Delaware roads have long been among the deadliest for pedestrians.
After some improvement a year ago, the state’s traffic deaths grew in 2019 by about 19%, from 111 in 2018 to 132 last year, according to the Office of Highway Safety.
The number of pedestrian deaths rose from 24 to 30, returning Delaware to among the nation’s worst places to walk the roads.
“There’s no silver bullet to solve this,” said John McNeal, chair of the state’s Pedestrian Council.
Education campaigns and some road improvement projects have been implemented since 2015, when Delaware ranked as the most deadly state for pedestrians. But officials acknowledge the efforts haven’t been enough and more needs to be done.
Two weeks into 2020, at least three pedestrians have died in crashes.
“Pedestrian safety is definitely a high priority area for us,” said Richard Klepner, deputy director of Delaware’s Office of Highway Safety. “This has become a national trend.”
Smashups in Sussex
Among the most alarming trends to consider is the number of fatal crashes in Sussex County. There were 47 fatal crashes in the county in 2019, a 56% increase from 2018 and the most in 15 years. At least eight involved pedestrians according to a Delaware Online/The News Journal map of pedestrian-involved crashes throughout the state.
The 47 fatal crashes in the county in 2019 were the most since 2004, when there were 49. By comparison, there were 50 New Castle County fatal crashes each year in 2018 and 2019.
Through the summer, the most crashes occurred on Del. 1 (Coastal Highway), the highway that covers most of the state and cuts through each of Delaware’s beach towns.
In May, a 56-year-old man was walking on Del. 1 in Rehoboth Beach when he stepped in front of an oncoming car, according to police. The man, not identified by police, died at the scene.
Martir Santiago, a 40-year-old from Rehoboth Beach, died in August after being hit by a state trooper driving on the same highway. Santiago had crossed the north lanes of Del. 1 near Church Street, police said. He stepped off the curb, walked across the right lane and was hit by the trooper as he was crossing the left lane, police said.
When asked about the uptick in fatal crashes in Sussex County, Klepner said it was “very concerning.”
“We haven’t had a lot of time to put together all of the pieces,” he added.
Klepner said his office hasn’t noticed a significant jump in crashes on Del. 1 compared to previous years but will consider ways to improve its safety. The increase in Sussex County fatalities has been spread out on Sussex’s rural roads, Klepner said. Many are single-vehicle crashes where drivers veer off the road, he said.
Klepner noted an increase in fatal crashes involving people over age 55.
“We need to make sure we’re kind of engaging with the new audience we haven’t really engaged with yet,” Klepner said. “These are individuals who in the higher speed crashes have less survivability.”
Residents along Del. 1 in North Bethany have formed a group to advocate for more safety measures along the high-speed road that takes drivers through Delaware’s beach towns.
In addition to the two pedestrian deaths, two bicyclists were hit and killed on the road in 2019.
Stretches of the road, bordered by beachfront and bayside properties, have speed limits as high as 55 mph. In the beach towns, people often walk, run or bike on the road’s shoulders, but the shoulders also are a turn lane to neighborhoods and residences.
Seth Hamed, one of the organizers of the Coalition for a Safer North Bethany, wants the speed limit reduced and greater speed enforcement. He said the accidents have dissuaded some in his community from coming back each summer.
“If you live there, you see the rise,” Hamed said. “55 miles per hour in a residential area is an accident waiting to happen.”
‘In all reality the damage is done’
On the night of Jan. 7, Michael Rendle was trying to cross Philadelphia Pike when he was hit by a Chevy Caprice.
Rendle, a 58-year-old from Wilmington, became the first Delaware pedestrian fatality of the year.
The particulars of the incident are too familiar to state officials trying to curb the rising pedestrian death toll. There were few street lights, and Rendle didn’t use a crosswalk.
He tried to cross just north of Beverly Place, police said, in the middle of a block between two crosswalks.
“It’s not fair to ask people to walk a half-mile out of their way to go to a crosswalk,” Klepner said. “Nobody’s going to do that. There’s a lot of discussion about what we can do about this.”
Many of Delaware’s most trafficked high-speed roads, including Philadelphia Pike, Kirkwood Highway and Concord Pike, do not have enough crosswalks or other ways to safely cross, state officials said, a byproduct of early highway planners working without pedestrians in mind.
In an email obtained by Delaware Online/The News Journal in 2018 Rob McCleary, head of the state’s Division of Transportation Solutions, told his colleagues, “As much as I think we need to acknowledge that our land use decisions and development patterns are at least a contributing factor to the pedestrian fatality rate if not the leading cause, in all reality the damage is done. We cannot roll back development patterns.”
In response, the department of transportation has introduced “road diets,” construction projects that often reduce the number of lanes and add safety measures like center turn lanes and wider shoulders.
Delaware State Police and Wilmington police didn’t publicly identify three victims. Interact with the map to view information about each crash.
Philadelphia Pike is among the roads slimming down. It will be transformed from a four-lane road to a two-lane road with a center turn lane and improved bike and pedestrian access.
A large-scale pedestrian improvement project is also in store for the US 40 corridor —from US 40 to I-495. Work will soon get underway on improving lighting and sidewalks, upgrading curb ramps and adding new traffic lights.
The project, to be completed in three phases, will cost roughly $22 million, according to Jerry K. Lovell of DelDOT.
“It’s the first project where every single penny of that project is dedicated to pedestrians,” said James Wilson, executive director of Bike Delaware. “I would like to have this at most of the state. At least it’s a start.”
‘There’s not enough data’
But not every road can be fixed, and certainly not in a short period of time. In the interim, the state has dedicated resources to teaching people about the hazards pedestrians face.
Delaware formed the Pedestrian Council in 2015, a group responsible for crafting ways to lower the number of pedestrian deaths, after an all-time high 36 pedestrians died.
Three years after its formation, Delaware started to see fewer pedestrian-involved crashes — there were 10 fewer pedestrian deaths in 2018 compared to 2017. But officials expressed only timid optimism, unsure whether they were seeing the beginning of a trend or a one-year blip.
“There’s not enough data to correlate with what we’re doing and the lower deaths,” Maria Andaya, DelDOT pedestrian coordinator, previously told Delaware Online/The News Journal.
The approach taken by the council focused on education, with the highway safety office’s nearly $5 million budget spent on promotional materials marked with safety messages and speakers to address high school students. The office paid for speed detection equipment and police officers to conduct roadway safety patrols.
Officials are now reevaluating how they’re spending their resources and their messaging, which has recently focused on nighttime visibility.
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