Pedestrian deaths spiked in San Jose last year
Mayor Sam Liccardo was struck by a vehicle while riding his bicycle on New Year's Day (courtesy of Mayor Sam Liccardo)

    A New Year’s Day traffic collision that injured San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo marks an ongoing trend of pedestrian injuries and fatalities throughout San Jose — and has given a high-profile face to a public safety campaign that some say needed a publicity boost.

    Liccardo collided with a 2002 Toyota Highlander on Jan. 1 while riding his bicycle on eastbound Mabury Rd. near the East Foothills neighborhood.

    The intersection where the crash occurred, Mabury and Salt Lake Drive, is a two-way stop with stop signs posted only on Salt Lake at that section of Mabury. The driver of the car was traveling southbound on Salt Lake and “stopped at the stop sign and proceeded forward to cross Mabury Road when the bicyclist broadsided the Toyota,”according to San Jose police.

    The driver’s identity is unknown. San Jose police Sgt. Enrique Garcia said names are only released when people are booked into county jail or issued a criminal citation for an arrestable offense.

    The mayor fractured his sternum and two vertebrae, but is expected to fully recover. Drugs and alcohol were not a factor, police said, and the driver was cited for failure to yield to another motorist.

    While the mayor’s accident might be the most high profile, it’s the latest in a growing trend of traffic collisions on San Jose streets.

    There were 52 traffic deaths in San Jose in 2018, and nearly half of them — 23 — were pedestrians and cyclists, according to San Jose police. There were 46 deaths in 2017 with 16 involving pedestrians.

    For the past several years the city’s Vision Zero traffic safety initiative, which involves upgrading and adding separated bike lanes, traffic signs and other features on San Jose’s streets, has aimed to eliminate all pedestrian injuries and fatalities. But the number of pedestrian deaths was still just one short of the city’s 20-year high of 24 fatalities in 2014.

    The mayor’s crash is “not typical of what we see,” according to Colin Heyne, public information manager for the city transportation department, but “has brought attention to street safety.”

    “We’ve seen throughout the year that speed is a primary collision factor,” Heyne told San José Spotlight. “Getting people to slow down is one thing we’re focused on.”

    City workers have added a number of enhanced and protected bike lanes and bollards throughout downtown San Jose this past year to discourage speeding but Heyne said “there’s no magic wand that can deal with this.”

    An analysis of the most recent traffic statistics will be presented to the City Council this spring.

    That information will be used to help recognize traffic collision patterns and decide how to tackle various road hazards. Budget and resources have been two of the biggest challenges to meeting the Vision Zero objective so far.

    “Road projects take a lot of time and money to implement,” Heyne said. “There’s an urgency when fatalities happen, but we can’t implement street projects to solve all of these problems, especially not in the timeline people would like.”

    San Jose resident Long Nguyen has been a vocal supporter of Vision Zero since its inception but thinks the city isn’t moving fast enough. He believes that San Jose should force rideshare companies that use public roads to pay for traffic safety projects.

    “Rideshare drivers… should be paying business licenses for that,” Nguyen said. “The city should be charging for that, collecting for that, and using it to reinvest in our infrastructure. I don’t think Vision Zero can be achieved without this funding, basically.”

    Another problem, according to Nguyen, is a lack of education about Vision Zero. He said that few people outside of downtown seem to know about the initiative.

    “If more people understand what it’s about, more people would be supportive. It takes political will,” he added.

    Vision Zero is still in its beginning stages so there’s plenty to do, said Silicon Valley Bike Coalition Director of Policy and Advocacy Emma Shlaes.

    But the city has started by focusing on 17 priority corridors that include roadways like Jackson Street and McKee, Monterey and Senter Roads, where roughly half of the city’s fatal crashes occur. Vision Zero is changing how the city approaches traffic safety, which Shlaes said is an accomplishment in itself.

    “Typically the city’s doing things one way,” Shlaes said. “The idea of Vision Zero is communicating across different departments, you need buy-in from the City Council, buy-in from all different agencies and the public. It’s not something that happens overnight; it’s going to grow over time.”

    Another thing that will take time — and may never happen — is getting people to change their habits.

    “The other side of the Vision Zero coin is changing human behavior,” Heyne said, like getting people to not speed or use their cell phone while driving. “It’s difficult to reach people and get them to change their ways.”

    Contact Julia Baum at [email protected] or follow her @jbaum_news on Twitter.

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