One Mile and One Week Apart, Two Brothers Meet Similar Fates Walking in Austin
This story is part of our series, The Road to Zero, which explores traffic deaths and injuries in Austin and the city's plan to prevent them.
When Adrienne White arrived home on Mar. 5, 2016, she found a note on her door from an Austin police officer that made her panic.
It said her father, Ken White, was in critical condition at Brackenridge Hospital. When she arrived, she found her father unresponsive in the Emergency Room. Nurses told her that he had been walking her dog around 7:30 the previous evening. While he was crossing in the crosswalk at Seventh St. at Comal St., a drunk driver ran into him and the dog, sending them 20 feet in the air.
“My dad was rushed to the ER with a traumatic brain injury and many fractures along the left side of his body," White said, sitting in a small conference room at the Central Texas Rehabilitation Center, where her father was transferred. Her dog sustained minor injuries, but survived.
White spent nearly all of her time at the hospital until her father's brother, Dennis, came into town to help out and allow White to go back to work. Her uncle was staying at her house on the East Side and walking to the hospital every day to visit his brother.
One week after Ken's accident, on March 11, Dennis texted Adrienne around five in the morning to let her know he was on his way to the hospital. But her uncle never made it. When White found out he wasn't at the hospital, she panicked. Thinking the worst, she called nearby hospitals. But he wasn’t there either.
“So I called my aunt, his wife. I actually texted her first and asked if she heard from Dennis today," Adrienne recalls. "That’s when she called me and told me we had lost him that morning.”
As Dennis was crossing the I-35 frontage road between 11th and 12th Streets, he was hit by a car and killed. Less than a mile from where his brother had been hit a week earlier.
“Obviously, I was devastated," White says, tearing up. "I couldn’t believe it. The proximity of the two incidents and their similarities. Before I confirmed that something was wrong I had this bad feeling. I was at work and talking to my coworkers and I said, 'There can’t be anything wrong, right? What are the chances?'"
According to police, an elderly woman didn’t see Dennis crossing the street outside the crosswalk. It was dark, and there are no street lights between 11th and 12th Streets.
The Dangers of Walking
Bad lighting. Pedestrians crossing mid-block. Drunk driving. Both of these crashes include just a few of the contributing factors common in the 30 pedestrian traffic fatalities in Austin last year.
“I’ve always known this town is not very safe for pedestrians or cyclists," Adrienne White says. "You think as long as there are crosswalks in place, you feel a sense of security, until something like this happens and it hits so close to home. You hear about it, but you don’t realize how bad the problem is.”
Pedestrian safety is one problem the city is trying to address with Vision Zero — a set of recommendations to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injury crashes in Austin to zero by 2025. Those recommendations include analyzing pedestrian crash hotspots, increasing enforcement around crosswalks, expanding pedestrian crossing times and starting a new pedestrian safety education campaign. But many of the recommendations take time and money. They also need approval from city council or other governing boards.
In a city divided by highways and wide, high-speed roads, trying to change an existing urban landscape will be a huge undertaking—especially in the short term.
“You've got major highways and then you’ve got these frontage roads," said Art Fortune, who heads Austin Police's Highway Enforcement Unit. "And along these frontage roads you have major development, which is kind of dangerous when you think of it.”
Fortune is also a member of the city's Vision Zero task force, which drew up the set of recommendations that the Austin City Council will consider next week. He says there are a lot of problems that make it dangerous to walk in Austin. For one, many parts of the city are poorly lit. Fortune advocates for better street lamps.
“Would better lighting have a driver be able to see that person walking into traffic?" Fortune asks. "Because people are going to make mistakes, whether they be impaired or having a bad day and decide to cross at a place where it wasn’t the best place.”
The Vision Zero plan says the city and Cap Metro will evaluate the need for better lighting at intersections, but there are no hard recommendations or goals. According to the report, each street lamp costs $7,000.
Inadequate Sidewalks and Crosswalks
Sidewalks are another issue. The city only has about half the sidewalks it’s supposed to, and if it keeps building them at the current rate, it will be 200 years before it meets its minimum.
