It’s a “startling statistic:” More pedestrians have been killed in 2018 in Lexington than any year since the city started tracking the numbers in 1996, according to police data and the supervisor of accident investigations.
A previous record of 10 fatal pedestrian accidents was set in 2008 and tied in 2016. With six weeks left in the current year, 13 pedestrians have died after they were struck by vehicles, according to police data.
They include 4-year-old Marco Shemwell, who was killed in September by an alleged drunk driver near Kroger Field where the University of Kentucky was playing a day game, and 21-year-old Nina Okawachi, who died after a hit-and-run crash on Leestown Road last month. Most recently, 47-year-old Juan Garcia was killed Wednesday on Versailles Road when he was crossing the road outside of the crosswalk, police said.
Most victims aren’t youngsters. The average age of the pedestrians killed in 2018 is 50 years old.
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The city is taking steps to improve pedestrian safety, but pedestrian fatalities continue to climb. Nationally, pedestrian deaths have also increased. What is to blame? That’s not a simple answer.
Sgt. Randall Combs, supervisor of Lexington police’s Collision Reconstruction Unit, said the number of pedestrian deaths is “alarming.” While he does not know why there is an increase this year, he said many of the pedestrians have not been following traffic laws.
“We are scratching our heads a bit for ways to bring this down,” Combs said. “A lot of the traffic laws we have in place are being ignored by the pedestrians. A majority of the ones (accidents) we are seeing, the pedestrian would have been at fault. It’s frustrating because we have crosswalks and signals, but a lot of times they aren’t being used.”
From 2014 to 2017, the number of pedestrians who were struck by a vehicle increased each year — reaching 191 in 2017.
More are dying this year than previous years, but the number of pedestrians being struck has decreased. As of Sept. 30 — the latest full count available — there were 119 reported collisions involving pedestrians, according to police data. In the same time frame in 2017, there were 143 such collisions.
The conditions that exist when pedestrians died in 2018 are similar to what police have seen in previous years.
“A lot of the pedestrians are not using the crosswalk, or if they are using the crosswalk, they are crossing against the traffic lights,” Combs said. “A lot of them happen in the darkness and they’re wearing dark clothing. We have had some occasions of drug and alcohol use with some of the pedestrians when they kind of stumble out onto the street.”
Just Thursday night, a woman wearing all-dark clothing and not using a crosswalk was struck by a car headed inbound on Clays Mill Road near Jessie M. Clark Middle School, police said. The woman’s injuries were not life-threatening.
Combs also said three or four of the pedestrians killed belonged to the homeless community. Last year, more than half of the nine pedestrians killed were homeless.
Combs encourages drivers to keep their speed reasonable and to be alert, especially in areas where there could be foot traffic, including near businesses, campuses and hospitals.
“Even though a lot of these cases the pedestrians are expected to yield, we encourage drivers to be alert and attentive for pedestrians,” Combs said. “Even if a pedestrian crosses in front of you, if the driver sees them in time, it greatly increases their chance to avoid a collision.”
In some cases, drivers are suspected of being at fault. Criminal charges have been lodged against drivers in at least three pedestrian collisions.
Michael Ray King of Winchester has been indicted on a charge of leaving the scene of an April 12 accident that resulted in the death of 46-year-old Stevonn Page as she checked her garbage cans on Leestown Road. Jacob Heil has pleaded not guilty to a charge of driving under the influence in connection with Marco Shemwell’s death. That case is still under investigation by police.
And the case of Elliott Moton has been waived to a grand jury for possible indictment. Moton has pleaded not guilty to a charge of leaving the scene of an accident in connection with the hit-and-run that resulted in Okawachi’s death.
That initiative includes improving pedestrian crossings on major streets. Most recently, the city put in a new pedestrian crossing on North Broadway near Transylvania University to make it easier and safer for students to cross the four-lane road. In addition, the city has also lowered speed limits on roads it controls.
The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council is expected to give final approval in December to lowering speed limits from 35 to 25 on several downtown streets that it recently took over from the state.
But the state still controls many of the city’s busiest streets, including Versailles Road where Garcia was hit and killed Wednesday. The city has asked state transportation officials to lower speed limits on roads it controls but the state — perhaps interested in keeping traffic moving — has repeatedly denied that request.
Jeff Neal, the director of Lexington’s traffic engineering, told the council during a meeting in October that decreasing speeds increases a pedestrian’s chance of survival if struck by a moving vehicle.
“At 20 to 25 mph, the fatality rate is 4 percent,” Neal said. But at 30 to 35 mph, the fatality rate increases to 45 percent. That’s because the faster drivers are going, the longer it takes for vehicles to stop, Neal said.
Pedestrian deaths across the country have reached a 25-year high, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. In 2016 and 2017, nearly 6,000 pedestrians were killed. Nationwide, the number of pedestrian fatalities increased 27 percent from 2007 to 2016, while all other traffic fatalities in that period decreased by 14 percent.
Pedestrian deaths as a percent of total motor vehicle crash deaths has increased steadily across the United States, from 11 percent in 2007 to 16 percent in 2016.
Many factors might contribute to the increase. More people are walking and motor vehicle travel has increased on roads and streets nationwide.
“More people are out and about and walking” as communities try to become more pedestrian friendly, said Kara Macek, a spokeswoman for the Governors Highway Safety Association.. “People are moving to more urban areas and people are more likely to be out and walking.”
Other contributing factors: lower fuel prices; the growing number of state and local governments that have decriminalized the use of marijuana, which can impair judgment and reaction time; and the increasing use of smart phones, which can be a source of distraction for drivers and pedestrians.
“Whenever you’re behind the wheel, you’re operating a machine that has the propensity to kill. It’s like driving a loaded gun. You wouldn’t shoot a gun while you’re texting someone,” Macek said. “Why would you drive while you’re using your phone?”
Pedestrians who died and where each was hit in 2018
- Jan. 1: Patrick Murphy, 57. Georgetown Street, between Keller Court and Lima Drive
- March 31: 32-year-old victim. Richmond Road and Lakeshore Drive.
- April 12: Stevonn Page, 46, Leestown Road near Dolan Lane.
- April 18: Robert Russell, 77, pedestrian. (The driver, Robert Gallagher, 58, also died.) Bellefonte Drive and Jesselin Drive.
- May 1: 65-year-old victim. Georgetown Road and Spurr Road.
- May 31: Steve Ray Tracy, 59. New Circle Road and Russell Cave Road.
- July 22: Jeffrey Shields, 56. New Circle Road and Meadow Lane.
- Sept. 14: 81-year-old victim. Tabor Oaks Lane.
- Sept. 15: Marco Lee Shemwell, 4. Cooper Drive and Scoville Road.
- Sept. 16: David L. Spears, 62. Richmond Road and Patchen Drive.
- Oct. 12.: Nina Okawachi, 21. Leestown Road near Greendale Road.
- Oct. 20.: John V. Oliver, 47. North Limestone between Templeman and Constitution.
- Nov. 14: Juan Garcia, 47. Versailles Road near Delmont Drive.