Pedestrians in peril

Recent spate of fatal or serious-injury collisions illustrates long-standing problem in Clark County

By Emily Gillespie, Columbian Breaking News Reporter



Cody Robinson began his walk to LaborWorks early on March 13 so he’d have a better chance at getting a job that day through the temporary employment company.

In the predawn hours, the 20-year-old crossed Andresen Road at Fourth Plain Boulevard in Vancouver and was hit by a southbound SUV, which police say ran a red light at the intersection. The crash broke Robinson’s eye sockets and cheek bones, bruised his lungs and caused head trauma that doctors say could lead to brain damage.

“I’m devastated,” Robinson’s brother, Alex Celorio, said. “You could be doing everything that you’re supposed to do and, like my brother, still get hit by a car. It’s still not enough.”

Robinson’s story is one of several recent pedestrian-vehicle crashes that have devastated families in Clark County. In January, two women were struck and killed by a pickup as they crossed a street in a crosswalk in the VanMall neighborhood. In October, a man crossing Mill Plain Boulevard at Southeast 105th Avenue with a walker was hit and killed by a driver, who police say was sending a text message.

In fact, more than 770 pedestrian-involved vehicle collisions have taken place in Clark County during the past decade, killing at least 35 people and injuring at least 768 others, according to a Columbian analysis of crash data from the Washington State Department of Transportation.

Of the 210 people killed in all vehicle collisions between 2004 and 2013 in Clark County, 16.7 percent were pedestrians. Just two other counties in the state — King and Snohomish — have a higher percentage of fatal vehicle-pedestrian collisions.

To address pedestrian safety concerns, county and Vancouver city officials are changing the infrastructure around crosswalks and along roadways, and law enforcement agencies continue to enforce traffic laws. At the same time, the Vancouver Police Department has made significant cuts to the number of officers assigned to traffic enforcement.

Collision hot spots

Many recent pedestrian-vehicle crashes in Clark County occurred in downtown Vancouver and on major arterials, including Fourth Plain and Mill Plain boulevards and Highway 99, according to a Columbian map displaying crash information supplied by WSDOT. In Vancouver, the site of about two-thirds of all vehicle-pedestrian crashes in Clark County, efforts are underway to make pedestrians safer and drivers more aware of those traveling by foot.

Vancouver Public Works is in the middle of a pedestrian crosswalk improvement project that targets two crosswalks on Mill Plain and five crosswalks on Fourth Plain. The grant-funded upgrade is expected to be completed this summer.

The project replaces existing pedestrian beacons, which have flashing yellow lights, with a new hybrid beacon similar to a traffic light. The new devices will flash a yellow light, and then turn solid yellow before displaying a solid red light.

“The new pedestrian hybrid beacon systems are being used across the country,” said city traffic engineer Chris Christofferson. “They balance vehicle and pedestrian needs, increase driver yield rates and provide pedestrians a clear direction for crossing opportunities.”

In unincorporated parts of the county, Clark County Public Works is improving pedestrian accessibility to sidewalks, Jeff Mize, the county’s Public Works spokesman, said.

This summer, the county is building a temporary pedestrian walkway on the west side of a nearly one-mile stretch of Highway 99 between Northeast 102nd Street and Northeast Parkview Drive. Within the next few years, officials plan to upgrade a small portion of the roadway, between Northeast 99th Street and 107th Street, to include bike lanes and sidewalks on both sides of the road.

According to the county, new sidewalks are among the most frequently requested services by the public.

Mize said building more sidewalks wasn’t a response to any particular crash, rather “it’s more taking advantage of an opportunity we see to make the entire system safer,” he said. “Anytime you can provide some degree of separation between vehicles and pedestrians, it’s a good thing.”

Since 2007, the county’s Public Works department has spent more than $5.9 million to build 53,000 feet of sidewalk. But when it comes to preventing pedestrian-involved vehicle crashes, Mize said infrastructure can only go so far.

