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Louisville officials, victims’ loved ones seek solutions for safer local roadways

In a basketball gym, a row of people in chairs watches as a woman speaks at a lectern. There are shoes and yellow flowers strewn on the floor in front of them.
Jacob Munoz
Janet Heston speaks about her late son Matthew at a World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims event in Louisville on Nov. 19, 2023.

Traffic fatalities have increased in Louisville since 2020, leaving many families looking for solutions. The city is undertaking several projects that aim to address the danger.

Note: This story describes several traffic-related deaths

On a fall afternoon in Louisville’s Portland neighborhood, Janet Heston stood at a lectern to talk about the day her life changed.

To her left was a picture collage of her son Matthew. To her right was a sign she created for the World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims on Nov. 19. And in front of her were flowers and pairs of shoes to represent those killed in crashes over the past year.

Matthew was 30 when he died on New Cut Road in Nov. 2020. He was trying to reach a bus stop away from a crosswalk when a motorist struck him in a hit-and-run, Heston said. Then, a second driver ran him over.

“My son grew up on a horse farm and he loved animals. He was always trying to save stuff and fix it,” Heston said at the event. “He tried to be everybody's friend and he really loved life.”

Heston now leads Matthew’s Bridge, Inc., a nonprofit advocating for safer roadways, and is urging improvements on the state-owned Taylor Boulevard-New Cut Road corridor.

She was joined at the event by city officials and several others who have lost loved ones to traffic crashes in the Louisville area, like Samantha Franklin.

Her mother Jennie was 45 when she was killed by an impaired driver in Jan. 2017. It prompted her to speak regularly with DUI offenders, in hopes of preventing future deaths by sharing her mother’s story.

Franklin said she’s only recently taken the time to focus inward and grieve about her loss, which lingers in her mind.

“I still, to this day, will get out of the car and dart to the door of wherever we're going. And then I'll look back and say, ‘Okay, the husband has the kids,’” she said.

Patricia Bishop’s 28-year-old son Daniel died in Nov. 2020 after a hit-and-run. One of her goals in promoting roadway safety is seeing Kentucky legalize automated traffic enforcement cameras.

“I'm a fighter. I won't stop till I get what I want,” Bishop said. “These people aren't here with us anymore. We have to speak for them.”

A large blue board that reads "WORLD DAY OF REMEMBRANCE" in yellow text. Below it is a list of names in smaller text. There are candles painted on the top corners and yellow splotches down the sides.
Jacob Munoz
A large board lists some of the names of people killed on Louisville roadways at the city's World Day of Remembrance event on Nov. 19, 2023.

The road forward

Last year, the Louisville Metro Council passed a resolution asking Kentucky’s Republican-dominated General Assembly to pass a bill legalizing traffic cameras on surface roads. Those devices are typically used to monitor excessive speeds and red light violations then issue tickets to offending drivers.

However, state lawmakers did not support that bill, and didn’t take up a similar bill a year later, either. Both were introduced by Democrats.

In the 2023 session, a House bill to legalize automated cameras in highway work zones received enough support to pass out of a committee, after earlier versions of it failed in the previous two years. But the bill, sponsored by five Republicans and a Democrat, did not progress.

Efforts in the meantime are focused on shaping driver’s actions and implementing preventive measures.

Vision Zero Louisville, a Louisville Public Works department program that aims to eliminate traffic deaths by 2050, helped organize last month’s remembrance event.

The program follows a strategy from the U.S. Department of Transportation aimed at creating safeguards to minimize the harmful impact of human error on roadways.

Louisville’s Vision Zero approach has so far led to two USDOT grants this year: a $21 million award fortraffic-calming improvements, as well as $7.5 million to convert two one-way streets into two-ways.

But those changes haven’t happened yet, and much work still needs to be done.

According to data collected by Vision Zero Louisville, more than 120 people were killed on public roadways in the city each year from 2020-2022, higher than in years past. Estimates of suspected serious injuries have surpassed 470 incidents in each of the past seven years

Claire Yates, Vision Zero Louisville’s program manager, said she expects the final tally of 2023’s fatality count to be high, as in previous years.

“This is not something that we can solve overnight. But I believe that we are laying a really solid foundation to attack this problem,” Yates said.

Earlier this year, Public Works completed an audit of city-owned roadways where speed limits exceed 35 mph. That’s led to an ongoing speed management plan looking at how to get motorists to drive more safely. Yates said she expects the plan to be completed by the end of 2024.

Louisville Metro is also expecting a study examining the area’s most dangerous roadways to be completed in January, Yates said in an email in December. The city will use it to prioritize where improvements should be made, she said.

“With resources being so limited, we really need to identify these most dangerous roadway segments,” she said.

The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet is also commissioning a study for next summer to make safety recommendations for the Taylor-New Cut corridor.

Vision Zero Louisville provides financial support to Louisville Public Media.

Jacob is LPM's Business and Development Reporter. Email Jacob at jmunoz@lpm.org.

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