Victorians at more risk than Texas, US walkers

Black Nike Air Max shoes lie on the road in front next to a Scion tC sedan. A man was hit by a car while crossing North John Stockbauer Drive near Salem Road.

When Aaron Way, 37, was struck by a passing car while crossing John Stockbauer Drive on Monday night, he became the most recent chapter of Victoria's tragic legacy of vehicle-pedestrian crashes.

He was listed in critical condition at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio on Tuesday.

Sunday night, Victoria resident Encarnacion "Chon" Munoz, 67, was killed after he was struck by a vehicle while crossing East Rio Grande Street.

Victoria walkers are killed by traffic at a much higher rate than their counterparts at the state and national level, according to data collected by federal and state organizations. Overall, the rate of deaths is increasing rapidly year by year, shadowing national and statewide trends.

"Nationwide and in Texas, all traffic fatalities are increasing, but pedestrian fatalities appear to be increasing at a greater rate than other types of fatalities," said Diane Dohm, Metropolitan Planning Organization coordinator for Victoria.

Munoz's death marks the first time this year a pedestrian has been killed by a vehicle inside city limits, but if 2017 proves to be anything like recent years, it won't be the last.

In 2016, calculations show a ratio of 6.15 Victoria pedestrians per 100,000 people were reported killed, but throughout Texas that year, only 2.56 pedestrians were killed per 100,000 people, according to data from the Texas Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and U.S. Census Bureau.

Although Victoria Police Lt. Eline Moya said she could only provide the number of fatal wrecks involving pedestrians from 2011 to 2017 - rather than the number of people killed - it was highly likely those reported dead were pedestrians and not the occupants of the vehicles.

In 2015, a ratio of 4.59 Victoria pedestrians were killed per 100,000 people. Texas pedestrians died at the rate of 2.14 per 100,000 during that year.

The trend in 2014 was similar. That year, 4.67 Victoria pedestrians died per 100,000 people as a result of vehicle-pedestrian crashes. For Texas, the figure was 1.77. For the entire U.S., the number was 1.53.

With one pedestrian already killed in 2017 and six vehicular-pedestrian crashes reported, this year looks to be following the pattern, Moya said.

But understanding why some populations of walkers appear to be more susceptible to fatal vehicle-pedestrian crashes is a difficult process, Dohm said.

"There could be a few different things going on," she said.

Although running red lights and erratic turning are common to fatal vehicle-pedestrian crashes, she said, speed remains the most frequent contributing factor.

Pedestrians face a 77 percent chance of death or serious injury when struck by vehicles moving at 40 mph, according to the Federal Highway Administration. That chance drops to 50 percent at 30 mph and 18 percent at 20 mph.

"That is a good reason why we don't see pedestrian fatalities next to DeLeon Plaza - because the speeds are so slow," Dohm said.

But many of the crashes are due to no fault of drivers, she said.

For instance, Munoz, who was wearing a reflective vest, and Way were not using crosswalks when they were struck. Jake Ramirez, a Victoria photographer who walks mostly at night for leisure and exercise, said he has witnessed equally bad behavior from pedestrians and drivers.

So much so that Ramirez said he has taken to walking with a flashlight to signal drivers when he crosses.

"The biggest problem is awareness," he said. "Victoria is a small town, and people aren't used to walkers, so they don't pay attention to the crosswalks."

Ramirez's closest call came while crossing East Rio Grande Street at North Laurent Street when an oblivious driver ran a red light and passed him within 6 inches at about 30 mph.

Just like drivers, the former Austin resident said, pedestrians in metropolitan areas walk quite differently than those in Victoria.

"When I first moved back, I would be so annoyed with watching people cross in the middle of the road - until I realized there was logic behind it," he said.

Although Dohm does not support crossing without a crosswalk, she said, she understands it.

"Even if we feel it may be a dangerous way to take, people are people," she said. "They are going to take the route that is easiest."

When walkers are able to cross busy roadways illegally but without injury, she said, they are more likely to try again.

While blaming pedestrians who break traffic laws is easy to do, Dohm said understanding why they choose to cross is a more effective way of preventing tragedies.

"We should look at their needs so they can live a safe and healthy life here," she said. "You can't truly have a livable community if it is not safe for everyone, and that includes walking."

Mayor Paul Polasek, a Victoria native, said although much progress is yet to be made with Victoria sidewalks, crosswalks and other safety features, walking conditions are improving steadily, albeit slowly.

"We could always do better," he said. "It's a balancing act of what we can afford and the other duties in the city," he said.

When Polasek was young, sidewalks were rare to the point of nonexistence. While sidewalks may still be intermittent and sometimes disconnected, the city's sidewalk ordinance, which requires new construction projects to build sidewalks, is literally changing the landscape of Victoria.

But installing safety features is not the only means of improving safety, he said.

Education works, too.

Moya said the police are attempting to get the word out for safe crossing through Facebook and the department's Traffic Safety Office.

"People need to be more aware," she said.

Local news outlets, Polasek said, can contribute to the public's awareness of the danger inherent to walking near traffic. Unfortunately, publicizing pedestrians' deaths and injuries can serve as a tragic but effective preventative reminder to think while crossing and driving.

"It's sad that it takes a tragedy to change driving habits, but maybe people will learn from it," he said.

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Jon covers crime, public safety and the courts at the Victoria Advocate. Born in Huntsville, Ala., he grew up in Atlanta, Ga. and obtained a bachelor's degree in journalism at Texas State University.

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