WILMINGTON—Last year, Wilmington Police recorded over 100 roadway accidents involving pedestrians and “pedal cyclists.” The locations of those accidents appear to cluster on certain roads.
Incident reports are often incomplete and, based on state protocol, do not always include information on injuries or whether a citation was issued. Still, in just a single year, patterns emerge: accidents within Wilmington city limits occurred most often on South College Road, Market Street, 3rd Street, Oleander Drive and Kerr Avenue.
The big picture: where do accidents happen?
In 2016, crashes in Wilmington involving pedestrian and cyclists resulted in injuries 100 percent of the time, according to the Department of Motor Vehicle’s North Carolina Crash Facts report.
Statewide, the report found that 8.8 percent of all pedestrians involved in motor vehicle crashes last year were killed.
Per population, the report ranked Wilmington the fourth most dangerous out of 85 cities in the state with a population of 10,000 or more in 2016, and second most dangerous in 2015. Factors including reported crashes, crash rate per population and severity of incidents.
Though fault and factors vary, accidents involving pedestrians and cyclists occur in distinctive patterns. Last year alone, three pedestrian and cyclist accidents occurred at the intersection of South Kerr Avenue and Market Street, where there are no crosswalks.
Market Street, a state-maintained road, had the second-highest concentration of pedestrian and cyclist accidents last year. There are portions of Market Street that stretch more than 8 miles, within city limits, without a crosswalk. From Snow’s Cut Bridge in Carolina Beach Road leading into South College Road, 9 miles of roadway pass before a pedestrian crossing is available.
Just one block from Wilmington City Hall, three collisions occurred last year at the intersection of North 3rd and Grace streets. All three involved bicycles and vehicles. In two, the bicyclists were reported as obeying the existing crosswalk.
On South College Road, the road with the highest concentration of pedestrian and cyclist accidents last year, a police officer observed a lack of bicycle-friendly infrastructure in the incident report.
“There was little to no shoulder for a bicycle to travel,” the officer wrote.
A hidden problem
After responding to a gruesome accident involving a pedestrian, Michael Habash began collecting data from news reports to map fatalities and serious injuries in the area.
Habash served as a Wilmington Police Department officer from 2006 to 2011, during which he would frequently respond to pedestrian and cyclist accidents. One year after leaving the department, Habash started the Facebook group Walkable Wilmington, where he began to share his findings.
“The whole idea of collecting the data was to change my view of the problem and to help see really what I think in Wilmington is a hidden problem,” Habash said.
As an officer, Habash was troubled by a lack of thorough investigations in response to fatal accidents.
“Something else that came to light in my digging is how few drivers are actually charged with a crime,” Habash said. “It’s actually fairly rare; so often the drivers are not charged.”
He plotted deaths and injuries along Carolina Beach Road, downtown Wilmington and locations he could find corresponding news reports about, starting after 2000.
“I never would have come to the realization if I hadn’t done this data project that there’s a concentration of risk,” Habash said. “I think if you look at the map you’ll see that there’s actually a pretty strong grouping of injury accidents in the city of Wilmington itself and on the periphery of that, a lot of fatalities.”
After following particular cases along Carolina Beach Road, Habash found low-income populations to be the most at risk of being involved in an accident.
“People who can’t drive, or can’t afford to drive are obviously more likely of needing to walk and subjected to a higher risk of being killed while crossing the street in really high-speed roads,” he said. “Few of the drivers have been charged and there’s been no change in infrastructure.”
Habash recounts cases where pedestrians were found at fault for failing to obey traffic laws, crossing the road in areas where a crosswalk isn’t present for miles.
In reports following an accident, pedestrians are often described as wearing dark clothing during dawn or dusk. Descriptors like this make Habash question how much investigative effort was put forth. He said in the majority of pedestrian fatality cases, the driver’s claim of not being able to see is not thoroughly investigated.
“That’s an incredibly low bar to set for an investigation that’s lead to a death,” Habash said. “I don’t know if that’s the right thing legally to do, but it put a lot of question to how the city of Wilmington and the county are addressing this problem.”
Since Habash left the department in 2011, the city has approved “walkability” projects, including the South College Road Trail and the Park Avenue Multi-Use Path, which will eventually connect to the Cross City Trail.
“I am generally very pleased, from a pedestrian standpoint, with the City’s Comprehensive Plan and the county’s efforts to develop their own land use strategy,” Habash wrote in an email.
Incidents versus citations
Habash’s claim that accidents don’t often lead to citations is supported by an analysis of the 2017 Wilmington Police Department incident reports (note: you can read the complete list of incident reports at the end of this article).
Of the pedestrian and cyclist accidents reported by Wilmington police officers last year, citations were recorded approximately 23 percent of the time.
However, it’s worth nothing, incident reports–while they can contain useful information–are often far from comprehensive, and can contain confusing omissions.
For example: there are reports from 2017 in which cyclists or pedestrians were witnessed as being airborne on impact, but no injuries are reported. There are also reports where injuries and fault are recorded, but no citation is recorded as being issued.
Linda Thompson, spokesperson for the Wilmington Police Department, said recording injuries and citations is not required by the state-mandated forms that officers complete.
“It’s not a standard protocol,” Thompson said. “Usually if there are injuries and they are visible, the officer will note them.”
Thompson said, when it comes to citations, they should be included in the incident reports.
“Typically in these cases, if a citation is going to be issued, it should be in here,” Thompson said.
But that doesn’t appear to always be the case. In an incident report on September 26, 2017, the driver of a vehicle was found to have a blood-alcohol level of .18, over twice the legal limit, after hitting a bicyclist on Wrightsville Avenue around 4 p.m. There is no record of a citation or injury in the officer’s report.
Sharing the road
But what about the root causes of these incidents? What can the city of Wilmington do to reduce the high number of accidents?
Wilmington Traffic Engineer Don Bennett said he begins his workday searching headlines for stories about pedestrian and cyclist accidents.
“Where did it occur, is this a pattern?” Bennett said he asks himself. “Am I reading two or three of these things per year, per month or, God forbid, a week?”
Though Bennett has the most authority over city-maintained roads, he said he is able to make recommendations to North Carolina Department of Transportation officials.
“Is there a pattern? And if there is a pattern, does this pattern have a mitigation approach that I can apply?” Bennett asked.
Incident reports for accidents reveal drugs, alcohol and distracted driving contribute to a large number of crashes, with fault often shared between both parties. Though motorists are not always at fault in accidents with pedestrians and cylists, those using human-powered transportation are more vulnerable to injury.
“We just have to understand that the pedestrian and bicyclist don’t have the same safety features afforded to large vehicles,” Bennet said.
With a large number of factors at play outside of infrastructure, Bennett aims to pinpoint issues where he has oversight.
“It is particularly disheartening when they are 50 feet from a marked crosswalk,” he said. “It’s emotionally trying when we read that.”
In addition to infrastructure and greenway improvements, Bennett said much of the issue boils down to a cultural shift toward sharing the road.
“I think it comes down to a cultural change, even when we’re in our cars, we have to think back to the times we were cycling, we have to think back to the times we were walking,” he said.
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