Opinion: 29 people died in traffic violence in Long Beach; we need to change how we talk about it

Downtown Long Beach business owner Giovanna Ferraro and her 70-year-old mother, Francesca, were reveling in the glow of a successful night: Gio, having just finished her drag king performance at the charity ball known as It’s a Drag to Give, had helped entertain hundreds while helping raise thousands of dollars for Long Beach nonprofits. Her mother was there in a full support on on Dec. 13.

“Having my mom there was just—it was perfect,” Gio said. “I am so blessed to have a mom, who not only recognizes the struggles of LGBTQ people but supports them in any way she can, always including that support for me.”

Taking the steps down from the Convention Center toward Pine Avenue at Bay Street, they waited for the little white guy signal to appear before stepping into the crosswalk. Gio was walking her mom across the street to get her safely into her Lyft ride home while Gio continued celebrating. Mid-crosswalk, a car turning from the Pike Outlets to head north on Pine Avenue slammed into her and her mom.

“A fogged window,” Gio said. “That’s what the driver said when trying to explain how she crashed into us. A fogged window. Like, why were you driving?”

Upon impact, the driver slammed on her breaks, tossing both Gio and her mother into the air. Gio walked away with a busted knee. An MRI showed extensive tissue damage that will take over a month to heal.

Francesca, however, did not fare so well. Bruised from the waist down and dealing with a fractured knee, she cannot walk and, it won’t be until the tissue inflammation dies down, that they’ll how much she will have to work in order to perhaps walk a bit more comfortably again.

“She has been on home care since the accident and will be on home care for the next few months. We won’t know the damage until then,” Gio said. “This was bad but this could have been much worse.”

Police language and media reporting obfuscate the reality of our roads

Had Gio and her mother not been in a marked crosswalk, it is likely that not only would society feel less sympathy but that language would help shift blame—and this is why using the term “traffic violence” is an indirect but essential part of shifting how we perceive drivers and crashes along with achieving goals of getting pedestrian and bicyclist deaths to zero.

Streetsblog, a group of publications I have had the honor of writing for, has been using the term since 2013 while more recently, the term has appeared to be a tactic used to emphasize what is really happening: the life of someone being taken by a driver.

Words are important—and that’s why I use the term “traffic violence” even if it hasn’t entirely caught on in mainstream news. For instance, when the National Academy of Sciences’ Transportation Research Board, with a team led by researchers at Rutgers University, Arizona State University, and Texas A&M University, analyzed over 4,000 local news articles related to traffic violence and involving a pedestrian or cyclist, they found something troubling:

“Coverage almost always obscures the public health nature of the problem by treating crashes as isolated incidents, by referring to crashes as ‘accidents,’ and by failing to include input from planners, engineers, and other road safety experts,” the paper reads.

The most common word used for crashes? “Accident.” It was found at least once in 47% of an articles’ body text and in 11% of all titles. This is compounded by police officials who use similar language—even with DUI suspects:

Adding to this concern was the overall sentence structure, where reporters consistently shifted toward the victim getting hit by using phrases such as, “A pedestrian was hit by a car” rather than “A driver struck a pedestrian.” This shift away from the agency of the driver is found in other examples: “The car jumped a median” is often used over “A driver drove over the median.” This created an object-based language, in the words of the authors, that ultimately dehumanize drivers while placing agency on the most vulnerable users of the road.

This isn’t to entirely deride journalists for what they say. Oftentimes, pointing toward the driver can make something look intentional, and it is the journalist’s job to not make presumptions about criminality or intention unless an authority confirms that.

Nonetheless, 65% of articles included some form of agency; but 74% of those mentioned placed agency on the pedestrian or bicyclist. When a driver was mentioned, it was object-based (e.g. “A car hit a cyclist”) 81% of the time.

“The use of object-based language was particularly jarring in the case of hit-and-run collisions where ‘the vehicle drove away,'” the authors noted.

This data was confirmed in another study appearing in Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives.

“In comparing the three groups, even relatively subtle differences in editorial patterns significantly affected readers’ interpretation of both what happened and what to do about it on nearly every measure. Shifting from pedestrian-focused to driver-focused language reduced victim-blaming and increased perceived blame for the driver,” the authors wrote.

29 people died in Long Beach; over 240 died in Los Angeles

Seventeen pedestrians dead:

  • 79-year-old Elias Sanchez of Long Beach on Jan. 7
  • A 58-year-old female resident of Carson on Jan. 21
  • A 63-year-old resident of Long Beach on Feb. 19
  • A 63-year-old Long Beach resident Ricardo Torres, killed in a hit-and-run on March 13
  • A 25-year-old male on March 29
  • A 35-year-old resident of Long Beach on April 5
  • A 60-year-old resident of Long Beach on May 15
  • A 44-year-old resident of Long Beach on May 21
  • A 51-year-old resident of Long Beach on June 3
  • An unidentified female, killed during a hit-and-run on June 25
  • A 90-year-resident of Long Beach on Sep. 16
  • A 55-year-old male resident of Pico Rivera on Sep. 25
  • A 59-year-old male resident of Long Beach on Oct. 18
  • Joseph and Raihan Dakhil, along with their 3-year-old son, Omar, were struck by a drunk driver on Oct. 31; they died on Nov. 3, resulting in a nationwide story of tragedy
  • 32-year-old Angel D. Ibarra Jr. of Long Beach, who was struck by a driver on Dec. 12 and succumbed to his injuries on Dec. 23.

