Changes needed to save lives, say cyclist and pedestrian advocates

October is National Pedestrian Safety Awareness Month. September was Cyclist and Pedestrian Awareness Month in Virginia. Fatal crashes and injuries involving road users increased last year, according to traffic accident facts from the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Cyclist Natalie Rainer was hit in mid-August by a driver accused of drunk driving.

“I have organ damage,” Rainer said. “I have a lot of rashes on my skin.”

Rainer was cycling with C. Jonah Holland on a popular bike path in Varina when they were hit. Holland died at the scene and Rainer was seriously injured. Her pelvis, ribs and collarbone were broken. Rainer spent a week in the intensive care unit and then was placed in the trauma unit for two weeks, she said.

Rainer called the accident a “random event”, where she and Holland were in the “wrong place at the wrong time”.

Jeffery Brooks, 18, is awaiting trial for felony manslaughter and misdemeanor DUI.

“One of the scariest things you can do is drive a car the wrong way, because you’re putting so many people at risk,” Rainer said.

Crashes involving a vehicle were up 12.2% from 2020-21, according to DMV Traffic Accident Facts. Collisions involving a vehicle and a pedestrian increased by 12.6% over the same period. The number of pedestrians injured in such accidents increased by 11.7%. The number of pedestrians killed increased by 9.7%.

There has been a 100% increase in fatal accidents involving a cyclist; from eight to 16 cyclists killed.

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, became an advocate for safer streets after cycling across the country and having several close calls, he said. There should be more driver education and awareness, he said, as well as improvements to cycling and pedestrian infrastructure. This will help minimize risk to vulnerable road users, he said. For example, roads that had high speed limits years ago would need updates to accommodate new developments.

Lack of enforcement is another big problem, Surovell said. The General Assembly passed the Hands-Free Act in 2020, banning mobile phone use while driving, but Surovell said he did not see enough enforcement.

Distracted driving crashes are up more than 11% from 2020-21, according to the DMV.

“Put your phone down, take a deep breath,” Surovell said. “Be more attentive, be more courteous. To slow down.”

Rainer echoed this.

“There is no need for speed on the streets of our city,” she said.

Traffic crashes where speed was a factor rose 9.5% last year, according to the DMV.

Rainer urged cyclists to be alert and wear protective gear, bright colors and flashing taillights. She suggested riding where people expect cyclists. Street markings and signs warning drivers of cyclists would be helpful, she said.

Rainer will “ride the bike again,” she said, although it will be a while before she’s physically capable. She will probably adapt to it by riding with large groups and close to home.

“I will never stop loving the sport,” Rainer said.

Pedestrian and cyclist safety advocates said there was a host of efforts needed to reduce road deaths and injuries.

According to Doug Allen, more people have been walking and cycling since the start of the pandemic.

Allen is an avid cyclist and sits on the board of the Virginia Bicycling Federation. Less traffic on the roads early in the pandemic led to more reckless driving, Allen said. Vehicles are bigger, heavier and faster, which is a “bad equation” when there are more reckless drivers and more people sharing the roads.

“People will drive as fast as they feel comfortable driving,” Allen said.

Allen thinks infrastructure design should be the main focus to make streets safer.

“Using law enforcement as a hammer to try to make the streets safer is not a good idea,” he said. The design changes could help reduce the need for interaction with the police and help avoid a “potentially dangerous situation”.

Allen recommended that all road users be aware of their surroundings and limit distractions when traveling. There should be more frequent driver training tests to refresh people and familiarize them with the new laws, Allen said. Driving lessons should teach how to interact with pedestrians and cyclists, he said.

October is a difficult time for Khrystal Bethea-Artis. Her 16-year-old daughter, Aajah Rosemond, died on her way to the store along Jahnke Road in the early evening in October 2020. Rosemond was killed when two vehicles crashed and one hit her, according to Bethea-Artis.

Bethea-Artis believes her daughter died in part because of bad driving behavior that cannot be unlearned. This includes speeding, driving under the influence and road rage, she said.

“The rush is never worth the risk,” Bethea-Artis said.

Surovell hopes that learned behavior can be changed.

“It took a while, but we got people to put their seat belts on,” he said, as an example.

Bethea-Artis testified earlier this year on behalf of legislation that created stiffer penalties for reckless driving that injures or kills a road user. The driver of the vehicle that caused the crash that killed her daughter was only penalized $200 and charged with reckless driving, Bethea-Artis told a legislative subcommittee in January.

Bethea-Artis hopes her advocacy will help ensure that other parents do not suffer such a loss.

“If it’s one voice, it’s like an echo in a hallway,” she said.

If the community works together, she said it could create the change needed to reduce road deaths.

Rosemond’s family will be at the corner of Jahnke and German School roads on Sunday, October 16 from 1 to 5 p.m.

“We won’t let this day pass,” Bethea-Artis said.

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