Pedestrian deaths growing, family mourns Chandler woman killed SanTan Sun News

Pedestrian deaths growing, family mourns Chandler woman killed

May 19th, 2017 | by SanTan Sun News
Pedestrian deaths growing, family mourns Chandler woman killed
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By Jim Walsh

Minutes before a pickup truck ran a red light and killed her, Pamela Hesselbacher sent a message to her husband, Matt, saying that she and their two small children had left a nearby park and would be home soon.

“We finished up at the park. We are headed home now. We’ll see you in about 15 minutes,” Pamela Hesselbacher said. “Love you.”

But Pamela, 31, never made it home, even though she was only about 100 yards away. She was struck on Nov. 12 by the truck at Ponderosa and Ray roads in Chandler, where a makeshift memorial still features a picture of her smiling. She was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.

Hesselbacher became one of a growing number of pedestrians killed in collisions with cars in the East Valley and Arizona during 2016. Police and traffic safety advocates cite the deadly combination of distracted driving and distracted walking, with cellphones viewed as a strong contributing factor.

Other factors include high speeds on six-lane arterial roads, long distances between intersections, speeding, impaired driving and walking, jaywalking and the need to retrofit cities built for cars to make them more accommodating to pedestrians and bicyclists.

East Valley cities have embraced this retrofit to some extent, with Mesa installing seven “Hawk” traffic signals designed to allow pedestrians to cross safely mid-block in areas with anticipated pedestrian traffic. Gilbert and Tempe also use the Hawk and other traffic signals to promote pedestrian safety.

Safety experts say the new traffic signals save lives, but no amount of engineering can counteract bad decision-making, with 80 percent of pedestrians killed nationally while crossing in mid-block at night, according to a report by the Governors Highway Safety Association. Pedestrians involved in deaths also are about twice as likely as drivers to be impaired.

Sixth worst for pedestrians

The study noted a record number of pedestrian fatalities for two consecutive years. Another ranked Arizona as the sixth worse state for pedestrians and ranked the “Phoenix-Scottsdale-Mesa” region as the 16th worst nationally out of 105 regions.

Hesselbacher was only one of 198 pedestrians killed in Arizona collisions with vehicles in 2016, compared with 153 in 2015, a more than 29 percent increase.

In Phoenix, the number of pedestrians killed or seriously injured in 2016 hit 100, compared with 64 in 2012, a 56 percent increase.

Actual pedestrian deaths in Phoenix nearly doubled from 41 in 2012 to 81 in 2015, before a slight dip to 77 in 2016.

Although the numbers are less dramatic in the East Valley, every death represents a tragic loss. The number of pedestrians killed in Mesa doubled, to 10 in 2016 from 5 in 2015. Pedestrian injury accidents increased to 147 from 137.

Despite a large number of pedestrians, Tempe’s pedestrian deaths remained static, with two deaths in 2016 and the same in 2015. Injuries to pedestrians increased, however, to 59 in 2016 from 44 in 2015.

Chandler’s number of pedestrian deaths rose to 4 in 2016 from 3 in 2015, with injuries increasing to 75 from 67.

Gilbert recorded no pedestrian fatalities in 2016 and one in 2015. Injuries also dropped to 36 in 2016 from 43 in 2015.

Joggers hit in Gilbert

But Gilbert’s relative good fortune seemed to run out on April 20, when two women were struck by a pickup truck while jogging in a crosswalk at Val Vista Drive and Elliot Road, one of the city’s busiest intersections.

Sgt. Darrel Krueger, a police spokesman, said the women were jogging east when they were struck by a pickup truck that was headed south on Val Vista. He said Carrie Brown, 49, died from her injuries, while Shari Irion, 53, was critically injured.

The two women jogged together on Tuesday and Thursday mornings for years and were longtime friends, according to a YouCaring, crowd funding page. Irion also was a trainer at a Gilbert health club.

East Valley police, a Mesa transportation engineer and a national expert all seem to agree there is no panacea for eliminating pedestrian deaths. All of them cite the need for a combination of education, improved traffic engineering and increased enforcement to attack the problem.

Richard Retting, the co-author of the national report, noted a record amount of wireless data usage coinciding with the spike in pedestrian fatalities, but he cannot prove a direct correlation. Anyone driving around the East Valley is likely to see distracted pedestrians using cellphones and listening to headphones.

Although the Hawk signals are proven to save lives and reduce serious injuries, “a large part of the equation is the road user. People have to behave safely,” Retting said.

Erik Guderian, Mesa’s deputy transportation director, said Mesa is always looking for new ways to promote pedestrian and bicycle safety, whether it’s new projects or installing mid-block signals to reduce jaywalking.

