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Louisville Makes Push To Decrease Pedestrian Deaths

Scott Furlong picks at a guitar on the corner of Fourth and Liberty nearly every weekday.

From his post he sees plenty of pedestrians scurry through crosswalks, narrowly avoiding passing cars, trucks and buses.

"People need to slow down," he said. And by "people," he means both pedestrians and motorists.

That, in part, is the goal of a new initiative announced Thursday by Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer. Look Alive Louisville aims to reduce the number of pedestrian and vehicle collisions and bring an end to pedestrian fatalities.

Louisville's rate of pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 residents is 2.57, according to data provided by the city. That rate is higher than the national rate of 2.33 pedestrian deaths per 100,000 residents, Fischer said.

The rate has steadily increased the past three years, he said.

Reducing the number of pedestrian deaths to zero will not be easy, said Bill Bell, executive director of the state's highway safety program. But, he believes it is possible.

"You have to have a goal of zero, you're not going to get to that goal this or next year, but that has to be the ultimate goal," he said.

The program comes with a near $300,000 grant from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to improve educational outreach for children and adults, as well as enhanced training for Louisville Metro Police officers that will enable them to crack down on drivers who violate the rules of the road and pedestrians who fail to follow proper protocol, Fischer said.

The funds are part of a national push from U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to "take significant action" to improve pedestrian and bicyclist safety, according to a news release.

In 2014, 18 pedestrians died on Louisville streets.

The increase has multiple reasons, Bell said.

"For one, there are more pedestrians on the roadways, there are more bicyclists," he said.

Another reason, he added, is that the city is outgrowing its infrastructure.

Fischer said "there will be some" funds allocated for infrastructure improvements to make streets and sidewalks more pedestrian-friendly, but didn't say how much.

"That's always one of the things we're looking at," he said. "Unfortunately, there is never enough, it's a big challenge."

He said the city currently has about $1 billion invested in roadways and nearly $800,000 invested in sidewalks.

Bell said the state's highway strategic plan puts emphasis on improving intersection safety and quelling distracted driving, both of which contribute to pedestrian safety.

"You have distracted driving and then you have distracted walking, that combination is deadly," he said.

Sgt. Ruby Ellison, with the Louisville Metro Police traffic unit, said she believes people are more distracted by technology than ever before.

In fact, emergency room visits for injuries related to texting or talking on a cell phone increased nationally each year since 2010, according to a report from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

In 2010, about 800 mobile device related injuries led to U.S. emergency room visits, per the report. In 2013, that number surged to more than 1,100.

About a half-dozen pedestrian deaths each year are related to "portable electronic devices," the report shows.

Some states have been experimenting with issuing fines to walkers distracted by mobile devices, according to the December 2014 report. Speed limits have been slashed in New York City, in part, to make streets safer for distracted walkers.

"If you're looking at a phone when you're walking around, that shouldn't mean death. So, we have to design forgiving streets," said. Noah Budnick, chief policy officer for Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group based in New York City.

Ellison said police will ramp up patrols around areas of high pedestrian and vehicle interaction. Officers will be more adamant about enforcing no-texting and jaywalking laws, she said. And officers will also keep an eye out for improvements that could be made to crosswalks or traffic light patterns.

And sheboth pedestrians and motorists have a responsibility to pay attention to their surroundings and obey the rules.

Furlong, singing his own rendition of "On The Road Again" as cars zip through the downtown streets, said he knows that it's not just motorists speeding through traffic lights and texting  that are the threat.

"We're all jaywalking down here," he said. "It happens."

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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