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Walking to school last December, a young Emerson Elementary School student came upon the bustling intersection of 1100 East and Harrison Avenue.
A crossing guard in fluorescent garb directed traffic. But a driver still failed to stop, hitting the boy “enough to knock him down,” according to a social media post from his school.
Just a few months later at that same intersection, former crossing guard Clint Harris was clipped by a car — while pulling a child to safety.
Harris wasn’t injured, but the ordeal left him shaken up. He quit working as a crossing guard at the end of the school year.
“There’s no way I could live with myself if I see a kid get hit,” he said.
Local officials share his concerns, and for good reason: Salt Lake County has seen a surge of at least 27 traffic-related fatalities this year, including a 9-year-old boy on a bicycle who was struck by an SUV last month that drifted into his bike lane, dragging the child about 150-200 feet before stopping.
In Salt Lake City, the spike has prompted a proposed overhaul for the first time in nearly 20 years that aims to make hundreds of miles of roadway safer, more walkable and more bicyclist-friendly.
“The neighborhood streets are where people really feel it, and it’s a major quality of life issue, as well as a safety issue,” Jon Larsen, director of transportation for Salt Lake City, said.
‘Time to up our game’ — and take action
In the span of a single hour on May 3, three people were hit and killed by vehicles in the Salt Lake Valley — a 5-year-old girl in Sandy; a 23-year-old pregnant woman in Salt Lake City; and a 49-year-old bicyclist in Spanish Fork. Two days later, city leaders announced an array of new initiatives to prevent such crashes.
One in particular that Mayor Erin Mendenhall specified was the establishment of a new interagency task force to identify dangerous roads.
Larsen is a part of that task force, which also includes officials from the Utah Department of Transportation, Utah Highway Patrol, Salt Lake City police and the mayor’s office.
“One of my primary responsibilities is designing streets so that they’re safe for people of all ages and abilities, and all users — not just drivers,” Larsen said. “It just seemed like there was just one tragic story after another that was hitting this spring, and so I think the mayor just really felt like it was time to up our game.”
At the time, Mendenhall said that as of May 5, the city had experienced nine auto-pedestrian deaths in 2022. Over the same period in 2021, that number was three — up from 1 death in 2020 and 1 in 2019, respectively.
But the increase in pedestrian crashes is not unique to Salt Lake City, or the state of Utah — pedestrian crashes have been trending upward for the past few years, said Michelle Mekker, an assistant professor at Utah State University’s Utah Transportation Center.
“It’s hard to point to one specific reason why it’s happening, especially with COVID throwing a wrench in the mix and everything,” Mekker said. “We’re doing current research to try and figure out is it behavioral factors, or geometry, or environment? We’re not quite sure.”
Although experts are still investigating the spike, Mekker said physical changes to a city’s streets and increased enforcement are some of the most direct ways to make streets safer. And that’s where Larsen and other members of the task force are focusing their efforts.
‘I kind of went into shock’
The recent spike in pedestrian crashes hit close to home for 9th and 9th resident Andrea Nelson, who was struck by a car in October 2019 at the intersection of 800 South and 1300 East. She suffered a torn MCL, and said it took her about a year to feel fully comfortable as a pedestrian again.
“It was on my own street, where I walk my dogs every day,” Nelson said. “I was wearing neon purple leggings, and I took my earbuds out of my ears before I crossed the crosswalk, because I knew it’s always sketchy to be a pedestrian. So before I even got hit, I was practicing defensive walking.”
Nelson was in the middle of the crosswalk when an SUV turned left from 1300 East onto 800 South. Her dog was pulling on his leash in front of her and escaped injury.
“It was only maybe, I don’t even know — like 20 miles an hour or something like that,” Nelson said. “But they hit my left leg; I had a tire mark up my leggings. ... She didn’t stop. Some people had to flag her down.”
At the time, Nelson was in such a state of shock that she didn’t go to a hospital — she let a good Samaritan drive her three blocks home. But when her husband saw her, he immediately took her to an emergency room.
After her injuries were treated, Nelson started seeing a therapist to work through the trauma of the wreck. It’s been almost three years now, but Nelson can still feel the impact of the injury when she hikes and walks — and when she reads about the recent uptick in crashes like hers.
“I would love to make it safer,” Nelson said. “I mean, 9th and 9th is supposed to be a walkable neighborhood, and we should aim for all neighborhoods to be walkable neighborhoods. But if we’re saying that it’s a walkable neighborhood, and then people are getting wiped out, then it’s not really a walkable or pedestrian-friendly neighborhood.”
What would traffic calming look like?
Apart from the task force, the Salt Lake City Council on May 11 also voted to lower speed limits from 25 mph to 20 mph on over 400 miles of city roadway, or about 70% of the city’s streets.
Also in May, Mendenhall said she had identified $2 million in traffic-calming projects to improve pedestrian safety. And the council also voted to fund four new positions to the city’s Department of Community and Neighborhoods that will oversee its “Livable Streets” program.
The program uses a data-driven approach to improve “the overall safety, livability, and attractiveness” of neighborhood streets in Salt Lake City through different street treatments, such as speed bumps, raised crosswalks or roundabouts.
The city hasn’t launched an official traffic-calming program since 2003. “To bring it back almost 20 years later,” Larsen said, “and in a big way — I don’t know if I can overstate what a big deal this is.”
Such a big deal that, in 10 to 20 years, Larsen said officials will consider 2022 a “turning point” for Salt Lake City — “that it’s when we started to really take this seriously,” he said.
What could that look like? The “Livable Streets” program has already identified 403.5 miles of streets within Salt Lake City for possible improvements, and divided those streets into 113 zones, based on crash data, speed data, demographics and community assets like schools.
These zones help prioritize phases of project implementation, such as construction in a specific area, or community engagement.
The highest-priority zone that the program has identified is an area near the Salt Lake City Public Library’s Chapman Branch, between 400 South and 900 South.
That zone could see improvements including raised crosswalks, speed lumps, a pedestrian island, a roundabout, a median and curb extensions to some of the area’s roadways, according to the program’s final report.
Such projects aim to make everyone safer, but especially those who are walking, biking and using public transit, because “they’re the people that are most likely to get hurt in a car crash,” Larsen said.
The proposed changes cause drivers to slow down and be more alert, Mekker said, because traffic calming is about causing natural changes in driver behavior — which is more than implementing lower speed limits.
“I’m more likely to go out for a walk, and I think others are too, when they feel safer,” Nelson said.
She pointed to a few west-side neighborhoods that have speed bumps — which can be annoying to drivers, but “they do make you slow down.”
“I think that Salt Lake is a really great place to be a pedestrian and walk around and explore, and we just need to make it safer for people,” Nelson continued.
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