Traffic deaths remained abnormally high in Long Beach last year with 45 pedestrians, bicyclists or motorists dying in crashes.
That number carries on a spike in fatal collisions that began in 2020, when 49 people were killed, and continued in 2021, when 47 were killed.
Before 2020, the numbers were much lower, with no more than 32 people dying in crashes each year from 2016 to 2019.
It’s not entirely clear why deaths spiked in 2020, but one thing the last three years have in common is how deadly crashes have been for pedestrians, who have accounted for the majority of the fatalities. Last year was no different, with 27 out of 45 traffic deaths, or 60%, being pedestrians.
City officials have given varying explanations for what’s to blame.
According to the LBPD, many cases in 2022 involved a pedestrian breaking the law by walking into lanes of traffic or walking outside of a marked crosswalk.
But a different city department, public works, which maintains Long Beach’s streets, pointed to drivers going too fast as a major contributing factor.
“A pedestrian hit by a driver going 40 MPH has nearly a 6x greater likelihood of dying as compared to a pedestrian hit at 20 MPH,” public works spokeswoman Joy Contreras said in an email.
Because speeding is the underlying cause of many serious crashes, Contreras said, it’s important to implement infrastructure improvements, and educate the public about driving safely.
The City Council made this stance official policy in 2020 when it adopted the Safe Streets Plan, which aims to eliminate all traffic-related deaths and serious injuries by 2026.
Under the plan, the city has begun reducing speed limits, re-designing streets to reduce excessive lane widths, and providing more protection for pedestrians and cyclists, Contreras said.
“The plan calls on City staff to take action to lower speed limits on neighborhood streets to 15-20 mph based on radar surveys,” Contreras said. “Based on the most recent results of the engineering and traffic surveys conducted on arterial streets, 107 street segments were identified for a decrease of their existing speed limits.”
Some of the streets up for changes are Pacific Avenue, Artesia Boulevard, Anaheim Street and Sixth Street, which were identified as streets or corridors where injury traffic collisions were most common or severe. Crashes on Pacific Avenue, Artesia Boulevard and Anaheim Street resulted in nine of the 45 traffic deaths in 2022.
All four streets currently have grant-funded traffic-safety projects underway, although a timeline of when they’ll be completed is not clear.
To residents like Jesus Esparza, president of the Washington Neighborhood Association, the changes can’t come soon enough.
Esparza has long been vocal about traffic safety issues in his community.
Last year, he put together multiple rallies urging the city to increase pedestrian safety in the Washington neighborhood following a series of crashes that left three people injured.
It has gotten to the point, he said, where some residents, especially elderly ones, are afraid to walk to the nearby store or laundromat because they fear a speeding driver might hit them, Esparza said.
“The work is too slow,” Esparza said in Spanish. “Meanwhile, people keep dying in crashes.”
The Long Beach Post reached out to three City Council members, Mary Zendejas, Roberto Uranga and Jonie Ricks-Oddie, whose districts have roads identified as “high-injury corridors” by the Safe Streets Plan, but they did not respond to questions about the status of safety projects or whether there are plans to accelerate the process.
Mayor Rex Richardson was not immediately available to comment about whether there were any plans to speed up the projects.
Long Beach is currently using grant funding to make street improvements and educate people about traffic safety, city spokesperson Jennifer De Prez said, but the pandemic slowed down the pace of the work even as fatal crashes soared.
One potential source of funding is the Measure A sales tax increase approved by voters in 2016 to fund infrastructure and public safety investment. But of the more than $357 million generated by Measure A between 2016 and 2022, most, $210 million, has gone toward the police and fire departments. About $52 million went toward street and alley repairs, with the rest funding improvements at city parks, buildings and other infrastructure projects.
Officials plan on addressing Long Beach residents sometime this year about the status of the Safe Streets Plan.
“Eliminating all traffic deaths and serious injuries in Long Beach will take collective action from the community,” Contreras said. “By looking out for one another and making safe decisions when we are driving, walking, or riding a motorcycle, bicycle or scooter, we can create a safer Long Beach for our families, friends, and neighbors.”
Editor’s Note: The number of traffic deaths from previous years was updated to reflect the Long Beach Post’s own count of Long Beach Police Department data. In 2021 there were 47 traffic deaths, rather than 43 as previously stated. In 2020 there were 49 traffic deaths rather than the 50 previously reported. From 2016 to 2019 there were no more than 32 traffic deaths rather than the 31 previously reported.