Greater protections needed to ensure safety of pedestrians and bicyclists

Friends and family of Mary Gelino are gathering tonight at the corner of Lake Mead and Nellis to commemorate the one-year anniversary of her hit-and-run slaying. The 66-year-old grandmother was legally crossing in a marked crosswalk, headed to her granddaughter’s birthday party when she was killed by a motorist who didn’t even stop to help.

Across town, members of Sacred Shoes placed five new plaques this weekend to commemorate the five pedestrians, including two teenagers, whose lives were lost to traffic violence just in the month of September 2021.

Simultaneously, in Los Angeles, thousands of pedestrians and cyclists will gather today for a memorial event dedicated to Andrew Jelmert, who at 77 was on the final stretch of a training ride for the 545-mile California AIDS Lifecycle when he was struck by a hit-and-run driver and killed in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park.

One of the organizers of Jelmert’s memorial event, Damian Kevitt, was struck by a hit-and-run driver in almost the exact same place in the park eight years ago. Kevitt survived, but not before he became caught on the undercarriage of the car that hit him, was dragged a quarter-mile down Interstate 5, and lost his leg and multiple pounds of flesh and muscle.

Right now, in Phoenix, family members are mourning the loss of 76-year-old Carlos Gonzalez, who was killed by a hit-and-run driver while crossing the street Monday night. And in neighboring Goodyear, Ariz., police are asking for help identifying a hit-and-run driver who killed a 13-year-old boy riding his bike home from school Tuesday afternoon.

These incidents are just a few very recent examples of the more than 8,000 cyclist and pedestrian deaths in the United States each year — more than 25% of which are hit-and-runs. That’s the equivalent of every member of both houses of the United States Congress being struck and killed every three weeks — with every senator (plus a few members of the House) dying in a hit-and-run crime.

Fortunately, it has not generally been members of Congress or other government officials killed in these types of incidents, which means they are alive and able to do something about it.

At the local level, cities should invest in research that identifies high-incident intersections and corridors where pedestrians, cyclists and even other drivers are most likely to be killed.

State and federal governments can support these efforts by providing grant funding for research that identifies both the location of high-incident corridors and the general attributes. That way, data can be compared to look for common attributes that are more or less likely to increase deadly collisions. Once those attributes are identified, grants should be made available that empower local governments to take corrective action, calm traffic, and create safer streets for all road users.

At the state level, deadly hit-and-run crimes should be classified as homicide, with an unlimited statute of limitations. Similarly, Congress should pass legislation that criminalizes fleeing the scene of a collision at the federal level. By creating a federal crime, local law enforcement could call upon federal investigators and bring federal resources to bear when trying to identify and apprehend hit-and-run criminals.

While some collisions may occur as the result of an accident or circumstance outside of a driver’s control, fleeing the scene of a collision is always a choice. And if we don’t stop to render aid, we have no idea whether the person we just hit with our car is suffering from light bruising or severe trauma. Leaving the scene of a collision must be assumed to be leaving someone on the side of the road to die.

In 2016, the National Highway Safety Administration rated Las Vegas as the country’s third-most-dangerous city for cyclists. By 2019, more than one-quarter of Nevada’s traffic fatalities involved pedestrians and bicyclists. And in 2020, even with the pandemic dramatically reducing the number of vehicles on the road, biking fatalities statewide rose by more than 50% — with more than two-thirds of those occurring in Clark County.

Last year saw yet another increase, as more than 70 people died in Clark County while riding a bike or crossing the street. And with more than 30 pedestrian and cyclist fatalities already in 2022, Clark County is on pace to significantly surpass previous year’s historic numbers.

Pedestrian and cyclist deaths, and especially hit-and-run crimes against cyclists and pedestrians, have reached epidemic levels. It’s time for elected officials at every level of government to step up and help find a cure.