By Sue Favor
SOUTH LOS ANGELES— It happened again on Thanksgiving Day last week.
A pedestrian stepped into the crosswalk on Century Boulevard at the light. A car turning left from Figueroa Street didn’t stop in time, and struck him. He was taken to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
The victim that morning was an 11-year old boy.
Two nights later, at East 43rd Street and South Hooper Avenue, a car ran a stop sign and plowed into a 30-year-old woman and a 9-year-old boy. The woman died, and the boy remains hospitalized in grave condition.
It was just another week in South L.A., where traffic collisions are up 29% in 2020 and collisions resulting in fatalities are up 18%.
Though total collisions citywide are on pace to match last year’s rate, incidences in South and Central L.A. have exploded, as have instances of pedestrians being struck or killed by motor vehicles. And in many of those cases, drivers flee the scene.
“It’s an epidemic of hit and run traffic collisions,” said Capt. Jonathan Pinto, of the Los Angeles Police Department’s South Traffic Division.
Residents have noted the uptick in speeding and reckless driving, which began last spring as the state issued a stay-at-home order. The summer and fall also were marked by numerous instances in the area of crowds gathering at intersections to watch cars drive in circles.
Pinto said the collision increase stems from several factors.
“Most of the time it’s speeding, driving too fast for the road conditions and not stopping at red lights,” he said. “At times it is distracted driving, but it’s hard to identify that.”
Pinto believes the lockdown order contributed to the uptick in traffic incidences due to restlessness, frustration and stress. And he said pedestrians have also become lax.
“We’ve been expanding our education and outreach to drivers to slow down and pay attention, to make sure they’re driving safely,” he said. “And we’ve encouraged pedestrians to cross only at marked intersections.”
Though collisions are up on in South L.A., a high rate of pedestrian deaths and injuries in the area have been a constant for many years. Los Angeles-based Streets Are For Everyone (SAFE) notes that 6,500 pedestrians and 900 bicyclists across the U.S. are killed in collisions with motor vehicles each year. Many of L.A.’s most dangerous intersections are in South L.A.
The organization held a demonstration a few weeks ago at one of those intersections — Slauson and Western Slauson and Western avenues — to raise awareness of traffic safety. A few dozen members held signs promoting watchfulness and crossed the street continually, on World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims. SAFE executive director Damian Kevitt estimates they reached 30,000 drivers in three hours.
“There’s about an 11-12% rate of hit and runs (with pedestrians) in the U.S., but that rate is 48% in L.A., and 52% in South L.A.,” Kevitt said.
The cause is personal for Kevitt, who lost a leg seven years ago when he was struck by a car bicycling in Griffith Park. He founded SAFE as an educational organization. The group works with LAPD and other community groups to advocate for safer streets and crosswalks for pedestrians, to provide support for collision victims, and other initiatives.
South L.A. resident Theresa Vasquez, who lost a leg last year when a car struck her and left the scene, said she still has trauma from the incident.
“I don’t feel like leaving the house anymore,” she said. “I have PTSD. When I’m in that area I think about it, and seeing all the other cases pop up gives me flashbacks.”
Nevertheless, Vasquez went to the recent SAFE demonstration and spoke, encouraging others to drive and walk safely.
“I was there to support, and to let people know that not stopping to help is a crime,” she said.
Pinto said that is also one of LAPD’s primary messages.
“We want to get word out to people that whatever the circumstances, drivers are to stop, identify themselves and render aid,” he said.
In both of last week’s fatality incidences, the drivers stopped and stayed at the scene. But as the holidays approach, police will step up their efforts to look for reckless or inebriated drivers.
“We work well with the traffic division in the South L.A. bureau,” Pinto said. “We work with patrol officers, we perform traffic missions and crime missions to reduce pedestrian-related collisions. We have a robust outreach with the homeless population.”
Kevitt said SAFE has had to curtail many of its usual safety advocate activities due to COVID concerns, but they will continue to push for driver awareness and safer crosswalks, among other measures. Pinto welcomes the assistance.
“LAPD supports those relationships with other groups that help get the word out about driver education, bicycle safety and pedestrian safety,” Pinto said. “Our message is the same this year: please be safe.”
Sue Favor is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers, who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at email@example.com.