“A lot of time, this is caused by human carelessness,” Mize said. “There’s really only so much government can do. The county can’t solve this problem on its own.”

Police response

When it comes to law enforcement, Vancouver police traffic Sgt. Pat Johns said he’s doing the best with what he’s got to keep those traveling by foot safe.

The agency’s traffic unit, in charge of most serious-injury and fatal traffic collision investigations and traffic-specific enforcement efforts, has changed drastically in size over the years. In 2007, the unit included a team of 15 officers; today, five officers, including Sgt. Johns, juggle investigating crashes and responding to traffic complaints.

Even with the traffic unit spread thin, Johns said pedestrian crashes are on his radar. Just prior to the crash at Fourth Plain and Andresen that injured Cody Robinson, the agency noticed a problem and was planning to place an officer at the intersection between noon and 2 p.m. (More than half of all pedestrian-involved vehicle crashes in the county in the last decade happened during daylight hours.)

After Robinson was struck, the traffic unit launched an investigation involving surveillance footage, search warrants, inspecting the involved vehicle and conducting interviews. The criminal investigation put previous enforcement efforts on the back burner, Johns said.

When it comes to enforcement, Johns also said the traffic team’s top priority is to protect the roadway’s most vulnerable users.

“I’ve only got a few people, so let’s worry about our school zones,” he said.

New Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain, who’s had the job for about three months, said it’s too early to tell if the traffic unit will get any more officers.

McElvain, the two assistant chiefs and the command staff are in the process of reassessing the agency’s structure and looking at ways to reorganize the current staff, he said.

For the past two decades, the traffic team at the Clark County Sheriff’s Office has consisted of two deputies and one sergeant, Sgt. Dennis Pritchard said.

He said he is well aware that Highway 99 is a problem area for pedestrian-involved crashes, and in the past he has asked patrol deputies in that area to issue citations to pedestrians who aren’t crossing safely.

“A vast majority of the time, the (party) at-fault in those collisions is the pedestrians,” he said.

Personal responsibility

Collision data shows that in Clark County, pedestrians often do play a contributing role in pedestrian-vehicle crashes.

In two-thirds of the county’s fatal pedestrian-vehicle collisions in the past decade, the pedestrian was doing something that police considered unsafe, according to WSDOT data. This includes pedestrians walking in the roadway, not crossing the street at an intersection and crossing at a crosswalk against the pedestrian signal.

At the same time, half of those fatal crashes involved unsafe driving, including a driver who is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, distracted or speeding, according to the data.

For example, Jessica B. VanWechel, 30, of Camas was allegedly texting on the evening of Oct. 28, when the vehicle she was driving struck Stephen Dewey, who was using a walker to cross Mill Plain Boulevard at Southeast 105th Avenue.

Dewey, 65, had fashioned a yield sign to his walker to be cautious, his sister Susan Ojala said. He was still in the crosswalk when the light for oncoming traffic turned green, according to court documents.

“He didn’t quite make the entire light,” Ojala said. “He doesn’t move really fast.”

Johns, the Vancouver police sergeant, said in many cases, both pedestrians and drivers could do a better job of paying attention.

Drivers, he said, should limit distractions, especially when driving through high-density areas.

“When you leave the freeway, you’re playing in a completely chaotic environment,” Johns said. “Anything could occur. You could hit a pothole, a dog could run into the street … you really have to keep your head and your wits about you.”

But, he said, even the most cautious drivers could miss seeing a pedestrian standing in a blind spot.

So pedestrians need to be equally on the lookout for drivers not following the traffic laws, he said.

Johns said that all too often he sees pedestrians with their hoodies pulled up and headphones in their ears, which could prevent them from noticing an oncoming vehicle or shouts of warning from an onlooker.

“(Pedestrians) just trusting other people in cars to do the right thing, you’re really gambling,” Johns said. “You may be right, but you could be dead right.”

Data research by Columbian Web Editor John Hill.