One of my neighbors was killed earlier this month, struck by a car as she crossed Richmond Road on her way to an early-morning exercise class.
Judith Penelope, 73, was Lexington’s eighth pedestrian fatality of 2017. That’s just shy of last year’s record-high 10 fatalities, a mark also hit in 2008. Lexington’s average number of pedestrian deaths since 1996 has been fewer than five.
“She was kind, thoughtful, just a truly gentle soul,” 3rd District Council Member Jake Gibbs said of Penelope, whom he knew from the YMCA exercise class, which they both attended for years.
No charges were filed against the driver, and that’s understandable. The driver was probably going near the 35 mph speed limit. It was dark and foggy. Penelope was wearing dark clothes. And she was crossing at an especially dangerous spot, where the road falls and inbound cars often gain speed and lose visibility.
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But while it can be easy to blame the victim in this case —and most of the other seven pedestrian fatalities this year — there’s a deeper issue. Virtually all of this year’s pedestrian deaths were on state-controlled streets and roads, which have higher speed limits and fewer crosswalks than the streets the city controls.
“Traditional traffic engineers, all they want to do is move cars,” Gibbs said. “They think of pedestrians as obstacles to moving cars. But there’s a new generation of traffic engineers, and we’ve got them (in city government). They care about pedestrians.”
The Urban County Council decided in February 2016 to reduce the speed on major urban streets it controls from 35 mph to 25 mph, primarily as a safety measure for pedestrians. A pedestrian hit by a car going 25 mph has a 5 percent chance of being killed, but that rises to 45 percent at 35mph and 85 percent at 40 mph.
The speed limit change was the result of a pedestrian safety working group city officials formed in 2014 after a spate of accidents, said Dowell Hoskins-Squier, who headed the city’s traffic engineering division before she was promoted to commissioner of Environmental Protection & Public Works.
Another result of that effort has been city funding to improve crosswalk facilities and build some new crosswalks on city-controlled streets with heavy pedestrian traffic, such as Walton and Boonesboro avenues; Loudon Avenue and North Limestone Street; and around the University of Kentucky campus.
Hoskins-Squier said the city recently got a grant to upgrade facilities at some heavily used school crossings. And the organization Smart Growth America this year chose Lexington and two other cities — Orlando, Fla., and South Bend, Ind. — for its first Safe Streets Academy, a grant-funded effort for sharing ideas on traffic safety.
Recent negotiations with the state Transportation Cabinet will have Lexington taking over High and Maxwell streets west of Broadway in the Woodward Heights neighborhood, with plans for better crosswalk facilities and lower speed limits.
The city will be taking over a wide and dangerous section of South Limestone through much of the UK campus, from Virginia Avenue to the Avenue of Champions. Gibbs hopes to have speed limits lowered and crosswalks improved there, too.
The city also will soon take over Euclid Avenue. Gibbs hopes to lower the speed to 25 and, after sewer and other infrastructure improvements planned next year, put a crosswalk in near Kroger.
Slower speeds also reduce deaths and injuries in accidents that don’t involve pedestrians. Lexington last year had a record 50 deaths in 17,062 vehicle collisions, 2,387 of which involved injuries. Last year there were 185 vehicle collisions with pedestrians, and 69 involving bicycles, but no cyclist deaths.
Gibbs wishes more could be done to make state-controlled streets more pedestrian-friendly. Two big ones: South Limestone around UK Hospital and Richmond Road, where Penelope was killed.
The closest crosswalk to Penelope was three blocks away, at Ashland Avenue. There are no more crosswalks on that four-lane divided road until Chinoe Road — 11 blocks that pass through some of Lexington’s most heavily populated in-town neighborhoods.
Does this make any sense? Only if your focus is moving cars rapidly in and out of downtown and ignore the safety of the hundreds of people living on either side of Richmond Road.