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“There’s A Lot Of Crazy Drivers” – City, Advocates Take Aim At Fresno Pedestrian Safety

Oct 26, 2016

The streets of Fresno can be dangerous—not just to drivers and bicyclists, but also to pedestrians. Following a trio of fatal accidents last week, more pedestrians have died this year than in all of 2015, and they’ve made up more than half of all traffic-related deaths. Now, a new city plan aim to make the city safer for walking.

It’s 2:30 p.m. on a Tuesday. And in this part of southeast Fresno, that means one thing: school’s out.

Kids are excited, but it’s a time of anxiety for some parents—like Jessica Zuniga. She’s a volunteer crossing guard at Lane Elementary School in southeast Fresno. She shakes her head as a black SUV roars past a blinking school zone sign. “We're gonna make sure that the kids are safe walking across the street,” she says, “’cause there's a lot of crazy drivers.”

Zuniga has three young kids. Two of them are here at Lane. She and a handful of parents began volunteering for crosswalk duty around a year ago. “I see a lot of parents that park close to the crosswalk, they like to honk a lot instead of getting down for their kids,” she says. And “the kids just jet out. They're like, ‘oh, mom's here!’ And they just run across.”

Parents have reason to worry. People do get injured and killed walking the roads in Fresno. Fourteen pedestrians have died so far this year, a number that’s already higher than in all of 2015. “I don't think I'll ever let my kids walk to school,” Zuniga says. “My son asks all the time, but I'm one of those worried parents. I walk them, but, you know, they're right next to me; I don't let them go ahead."

Students at Lane Elementary School gathered to celebrate walk to school day earlier this month.
Credit Cultiva La Salud

There’s no single reason why people get hit—sometimes it’s distracted drivers, or a lack of crosswalks and sidewalks. And, of course, some pedestrians, like excited kids, just don’t follow the rules. But whatever the reason, there’s someone out there trying to fix it—including Fresno itself with a new city plan.

On average, 13 to 14 pedestrians are killed on the roads each year in Fresno. Compared to our total population, that’s pretty high, and we score low on national rankings of pedestrian safety. On the other hand, when you consider the number of miles driven each day in Fresno, we actually rank as one of the safer cities for pedestrians.

Truly, though, your safety in Fresno depends on where you are. Pedestrian collisions happen most often in the northwest, central and southern parts of the city. Genoveva Islas is the director of Cultiva La Salud, a non-profit group that promotes community health in Fresno County. She says many of those areas are old, and were developed at a time when cars were the priority. “Things like having wide sidewalks, having crosswalks, street lighting to help pedestrians be visible, bike lanes, really weren’t in the ideas at that time,” she says.

At the edge of one of these high collisions zones is Lane Elementary School and Jessica Zuniga’s crosswalk. Student safety here is one Cultiva La Salud’s priorities, and the group works with the city to solve problems with infrastructure.

But Islas says there’s another element to road safety Fresno hasn’t fully tackled yet, and that’s outreach to both drivers and pedestrians. “If there is any neglect that I could say on the city’s part, it’s that they haven’t invested in as much of the non-infrastructure type resources as are needed,” she says. “And so by that, it does allude to that education that is needed; you know, how are we messaging and communicating about sharing the road?”

Pedestrian collisions happen most often in some of the city’s oldest neighborhoods.
Credit 2016 Active Transportation Plan/City of Fresno

Jill Gormley is a traffic engineer with the City of Fresno, and she agrees. “Can we do better on infrastructure? Yes,” she says. “We can always do better in those areas. But I think that education would make it safer for pedestrians.”

The city already engages in some education and outreach, including billboards and bus placards about pedestrians, and a program with the Fresno Police Department that sends officers into classrooms to talk about road safety.

Now, the city has just drafted its active transportation plan, which aims to make getting around Fresno without a car easier and safier. The plan does emphasize infrastructure, but it also recommends social media outreach, better driver training, and a national safety program called Safe Routes To School. A UC Berkeley evaluation recommended that program to the city back in 2009. “We've worked a lot with different neighborhoods, different groups, and we've gotten a lot of feedback up until this point,” says Gormley. “This plan is really based on a lot of community input and feedback.”

A draft of the active transportation plan is available for public comment until November 10. It will be finalized by the new year, but it may still take years to be implemented. In the meantime, advocates and volunteers are doing their part on the ground, so that, maybe, in the not too distant future, parents like Zuniga will feel safer waving goodbye to their kids at the front door.