Even a year later, Sarah Al-Hashimi still feels pain. She feels it in the hematoma sending pain down her legs. She feels it along her back where her vertebrae was damaged. She feels it in the torn disk in her back and in her pinched nerves. On Feb. 4, 2016, Al-Hashimi was struck by a Fiat
Crossover 500X at the corner of Madison and Washington streets. She was thrown 10 to 20 feet across the asphalt to the entrance to the nearby gas station. With much pain and therapy, some of the injuries will heal. Others, like the permanent hematoma on her sciatic nerve, will not. The driver of the car was never caught.
Sarah Al-Hashimi is one of the roughly 70 pedestrians involved in a vehicle crash last year. Of those 70, four were fatally struck by cars. 2016 was the deadliest year for pedestrians in Alexandria in at least the last five years. There was one pedestrian death in 2015 and none in 2014.
As of November 2016, there were 1,169 total crash incidents, 1,087 of which were vehicle only. In general, crash incidents have experienced a steady decline in Alexandria. There were 1,713 crash incidents in 2012, falling to 1,488 by 2015. There were 18 incidents involving cars striking bicycles or, very rarely, bicycles striking cars. 2015 was a record year for bicycle involved crashes, at 33, with 2016 being a slight drop.
Alexandria Police say overall crashes involving pedestrians in the city have remained at an average of 75 each year. While fatalities have risen, Deputy Chief Chris Wemple noted that the number of fatalities is small enough that it’s difficult to measure.
“We have seen that damages and injuries are going down,” said Wemple, though he said it wasn’t known yet whether that decline had anything to do with police or city measures. More likely, Wemple suspected the cause was also the same source as many traffic problems: increased density.
“We don’t know why the injuries are going down,” said Wemple, “But one factor could be that with the traffic density, people are driving slower. The slower people are driving, the less accidents cause injuries.”
That’s not to say slow for a car isn’t going to cause serious injuries for a pedestrian. According to Wemple, the average speed in the city is 25 miles per hour, and most of the crashes are at lower speeds than that.
“Anything over three miles per hour is going to hurt,” said Wemple. “At 25 miles per hour, that’s a lot of inertia. 25 miles per hour is still very dangerous.”
Even if the accident isn’t fatal, being struck by a car can still leave a lasting impact on a pedestrian. A few blocks away from where Al-Hashimi was struck, Michael Doyle was walking down Fairfax Street and crossing Pendleton Street in early December. He wore a knit cap his wife and bought him when he’d started walking home from work, one that had a battery light on-top to alert passing drivers. It did very little to protect him against the black SUV that struck him in the crosswalk. Like Al-Hashimi, the car that struck Doyle had been trying to turn and didn’t see Doyle as he crossed the sidewalk.
It’s been two months and I’m still going to neural-physical rehab,” said Doyle. “I have hematomas on my brain. I had a broken nose, a fractured forehead, 34 stitches, very deep lacerations on my hands and knees. My leg still bothers me at night. I was using a walker for three or four weeks. The worst of it all, for the first four, five or six weeks [after the crash] I couldn’t read. Being not able to read was just awful. I’m just now getting back to work, but if I work too long I start to get a headache.”
After his accident, Doyle says he and his wife have become hyper-aware of every pedestrian around them while they drive.
“My wife and I are now extremely cautious,” said Doyle. “If we see somebody walking, we think about them crossing even if there’s not a crosswalk. The city needs more public reminders of pedestrian safety.”
Wemple said most of the pedestrian-related accidents tend to happen where one would expect: in areas of dense pedestrian traffic, generally in the city’s shopping areas. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence, but Wemple said there were few places where police statistically could identify areas that were hazardous to pedestrians. Repeated accidents within the same year involving a pedestrian that occur at or near the same intersection are the exception rather than the rule.
Wemple pointed back to the death last year of Jeremais Herrera Rodriguez, who was sweeping in an alleyway when a 92-year-old driver suddenly lost control of his vehicle. The car careened down the alley, killing Rodriguez and severely injuring another.
“When the big tragedies happen, you look at the circumstances of that accident,” said Wemple. “A lot of times, it’s not something where that set of circumstances is likely to repeat.”
Where accidents are repeated, there are a number of measures the police or city staff can take to enhance traffic safety.
“Years ago, we changed the lights on Route 1 and Washington Street,” said Wemple. “Now, all the lights are red [for a moment]. It reduced the crashes there dramatically.”
Carrie Sanders, deputy director of the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services, said the top 20 crash locations in the city are along the Duke Street corridor. Sanders said crashes are also more common along Route 1 in Old Town, where high volumes of pedestrians interact with dense traffic.
On Jan. 24 the City Council meeting adopted Vision Zero, a traffic safety concept that aims to achieve a transportation system with no deaths or serious injuries. Sanders said, as part of the Vision Zero program, city staff will look at intersections in the city that experience safety issues and assess potential solutions. In large part, Vision Zero is an evolution of the city’s complete streets program, a policy designed around improving traffic and pedestrian safety.
The FY2017-2026 budget included $9.3 million for the city’s complete streets program with $1.6 million in FY2017. Sanders said as part of the Vision Zero action plan, city staff will work with the community on assessing costs of potential safety measures.
“You’re not just looking at infrastructure costs in terms of physical improvements, but education and enforcement,” said Sanders, “It’s about making sure that through different modes of communication and enforcement that we’re improving safety for drivers and pedestrians.”
Sanders said information about community meeting dates and locations will be forthcoming.
Wemple says awareness is the key point to emphasize in any transportation safety discussion. For pedestrians, that means being aware of cars around you even if you are at the crosswalk. For drivers, Wemple said the main cause of every accident he’s seen is distracted driving.
“You don’t see a lot of guys who say ‘yeah, I saw the guy crossing at the crosswalk and decided to go for it,’” said Wemple, “Usually, it’s ‘that guy came out of nowhere.’”
More often than not, Wemple said crashes are the aftermath of what police call “the red-light prayer,” where drivers are looking down at their lap at a cellphone or other electronic device, looking up and immediately hitting the gas as soon as their peripheral vision catches a flash of green. Wemple said many drivers think they can multi-task, but in doing so are unaware of pedestrians or other vehicles that move around them while they are distracted.
“Put your phones down,” Wemple said, in a plea to drivers in Alexandria. “Whatever it is, it can wait.”