pedestrians walking illegally across a road. “Also, drivers don’t ever feel that fear of what it’s like to be a pedestrian or cyclist. We’re so used to driving, that we don’t know where a person might cross because we don’t ever experience that danger or that setting from the other shoe.”

Kockelman added that, because of shorter daylight hours, winter is especially dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists.

“Drivers are looking for something that can hurt them, they aren’t necessarily looking for pedestrians in the roadway” Kockelman said. “Pedestrians and bicyclists really need to carry a light on them. You’ve got to light yourself up, and you’ve got to do it for every driver that’s coming toward you because in darkness, and even in the twilight, they can’t see you.”

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data show that 6,516 pedestrians died in the U.S. after being hit by a vehicle, but the agency has yet to release the numbers from 2021 and 2022.

For perspective, the European Union reported only 3,569 pedestrian deaths in all of 2020. And the EU had about 447.7 million people living in its member countries in 2020, compared with 329.5 million in the U.S. that year.

The Governors Highway Safety Association releases preliminary data at the end of each year, and it estimates that more than 7,480 pedestrians died in traffic crashes in 2021 in the U.S., which is the most annually in about four decades. Preliminary data show there were about 3,960 pedestrian deaths in the EU in 2021, data from the European Commission says.

The EU is the world leader in reducing road traffic deaths and serious injuries, with a 36% drop in deaths between 2010 and 2020.

Austin is actively working to reduce the dangers for pedestrians and bicyclists locally through its Vision Zero Plan, which aims to reduce traffic crashes as a whole to zero by 2040. Part of the plan is to encourage more people to walk or bike by adding safer walkways, cycling lanes and crosswalks, in hopes of taking more vehicles off roads and, in turn, reducing traffic deaths. Another strategy is to further build out the city’s public transportation network, so more people opt to take a bus or train, rather than a single vehicle.

In 2020, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution to improve global road safety, encouraging governments to join together in preventing at least 50% of traffic deaths by 2030.

Police point to staffing problems

Authorities last year, and again just six months ago, attributed the increase in traffic deaths to speeding drivers left without traffic cops to keep them in check after Austin police reassigned patrol units to cover gaps in staffing.

The shortage came after the Austin City Council voted to eliminate three cadet training academy classes in 2020. The shortage then led to a ballot measure two Novembers ago that sought to bolster the force by requiring the city to hire hundreds of additional officers and maintain two officers per 1,000 residents. The proposition failed by more than 56,000 votes, with 68% of voters opposed.

Austin police leadership has suspended one unit dedicated to cracking down on drunken driving and another to catch speeders — two factors commonly linked to wrecks. Those officers now help respond to emergency calls, according to White.

Earlier this week, White said it appears the reason behind this year’s high death toll is no different, adding that it’s likely to continue until more officers are hired.

“The staffing, in my understanding, is several years from being balanced,” White said.

“The lack of visible traffic enforcement is having a significant impact on what we’re seeing on the roads. From our side, as far as law enforcement, if we don’t have the people, we can’t send anybody out to actually enforce the traffic.”

Holiday road safety tips

As Texans head out for holiday festivities this December, the state Department of Public Safety has a list of travel tips to help keep folks safe:

  • Monitor weather and road conditions. For those planning to travel for the holidays, check on highway conditions and closures in Texas by visiting DriveTexas.org.
  • Inspect your vehicle. Ahead of heading out, make sure to check your tire pressure and tread, windshield wipers, headlights and oil to avoid getting stranded or crashing on the road.
  • Add Texas Roadside Assistance into your contacts list. Dial 1-800-525-5555 for any type of roadside assistance. The number can also be found on the back of Texas driver’s licenses.
  • Report road hazards. If something is in the road, or you see someone driving recklessly, call the nearest law enforcement agency.
  • If you can steer it, clear it. If you are involved in a noninjury crash and your vehicle can be moved, clear the traffic lanes to minimize the effect on traffic and avoid a secondary wreck. On some highways, if you don’t move your vehicle when it’s safe to do so, it’s illegal.
  • Don’t drive fatigued. Residents should leave for their destination early, so they have plenty of time to take stops to rest if needed.
  • Slow down. The DPS suggests drivers slow down in bad weather, heavy traffic, construction zones or unfamiliar areas.
  • Don’t drink and drive. If you’re planning on consuming alcohol, opt for a ride-hailing service or have a responsible, designated driver lined up.
  • Eliminate distractions. Put away mobile devices and don’t worry about the dashboard controls. Instead, stop at a gas station if you need to call or text or, if you have a passenger, let them handle that for you.

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