Chattanooga sees 200% increase in vehicle vs. pedestrian fatalities

Contributed photo / Members of the Chattanooga Urbanist Society put up signs marking three pedestrian collisions at 20th and Market streets.
Contributed photo / Members of the Chattanooga Urbanist Society put up signs marking three pedestrian collisions at 20th and Market streets.

Nine pedestrians have been struck and killed by vehicles in Chattanooga so far this year, a 200% increase from the three reported at this point last year, according to data from the Police Department. The city is on pace for 17 pedestrian deaths this year, a figure that would be the most reported annually by far in at least the past decade.

It's unclear if 17 pedestrian deaths from vehicle strikes would be a record for the city. Assistant Chief Jeri Sutton said in an email that the Police Department does not have access to records prior to 2013 as they have been archived and put in storage.

"I doubt we'd be able to access records from the old systems due to them being antiquated," she said.

In an emailed statement, Kevin Roig, the city's senior adviser for public affairs, said any death is tragic but the 200% increase doesn't tell the whole story.

"It seems like the framing here is that walking in the city of Chattanooga is 200% more dangerous for this year compared to last — and that's simply not true," Roig said. "Pedestrian struck calls, year over year, are down. Mayor Kelly's commitment to reversing decades of infrastructure divestment is clear, corroborated by his budgets."

The number of pedestrians struck by vehicles is down 15% from this point last year, police data show. However, 2022 saw the most pedestrians struck annually by vehicles in the past decade at 132. In 2021, 118 pedestrians were struck by vehicles, an increase from 91 the year before.

Pedestrians killed in vehicle strikes by year

— 2013: 4

— 2014: 3

— 2015: 8

— 2016: 2

— 2017: 2

— 2018: 7

— 2019: 7

— 2020: 2

— 2021: 6

— 2022: 6

— So far in 2023: 9

Source: Chattanooga Police Department

  photo  Staff photo / Hamilton County EMS and Chattanooga police officers help a pedestrian who was struck at the Georgia Avenue and M.L. King Boulevard intersection in 2019.
 
 

At a media briefing this week, Executive Chief Glenn Scruggs described the 200% increase in pedestrian deaths as a troubling figure.

"We're trying to mitigate those numbers by being more proactive and being in spaces where those events have taken place," Scruggs said.

This will involve handing out pamphlets, both in English and Spanish, in neighborhoods where vehicles striking pedestrians is most prevalent. The pamphlets are funded through a $35,000 grant recently awarded to the Police Department from the Tennessee Highway Safety Office. The grant focuses on "educating pedestrians and bicyclists on how to be safe as they commute," Sutton said in an email.

"We will be handing out information, talking to people that look like they're not crossing the street in a proper manner and giving them a little bit of education behind what can happen if we don't obey the rules of the road," Executive Chief Harry Sommers said at the media briefing.

Police Chief Celeste Murphy said at the briefing that while pedestrians do have the right-of-way, they need to be more aware of their surroundings.

"There are pedestrians stepping into crosswalks and just not being aware of their surroundings," Murphy said. "The onus is not on them but still, just being vigilant."

  photo  Staff photo by Olivia Ross / A pedestrian jogs to cross the road at East 23rd Street and Fourth Avenue on Thursday.
 
 

Jon Jon Wesolowski, a Chattanooga resident critical of the city and police's approach to pedestrian safety, said in an interview that the police's effort to educate pedestrians is victim blaming.

"Teaching victims of cars to not get hit by cars almost feels like telling stab wound victims how to stay away from the sharp end of a knife," Wesolowski said in a text message.

He said the city should be using resources instead to alter street design in a way that protects pedestrians from car traffic. That could include efforts to slow cars down such as narrowing street lanes or lowering speed limits.

According to the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety, the risk of death for pedestrians is 50% when struck by a car moving at 42 miles per hour. That risk climbs to 75% at 50 miles per hour.

Weslowski said more physical barriers and buffers separating the road from the sidewalk, such as those seen on some downtown corridors, would help protect pedestrians as well.

Ben Taylor, deputy administrator for transportation for the city, said in an interview that road design doesn't completely account for the increase in pedestrian deaths.

"There's not a 100% direct correlation between road design and fatalities," Taylor said.

He said behavior and poor decisions, from both drivers and pedestrians, results in death.

"There's an expectation and requirement, that we have to address through enforcement, that road users behave appropriately using the devices that are available," Taylor said.

He gave examples of drivers running stop signs and pedestrians not using crosswalks or crossing high-traffic roads like interstates. These behaviors have resulted in injury and death, he said.

In the emailed statement, Roig pointed out that five of the nine people killed by moving vehicles this year were walking on Interstate 24.

There are examples, however, of other cities changing street design to protect pedestrians. Hoboken, New Jersey, as reported by NPR last year, reported zero pedestrian deaths from vehicle strikes in four years due to measures such as constructing physical barriers that stop cars from parking directly against a crosswalk.

And enforcement to correct poor driving behavior, at least in the form of speeding citations, doesn't seem to correlate entirely with pedestrian deaths. According to data from Chattanooga police, officers issued 1,091 and 4,932 speeding citations to divers in 2018 and 2019 respectively. In each year, however, the same number of pedestrians died from vehicle strikes: seven.

Bert Kuyrkendall, a transportation consultant who previously worked for the city, said in an interview that the increase in pedestrian deaths can, in part, be attributed to road design.

"Roads have been built to accommodate fast-moving vehicles," Kuyrkendall said. "They're engineered that way."

He said speeding, and the road design that promotes it, has serious repercussions seen in many ways.

"We don't realize the impact that speeding really has. It could kill someone. It can take the life, but also it impacts the quality of life in our neighborhoods and our downtowns," Kuyrkendall said. "This is such a huge issue. It just doesn't seem like the city has been taking it seriously."

  photo  Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Police vehicles block a section of Georgia Ave. at the crosswalk near the Hamilton County Courthouse after a vehicle hit two pedestrians on Jan. 9.
 
 


Staff writer Ellen Gerst contributed to this report.

Contact Ben Sessoms at bsessoms@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

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