Vehicle crashes with pedestrians, bicyclists on the rise

Henrico focusing on education, enforcement, design to promote safety

Vehicle crashes involving pedestrians and bicyclists are increasing across Henrico County, just as they are throughout Virginia and the United States.

To reverse the trend, Henrico is responding with messages discouraging cellphone use and other distractions, targeted enforcement of traffic laws and a review of crosswalks, lighting or other design features that may be beneficial in certain areas.

“I firmly believe many of these fatalities could be prevented,” Police Chief Humberto “Hum” Cardounel Jr. said. “A significant number are due to human error.”

He’s urging everyone — motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists — to limit their distractions and take basic safety precautions. For example, motorists should slow down and remain alert, particularly in heavy pedestrian areas, and bicyclists should follow traffic laws as if they were in a car.

Similarly, pedestrians should carry flashlights and wear reflective clothing when out at night and use common sense when deciding when and where to cross a road. On high-traffic roads, cross at intersections and use crosswalks, if they’re available.

Man crossing the street on a crosswalk
Henrico recently installed a crosswalk across Hungary Spring Road by Hermitage High School as part of an effort to promote pedestrian safety.

“Drive down Broad Street and you see people darting across eight lanes of traffic,” Cardounel said.

In 2018, Henrico had 92 crashes involving pedestrians, with nine fatalities, and 31 crashes involving bicyclists, including one fatality. The number of pedestrian deaths was the highest in the 25 years that Henrico has tracked the data, and the problem has only worsened in 2019, with eight pedestrians or bicyclists killed in crashes as of May.

Committee begins looking at additional safety measures

Alarmed by the number of incidents, Cardounel assembled a work group and asked it to focus on enhancing safety through education, enforcement and road design, including whether sidewalks, crosswalks or lighting may warrant consideration. The group includes members of the Police Division, Division of Fire, Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, Department of Public Works and Public Relations & Media Services.

In March, the group launched a public awareness campaign, called Watch Your Step!, to reach pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists.

In a video public service announcement, Cardounel and Fire Chief Alec Oughton implore all travelers to takes steps to avoid crashes. The video, which debuted on social media, is expected to be supported by additional messages and outreach initiatives.

“We’re trying to share the message that all three groups have equal partnership in this,” Cardounel said, “and all three need to take actions to prevent crashes and fatalities.”

Police officers are reinforcing the safety message as well, giving a mix of warnings and citations for traffic infractions, said Lt. Robert Netherland, who oversees the Traffic Enforcement Unit.

Text graphic on promoting pedestrian safety
Watch Your Step! is a safety campaign by Henrico to encourage all travelers – pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists – to look out for each other and avoid distractions, such as cellphones and headphones.

Officers also have received refresher training on all applicable laws for pedestrians and bicyclists — “that a bicycle on the roadway has to obey all traffic laws as if it were a vehicle,” he said.

Enforcement efforts are somewhat limited by Virginia’s laws on driving with handheld devices, including cellphones. Cardounel called them largely unenforceable, because they prohibit only texting and messaging and do not address many other activities that could cause a distraction and result in a crash.

Henrico’s ability to effect change also is challenged, he said, because many of the county’s higher-traffic roads are maintained by the Virginia Department of Transportation. Henrico has responsibility for neighborhood streets and other roads.

The Department of Public Works (DPW) recently added a crosswalk on Hungary Spring Road at Hermitage High School, where students had been cutting across the street mid-block to reach apartment complexes on the other side.

Engineers usually prefer crosswalks at intersections for safety reasons, but DPW recognized that students were unlikely to change their behavior and believed it was better to make the mid-block crossings as safe as possible.

Public Works also is looking at other high schools and along other roads, including Park Terrace Drive, to see if crosswalks would be recommended. In addition, the department continues to build sidewalks throughout the county, with $2.5 million budgeted in fiscal 2019-20. To request a review of a crosswalk or other improvements, contact Traffic Engineering at (804) 727-8282 or DPW@henrico.us.

Officers identify crash ‘hot spots’

Police has mapped the locations of all pedestrian crashes since 2016 and identified “hot spots” where incidents have occurred with greater frequency.

For 2018, those locations correspond to major roads, particularly West Broad Street from Parham Road east to the Richmond-Henrico line, as well as areas along Ridgefield Parkway, Brook Road, Laburnum Avenue, Mechanicsville Turnpike, Williamsburg Road and Nine Mile Road.

Crashes often occur on primary roads because they carry a lot of vehicular and pedestrian traffic and have higher speed limits. If a driver or pedestrian diverts their attention for even a moment, the results can be tragic.

“If you’re distracted at 45 miles per hour, it doesn’t take long for something to come out in front and you not be able to stop in time,” Cardounel said.

He said it’s good that residents are walking and bicycling more for health and recreation and that many are taking advantage of expanded transit service in Henrico. To an extent, he added, the increase in crashes may be a byproduct of those changing habits and needs.

Henrico has had preliminary discussions with neighboring localities, state agencies and others about collaborating on a public-education campaign to promote safer roads. Similar campaigns have helped to increase seatbelt use and reduce impaired driving, Cardounel said. 

“We have to take a similar approach to distracted driving, because it’s killing people,” he said.