“When we have a new project coming in, we take into account all users, not just vehicles,” he said. “We continually try to get the education piece out there.”

He said all fatalities are reviewed to see whether traffic engineering changes could promote safety.

“There’s not a single solution. There has to be a multi-pronged approach,” Guderian said.

Chandler tragedy

All the Hesselbacher family knows is that they miss Pamela and that their lives will never be the same and that there needs to be more accountability for negligent drivers.

William Epperlein, 39, escaped felony prosecution, despite a poor driving record, because he was not impaired, was not speeding, he did not leave the scene and he was not street racing when he hit Pamela and her children. Chandler police originally cited him for three felonies: causing a death by use of a vehicle and two counts of causing serious injury by use of a vehicle.

Epperlein’s case is expected to land in Chandler Municipal Court for prosecution of misdemeanors, lesser charges with shorter sentences. Arizona does not have a specific law that makes distracted driving a crime, although police can cite drivers for violations that often stem from distraction, such as failure to drive in the proper lane.

Pamela’s son, Ryan, 4, remembers everything, pushing the button on the traffic signal, waiting for the “walk” sign,” and getting struck by the truck. The family believes he survived primarily because Pamela had insisted that he wear his bicycle helmet while riding.

Pamela was pushing her daughter, Audrey, 14 months, in a stroller when they were hit. Audrey ended up in a coma for a week, but she pulled through. The family clings to one silver lining, the fact that both children are doing fine, even though they will live the rest of their lives without their mother.

“If I had lost them, I don’t know what I would do. I could have lost them all in an instant,” Hesselbacher said.

“You can’t dwell on the fact she isn’t here anymore. You have to think, ‘I was lucky enough to know her, to have two beautiful children with her,’” he said.

Jody Kieran of Peoria, Pamela’s mother, said her daughter met Matt at the University of Arizona, where she was awarded a scholarship, earned a degree in marketing and got a job with General Mills. The company will donate $20,000 a year to the HopeKids program for children with cancer.

“If anything would have happened to them, I don’t think she would have wanted to live,” Kieran said. “She was just safety conscious every step of the way.”

Safety campaign

While Hesselbacher’s family continues to cope with their tragic loss, Arizona officials are working on a federally-financed safety campaign to combat a spike in pedestrian deaths, with the number of pedestrians seriously injured or killed rising throughout the Phoenix metro area.

Jody Kieran already has volunteered to appear in a public safety campaign, after meeting with Alberto Gutier, director of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety. Chandler police also have volunteered to participate.

“I hurt so bad. I don’t want anyone else to go through it,” Kieran said. “I’m trying to spare other people from this type of pain.”

Gutier has obtained a commitment for $800,000 in federal grants from the Focused Cities Program, which targets areas with a high incidence of pedestrian and bicycle deaths. He envisions a combination of a public safety campaign in English and Spanish, coupled with more enforcement of traffic laws.

“It’s a major priority that we do something about pedestrian and bicycle safety,” he said. “We want to reach as many people as we can.”

Gutier said he has up to five years to spend the money, but wants to make a big impression with the campaign as quickly as possible.

“There has to be mutual respect” between drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists, Gutier said.

He noted that pedestrian deaths are only one contributing factor to Arizona recording the highest number of traffic fatalities since 2007 in 2016. Preliminary statistics have recorded 967 fatalities last year, compared with 887 in 2015 and 774 in 2014.

Busy intersections

Sgt. Steve Carbajal, a Tempe police traffic enforcement supervisor, said police target busy intersections with the highest number of collisions for enforcement. Early this year, they targeted jaywalkers near the Metro light rail, attempting to reduce collisions.

Carbajal said police in January made 352 stops during their pedestrian safety campaign, which resulted in 316 citations. He said 171 of those violations were specific to pedestrian violations.

“It’s not a popular thing, trust me. I have been called every name in the book,” Carbajal said. “They don’t understand what we’ve seen and what causes pedestrian crashes.”

He said drivers are distracted and pedestrians have difficulty judging distances, especially at night.

“You can’t count on a driver seeing you, even if you see them,” he said. “If there is impairment, it’s more often on the part of the pedestrian than the driver.”

Phoenix police Sgt. Alan Pfohl, a former traffic unit supervisor, agreed with Carbajal that pedestrian fatalities are more likely on arterial streets, where drivers don’t expect to see anyone walking, rather than in congested downtown areas where drivers anticipate foot traffic.

“I think people are in a zone, looking at their phone or singing a song but not focused on the task of driving,” Pfohl said.

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