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At least 236 people were killed in car crashes in 2019. More than half were walking.

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Car crashes are the fourth leading cause of premature death in LA County

Memorial for car chase victim killed in crash
Car crashes are the fourth leading cause of premature death in LA County, behind only suicide, drug overdose, and congenital heart disease.
Photo by Brittany Murray/MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images

A 24-year-old singer-songwriter. A 45-year-old mother of six. A four-year-old girl on her way to school.

They were among hundreds killed in auto collisions on Los Angeles streets in 2019. According to data released last week by the Los Angeles Police Department, 236 people died in crashes between the beginning of the year and December 14.

Since then, crashes in Echo Park, Harbor Gateway, and Highland Park resulted in four more deaths. LAPD Capt. Jonathan Pinto says fatal collisions that happened after the report was compiled will be added to the 2019 total, meaning that the total number of traffic deaths is likely to meet or exceed the 240 people killed in 2018.

The numbers illustrate a lack of progress in a citywide campaign to eliminate crash fatalities by 2025.

According to a December report from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, car crashes are the fourth leading cause of premature death in the county, ahead of homicides, strokes, and lung cancer.

“This is just indicative of where we are as a city when it comes to combatting traffic deaths,” says John Yi, director of pedestrian advocacy group Los Angeles Walks. Statistics like these, he says, “continue to point at the fact that our streets are unsafe.”

More than four years ago, Mayor Eric Garcetti launched Los Angeles’s Vision Zero initiative, with the goal of reducing traffic deaths to zero over the next decade. Since then, the number of annual fatalities has risen nearly 30 percent (183 traffic deaths were recorded in 2015, according to a 2018 report on the Vision Zero program).

Compared to many other cities in the western U.S., Los Angeles has a relatively low rate of traffic deaths; crashes claimed lives in Phoenix and Albuquerque at a rate more than double that of LA in 2017, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

But neither city has joined the nationwide Vision Zero network, and local road safety advocates say Los Angeles hasn’t kept pace with other urban areas that have pledged to cut down on deadly crashes.

Street safety advocate Andrés Quinche helped to organize a “die-in” at City Hall in December to push local officials to take more decisive action to prevent deadly collisions.

He points out that traffic fatalities in New York and San Francisco declined significantly after Vision Zero programs were rolled out. Though both cities saw traffic deaths go up in 2019, he says the response from local leaders there has been more urgent than in Los Angeles.

“No one in [LA’s] city government is talking about this,” he says. “It’s radio silence on this issue.”

In a statement, Garcetti spokesperson Harrison Wollman says the fact that traffic deaths haven’t declined since Los Angeles committed to the Vision Zero program isn’t through lack of effort.

“The mayor has invested unprecedented resources in traffic safety improvements to make roads safer,” he says. “He will always push to create and accelerate common sense projects that can reduce traffic fatalities, and urges everyone to use the street as safely as possible so that we can save lives together.”

Following the launch of Vision Zero, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation compiled a list of the city’s most dangerous streets and intersections, prioritizing these hot spots for safety measures designed to reduce vehicle speeds and protect vulnerable road users like pedestrians and bicyclists.

According to the LAPD report, at least 128 pedestrians and 19 cyclists were killed in 2019. Combined, they accounted for more than 60 percent of all traffic deaths, despite the fact that pedestrians and cyclists were involved in less than 1 percent of all reported collisions.

Many of these safety projects have already been completed, though a few have proven contentious. Earlier this year, frustrated Westside residents appealed a “road diet” in Mar Vista that reduced the number of auto lanes on a stretch of Venice Boulevard where 360 people were injured or killed between 2003 and 2016.

The Los Angeles City Council rejected the appeal, but similar projects on Temple Street and Sixth Street have been scaled back to avoid removing auto lanes.

Quinche says he understands why local leaders might hesitate to implement potentially controversial projects in the name of safety, but argues that the process would be easier with more robust community outreach.

“It’s something the city needs to get used to,” he says. “You can’t have a successful project without engaging the community before, during, and after the project.”

Some of the streets and intersections targeted for safety improvements were among those where crashes were most common in 2019, according to the LAPD report.

Safety measures aimed at reducing collisions on Alvarado Street included scramble crosswalks installed in 2017 at the intersections of Sixth Street, Wilshire Boulevard, and Seventh Street. But in 2019, six pedestrians were struck just a block away, at Alvarado and Eighth Street. No intersection saw more collisions with pedestrians, according to the report.

Spokesperson Nora Frost says the transportation department has plans to install new pedestrian signals at the intersection and that city staffers are analyzing further measures to curb collisions.

At Third Street and Vermont Avenue, 51 crashes were reported in 2019—more than at any other intersection listed in the report.

Frost says that safety measures were implemented in 2017 and 2019 to address the high rate of collisions here, but that those working on the Vision Zero effort will take further steps “should crash patterns not decline.”

Yi suggests that the fact that crashes remain common even on streets where new crosswalks and other safety measures have been installed speaks to the need for a more wholistic strategy for making streets less deadly.

“We need to get a more diverse group of people talking about this,” he says. “I don’t think we’ve addressed this as a city.”

He says he’d like to see better coordination between city departments and more opportunities for community members to report safety concerns and track the progress of ongoing projects—like the city’s ongoing sidewalk repair program.

“The answers are all there, but getting the political will is the greatest challenge that we’re facing,” he says.