Seven automobile drivers or passengers killed:

  • A 36-year-old resident of Long Beach on Jan. 13
  • An unidentified male driver after fleeing a hit-and-run at Second Street and Granada Avenue on March 3
  • 41-year-old Jessica Bingaman (along with five dogs in one of the most publicized events last year)
  • An unidentified female driver on June 8
  • 91-year-old Howard Shaack of Los Angeles on June 27
  • A 21-year-old resident of Bellflower on Aug. 18
  • An unidentified passenger who was ejected from their seat after the driver of the vehicle slammed into a tree on Oct. 20.

Four bicyclists killed:

  • A 64-year-old resident of Long Beach on Jan. 4
  • An unidentified 62-year-old on Jan. 30
  • An 82-year-old resident of Long Beach on Sep. 7
  • An unidentified male bicyclist on Sep. 26

And one motorcyclist gone: 25-year-old Corey Haggerty.

These are the—at least—29 people who lost their lives to traffic violence in Long Beach in 2019, 21 of whom were pedestrians and bicyclists. Last year, 31 died. Eleven were pedestrians or bicyclists. Our bigger neighbor to the north, Los Angeles, saw over 240 lives taken by traffic violence across 2019, of whom 150 were pedestrians or bicyclists, according to LAist.

The city of Long Beach has set a goal of reaching zero pedestrian or bicyclist deaths by 2026—but where are they at on this goal and why is traffic violence for our most vulnerable road-users on the rise?

Getting to ‘Vision Zero’

The cost of these collisions, including those that result in serious injury, between 2013 and 2017? City officials estimate they’ve collectively cost $1.46 billion thanks to associated expenses like medical care, emergency services, property damage and lost productivity.

Nationally, there has been a 53 percent rise in pedestrian fatalities on all roads since 2009, according to a report by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety released late last year.

“Each year in the U.S., more than 40,000 people are needlessly killed in traffic crashes,” said safety expert and Vision Zero Policy & Communications Director Kathleen Ferrier. “Often referred to as ‘accidents,’ the reality is that we can prevent these tragedies by taking a proactive preventative approach that prioritizes traffic safety as a public health issue.”

Graphic courtesy of the City of Long Beach.

That’s why the city, since 2016, has been developing its Vision Zero project for safe streets across Long Beach, with hopes to achieve zero pedestrian and bicyclists deaths by 2026.

The Vision Zero project is simple: to achieve a highway and arterial system with no fatalities or serious injuries in road traffic. It takes conventional wisdom—”Well, safety is just one of the priorities of the roads; cars need to go fast as well”—and inverts it: “No, safety is the priority of any public transit way.”

It started in Sweden and was approved by its parliament in October 1997. Sweden has since cut its traffic fatalities dramatically even as the number of vehicle miles traveled has increased.

The goal is not impossible: Oslo, with nearly 200,000 more people than Long Beach, achieved zero pedestrian and bicyclist deaths by traffic violence in 2019. Also, no children were killed. There was one death, that of a driver who had collided with a fence at Skillebekk in June of last year.

Some ways that cities have created Vision Zero policies are by designing streets for all modes, increasing funding for bicycle and transit projects, focusing law-enforcement at high-risk activities and high-danger corridors and, perhaps most importantly, finding ways to slow car traffic. On that last point, if a pedestrian is stuck by a car traveling 40 mph, they have a 73% chance of dying or sustaining a life-altering injury; there is an almost-guaranteed death if they are struck by a vehicle going 50 mph.

Graphic courtesy of the city of Long Beach.

When it comes to vulnerability, pedestrians and bicyclists bear the weight: While only being involved in 12% of all collisions, pedestrians and bicyclists account for 46% of all traffic deaths and serious injuries. If we include motorcyclists, that latter number jumps to 65% of all traffic deaths and serious injuries. Serious injuries include broken or fractured bones; dislocated limbs; severe lacerations; skull, spinal or abdominal injuries; unconsciousness; or severe burns.

When it comes to people on foot, there were 1,982 traffic collisions that involved pedestrians reported to the Long Beach Police Department between Jan. 1, 2013 and July 1, 2018 alone.

“Mobility is only as safe as the street’s most vulnerable user,” Ferrier said. “Streets aren’t safe until everyone on them is safe.”

Graphic courtesy of the City of Long Beach.

What can a cohesive safe streets plan look like in Long Beach?

So what, precisely, is the city planning on doing to increase safety on our roads? Six main things to be precise, all in the direct verbiage from city staff’s initial draft in late 2018 combined with a more recent memo sent to the City Council on Dec. 13 of 2019:

  • Dedicating resources to Vision Zero Actions
  • Building safe streets and lowering speed limits
  • Promoting a “safety culture” and implement “best practice” street design
  • Improving data and transparency to while collecting more data to “make better decisions”
  • Enhancing processes and partnerships, including the expansion of educational programs
  • Prioritize road safety measures through an “equity lens”

Brian Addison is a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or on social media at FacebookTwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn.

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Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 16 nominations and two additional wins for Best Political Commentary for his work at KCET and Best Blog for Longbeachize, a section of the Long Beach Post. Brian currently serves as a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post.
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