When Michelle Mihalik was hit by a car on March 8, 2018, she did not see it coming.
After spending a night with friends at a Las Vegas casino, she was taken to a nearby Walmart and wanted to go home. However, 54-year-old Mihalik did not know that there was no public transport available in the area. As a legally blind person, this posed a big problem, but she decided to go home by walking along the side of the road that had no sidewalk.
She was next in the hospital with six pelvic fractures. A vehicle hit her from behind and she didn’t wake up until the next morning. “I was happy to be alive,” said Mihalik.
Walking can be dangerous depending on where you live. In Mihalik’s case, Nevada ranks eleventh among pedestrian deaths, according to a report by Smart Growth America. And Clark County, which also includes the Las Vegas metropolitan area, recorded 78 pedestrian deaths in 2017 – the highest in the county’s history.
Erin Breen, Coordinator of the Road Safety Coalition at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said the built environment was built for vehicles, not people.
A typical Las Vegas intersection is nine lanes and a standard road is at least 120 feet long. Wide lanes make driving more comfortable, explained Breen. Even with the recent infrastructure improvements in Clark County, “we’re still killing a stupid number of pedestrians,” she said.
This pedestrian-unfriendly environment also exacerbates inequality. On the Las Vegas subway, the people most likely to walk as the primary mode of transportation tend to be low-income. And in a state where traffic violations are considered a crime, jaywalking can cost you nearly $ 250 in fines and even land you in jail.
“Often times when you give them a ticket, you give them an arrest warrant,” Breen said.
That’s why Breen and Laura Gryder, project leader at the UNLV School of Medicine, teamed up in 2017 to create PedSAFE, an organization that teaches pedestrian safety classes. It works autonomously as part of the project for vulnerable road users in the UNLV’s traffic research center and works with local courts and law enforcement agencies.
The program, which was previously held in person and is now online because of the pandemic, allows people to opt out of pedestrian-related quotes and fines – as hikers or drivers – by taking a three-hour training course. The free course is taught by Breen himself three times a month (and once a month in Spanish). It covers case studies and historical data on pedestrian accidents, provides an overview of local laws, and offers tips and tricks for hikers, bikers, and drivers. In the end, the participants not only get their pedestrian tickets released, but also safety vests and headbands. More than 2,800 people have completed the course since 2017. According to PedSAFE, most people who leave the course have a better understanding of pedestrian safety and pedestrian rights.
PedSAFE typically serves 100 to 200 people per month. However, since the traffic court is closed due to the pandemic (criminal charges are still being made), fewer violations are being enforced and the number of attendees is only 25 people per month.
After Mihalik’s accident, her lawyer and driver settled the case. As part of the agreement, Mihalik had to take the PedSAFE pedestrian safety course. “I think all people should be required to take this course in order to get a driver’s license,” she said, citing “wear brightly colored clothes” as a safety tip she had never thought of. She’s not sure if the driver who hit her was instructed to take the course as well. She blames herself for wearing all black at the time of her accident.
However, proponents warn that the cause – not just the symptoms – needs to be addressed.
Angie Schmitt, former national editor at Streetsblog and author of Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Crisis of Pedestrian Deaths in America, says programs like PedSAFE are useful for lowering fines, but generally sees the value in them not enforcing jaywalking laws.
“[Local governments] punish the individual for a systemic problem, ”says Schmitt. Enforcement is often racially biased, and many people jaywalk because roads have no accessible crosswalks at all.
On March 1, the state of Virginia decriminalized jaywalking and made it a secondary offense. This means that people will only get a ticket if they break another law. The change also reduces unnecessary interactions with the police. “As long as jaywalking was a major offense, it would be a great source of harassment,” Peter Norton, associate professor of history in the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia, told NBC 12.
Decriminalization is also being considered in California. In March, California State Assembly member Phil Ting, who represents part of San Francisco, introduced the Freedom to Walk Act (AB1238), which legalizes safe crossings against traffic lights or outside the crosswalk and eliminates fines for jaywalking. Ting cited the 2018 murder of Chinedu Okobi, a black pedestrian who was killed and beaten by police officers during a jaywalking stop, and hefty fines as evidence of the urgency of the bill.
“It’s easy to send the police out and have the feeling of solving a problem,” says Schmitt. “It is more difficult to think about how roads are laid out and what problems are connected with the environment.”
While the city of Las Vegas has lowered speed limits and added buses in some areas, there is still a long way to go before it is safe.
“Until we give pedestrians reasonable places to cross the street and lower the speed limit to something that is viable,” says Breen, “people will be people.”
This article is part of The Clean Slate, a series on how technology and politics can help cities remove unfair fines, fees, and other barriers to economic mobility. The Clean Slate is generously supported by the Solutions Journalism Network.