TACOMA— “It’s hard to be here,” Amber Weilert said Monday afternoon as traffic sped by on Pacific Avenue in Parkland. “Because behind me is where my son drew his last breath.”
Weilert’s 13-year-old son Michael was killed July 19 while using a crosswalk in Parkland just south of 134th Street. He had activated the crossing’s flashing yellow lights, but it wasn’t enough to stop a driver from hitting him.
On Monday, a “ghost bike” was parked at the corner surrounded by flowers and mementos. The white-painted bikes are placed as memorials where cyclists have died. For drivers, they serve as a reminder to share the road.
A coalition calling for a reduction of pedestrian and cyclist deaths through a combination of new laws, improved designs and more robust physical safeguards is what drew Weilert, several politicians, state officials and bicycling advocates to the site of her son’s death Monday. They were there to announce a combination of funding and legislation aimed at reducing the number of crashes between drivers and those who walk or roll.
In 2021, 98 people were killed in traffic accidents in Pierce County, according to Laura Svancarek with Tacoma transportation advocacy group Downtown on the Go. That number represents a 50 percent increase from 2017.
Traffic deaths rose 16 percent in Washington from 2020-2021, according to bicycle advocacy group Washington Bikes. There were 327 deaths in the first half of 2022.
“We are in an epidemic of traffic violence,” Svancarek said.
From 2017-2021, five cyclists and 73 pedestrians were killed in collisions with automobiles in Pierce County.
Svancarek said the deaths were avoidable if only more thought would go into design and planning along with a radical investment in bicycle and pedestrian safety.
“To stay doing the same thing would be negligence,” she said.
Call to action
Cycling safety advocacy nonprofit Washington Bikes policy director Vicky Clarke said her group and its partners are calling for four specific changes they want state and federal legislators to enact:
- Lowering the legal limit for driving while intoxicated to 0.05 percent from the current 0.08 percent.
- Making driver’s education affordable. Currently, it’s not mandatory for drivers 18 and over, and about half of new drivers skip it by waiting until they’re at least 18 to get their driver’s license, Clarke said.
- Provide potential automobile buyers with information on how dangerous a particular vehicle is to pedestrians. Currently, safety features and designs are relegated only to the people inside a vehicle.
- Limit right turns on red lights in certain urban intersections.
Pierce County saw a 34 percent spike in overall road fatalities between 2020 and 2021, according to Washington Bikes. It was the highest in any Washington county.
Tacoma City Council member Kristina Walker said the council committed to Vision Zero in 2020. The policy aims to reduce traffic fatalities to zero by 2035. The city has spent the last year drafting an action plan.
The city has committed $13.5 million in this year’s budget to bicycle and pedestrian projects, Walker said.
Likewise, the Pierce County Council has committed to Vision Zero and other traffic safety programs.
“It is really immoral and unacceptable that we have essentially a highway bisecting neighborhoods here in this wonderful community,” council member Ryan Mello said, referring to state Route 7 just behind him.
Although the county is seeking state and federal funding for road safety, it’s not waiting for the money. Last week, the council approved $250,000 for Vision Zero and will commit $3.2 million Tuesday to its Transportation Improvement Plan including the Safe Routes to School program.
Help from the state
Steve Roark, a state Department of Transportation administrator, told the group that WSDOT would soon be beefing up the crosswalk where Michael died with new curbs and striping. Similar crosswalks without pedestrian-activated flashing lights soon will be upgraded in the area.
Roark said only 4 percent of accidents on Pacific Avenue involve pedestrians and bikes, but they account for nearly 50 percent of serious injuries and deaths.
As he was speaking, two cyclists tried to cross Pacific using the crosswalk. A black SUV’s driver who ignored the flashing lights abruptly came to a stop inches away from them.
A mother’s pain
Michael Weilert’s death is still under investigation by the Washington State Patrol, according to spokesperson Trooper Robert Reyer.
The WSP has investigated six fatal pedestrian accidents and one fatal bicycle accident to date in 2022 in Pierce and Thurston counties. From Jan. 1-Nov. 20, 2019, the agency investigated four fatal pedestrian accidents and another involving a person using a wheelchair in the two counties.
For Weilert, the grief of losing Michael is raw, but it compounds every time she drives by the site and sees pedestrians and cyclists.
“I still see them crossing this crosswalk every day,” she said. “And every time I see it, my heart stops.”