“[Pedestrians] have to hug the roadway, or they’re in the roadway, or they don’t want to walk in the grass, because it’s 12 feet high," Commander Fortune said of roads that don't have adequate sidewalks.
The Vision Zero plan recommends something called Complete Streets, which means designing streets that are safe for motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians. All future projects include this policy, but the bigger question is how does the city's Transportation Department fix streets that are already designed and in use? Funding is also still a factor.
Another issue is the lack of crosswalks. Sometimes people have to walk a half-mile or more to reach a safe intersection to cross a busy road. Many officials and experts say it’s unrealistic to assume people will do that — especially if they are elderly or disabled.
“I can personally understand, 'Hey, I’m looking left and right, I don’t see anybody, can I cut across?'" said Commander Fortune.
“This isn’t about individuals making bad choices, this is about our government making bad choices."
“They need to go where they need to go and there isn’t good infrastructure for them to be able to get there," said Tom Wald, one of the members of the city’s Pedestrian Mobility Committee. “We’re putting people in impossible situations. To go anywhere they need to put themselves in dangerous situations. This isn’t about individuals making bad choices, this is about our government making bad choices.”
Helping People Get Where They Need to Go
The city’s transportation department is doing safety improvement projects at five high-crash intersections, and they're conducting engineering studies to improve safety. They also installed so-called 'pedestrian hybrid beacons,' or PHBs, across the city to increase the number of pedestrian crossings. PHBs are those lights that turn red when a pedestrian pushes a button to cross. The city expects to install six more of them this year.
The city also started something called a Fatality Review Board, where police, engineers and other city officials examine each traffic fatality to see if there are ways to improve safety.
The Vision Zero philosophy accepts that people will make mistakes. The question is: How do we make sure those mistakes aren’t fatal? It’s easy to blame the pedestrian, or the driver, when crashes happen. The city’s Transportation Department says some of these crashes are unique, with factors that are out of their control.
Tom Wald argues that’s not the right way to look at Vision Zero, or traffic safety in general.
“A transportation agency can say, ‘Well, if someone’s going to drive drunk we can’t change that.' But what you could do is making it safer for people walking and biking. You can make it safer for other road users by working into the system that some people are going to make mistakes.”
Changing How Drivers View Pedestrians
Both Wald and Commander Fortune with APD says one easy way to save lives is to lower speed limits. If you’re driving 40 miles per hour or faster and you hit someone with your car, there is at least a 90 percent chance that person will die. But lowering speed limits requires state and federal buy in, which could be hard to get.
Pedestrian advocates say the biggest challenge is the most necessary: There needs to be a culture shift when it comes to how law enforcement and the driving public view pedestrians.
“When you’re in a car, it’s easy to look at the environment outside your car and not treat the people you see in a humane way," Wald says. "I think that’s something you constantly have to remind yourself that that person there, their life matters. Their life matters to their loved ones ,and so on.”
Wald also says police reports could provide more perspective about the fatal crashes.
“We don’t see in the report, 'wide road.' We don’t see, 'nearest crossing one mile away.' We don’t see, 'speed limit too fast for urban area.'" Recent traffic fatality press releases from Austin Police, including one about Adrienne White's uncle Dennis, did note poor lighting in the area of those crashes.
But when a pedestrian is killed or seriously injured, there’s a whole side of the story that’s missing from the report. That’s what happened in the case of Adrienne White’s father. His report only includes the driver's account of what happened and that driver was arrested on the scene for driving while intoxicated.
More than two months later, White says her father is still confused and disoriented and that she hasn’t yet told him yet that his brother was killed.
“We’re not sure he would remember tomorrow if we told him today," White says. "But if he does, we know he would be absolutely destroyed and it would probably be detrimental to his rehabilitation.”
It’s still unclear if he will make a full recovery.
“It might be too early to tell but I’m not sure if my dad will ever be the same," White says. "And that’s going to change my life forever.”