San Jose on track to beat record traffic deaths
The intersection of Monterey Road and Curtner Avenue. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    San Jose marked its 60th vehicle fatality last month when a man crashed his car into a property on Santa Teresa Boulevard — a record high for the city. And the year isn’t over.

    City officials are scrambling to curb the number of traffic fatalities and plan next year to prioritize traffic safety near schools and launch a robust campaign to change driver behavior.

    San Jose’s streets have become increasingly dangerous. During the last decade, traffic deaths more than doubled from 29 in 2010 to 60 in 2021. Last year was a record high with 60 deaths and 2022 is on track to beat this number with one month left. San Jose saw most of the deaths on what it calls its 17 most dangerous streets  — most of which are on the East Side.

    Colin Heyne, spokesperson for the city’s transportation department, said changing driver behavior is the key to reducing the growing rate of traffic deaths. Even with safety infrastructure like bike lanes or bollards at right turns — if people are speeding — accidents will continue to happen, he said. People’s perceptions of their driving behavior needs to change.

    “We are making really good headway at building safety projects at lightning speed as far as the government agencies go,”  Heyne told San José Spotlight. “But the people out there driving recklessly, speeding, driving distracted, are outpacing our efforts.”

    The city is spending nearly a million dollars on a marketing campaign that targets drivers and pedestrians through billboards, social media, signage and other means of communication.

    “That’s going to be the first step in what will be a very long behavior change campaign, similar to campaigns to make people wear seat belts or stop smoking,” Heyne said.

    The city has funded temporary solutions to make streets safer. On Senter Road, the city spent close to $1 million to paint the intersections and put green balls and plastic barriers to force drivers to slow down. These efforts reduced traffic death and serious injuries along Senter Road, dropping from 15 in 2020 to five in 2021, according to city data.

    Next year, San Jose has five of the city’s most dangerous streets — Branham Lane,  Saratoga Avenue and McKee and White roads— scheduled for similar infrastructure safety measures as Senter Road. McKee and Tully Roads are getting major upgrades that include more street lights, bike lanes and other protective measures.

    San Jose also wants to make streets near schools safer as children walk or bike to campus. A car killed a third-grader in the crosswalk near Castlemont Elementary School in September, sparking the idea from Councilmember Pam Foley. Next year she will chair the Vision Zero Taskforce, a city committee that seeks to eliminate traffic fatalities.

    San Jose adopted the Vision Zero initiative in 2015 to analyze traffic data and develop safety programs after the city saw 60 people die from crashes that year. On Wednesday, the task force discussed opportunities to make safety upgrades around schools.

    Vision Zero program manager Jesse Mintz-Roth said he’s “cautiously optimistic” about improvements coming next year.

    “I personally can’t speak to how long it’s been since agreements around schools have been evaluated for safety improvements,” Mintz-Roth told San José Spotlight.

    This means adding high visibility crosswalks, trimming trees so that existing signs and markings can be seen and installing more stop signs around schools. The department of transportation is also working with the police department to increase the number of traffic guards near schools and busy streets. San Jose can hire for 262 positions, but has only filled 185.

    Gina LeBlanc, a nurse at Castlemont Elementary who became a traffic safety advocate after her son was killed in a 2016 car crash, said she’s “horrified” by the fatalities and injuries on San Jose streets.

    “But I’m glad to hear the 2023 work plan will be looking at schools and it’s just so important,” LeBlanc said. “I hope (the city) will also look at the possibility of school street closures just for drop off and pickup time. It’s been done in other cities and it’s something to think about.”

    Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

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