Recent Downtown Fatality Raises Questions Over Pedestrian Safety

I'm afraid some driver's ill-considered confidence is going to cost someone someday.

Those are the closing words of this column from August 2008. It was a cautionary piece regarding pedestrian safety downtown and cast a jaundiced eye toward Knoxville Area Transit bus and trolley drivers in particular. The intersection of Gay Street and Summit Hill figured prominently in that piece as a particularly dangerous intersection for those on foot.

As we went to press this week, the details of a man killed there on March 1 remain murky. What is known is that he was struck and killed by a turning KAT trolley as he attempted to cross the street.

This story has bothered me in several ways. First, that the eventuality I feared came to pass. My concerns about the interaction of vehicles and people on foot downtown was, and remains, well founded. I want to emphasize that unless greater measures are taken toward pedestrian safety, I'm afraid we can expect more stories like this one. And no matter who is to blame for this fatality, there are contributing factors that can be addressed.

I also want to reiterate something from that column. While KAT drivers are widely regarded by downtowners as bad drivers, they are far from the only ones. I think it's easy for us to pick them out because they are an entire class unto themselves. They drive big vehicles that don't have the best sight lines. And their routes are a regimen sort of like commuting to the same place over and over every day. Same route, same streets, same turns, same routine. Based on my experience, and on anecdotal information from neighbors and elsewhere, KAT has been contacted numerous times about their drivers' conduct at Summit Hill and Gay as well as other intersections downtown. At least with them, there are identifying marks and there's someone to call to complain to. I can't say the same for the pickup truck that nearly hit me a while back, or the tinted-windowed sedan that cut me off there an hour before I wrote this.

Coverage of the March 1 incident in the News Sentinel paraphrased Knoxville Police Department Capt. Don Jones, who oversees the downtown area, as saying that "he has not received complaints that KAT drivers have disregarded the safety of pedestrians." And I'll have to admit, I've never thought of calling that in to KPD. I just thought it was common knowledge. But the problem is not confined to KAT drivers. It is with the overall climate of pedestrian/vehicle interaction every day downtown, and that is something KPD ought to do something about. As of March 9, the department reported that of the seven fatalities from motor vehicle accidents so far this year in Knoxville, three had been pedestrians.

I have observed officers disregard moving violations that occur right in front of them. My neighbor tells a story of pointing out a car turning the wrong way down a one-way street to a KPD officer, who responded, "Yeah, they do it all the time." The lights at Union Avenue and Gay Street are run by drivers every single day. Pedestrians are cut off or prevented from crossing with the signal every day. Cars downtown run stop signs every day. Drivers on Gay Street drive way too fast every day. And pedestrian traffic in our downtown increases every day.

I recognize that a lot of our officers are on foot or bikes. And both are good means of patrolling our downtown sidewalks or for issuing parking tickets. I can't expect a patrolman on foot to run down a violator in a moving car. But maybe it's time we stationed a few around downtown who are tasked with enforcing the laws that KPD routinely does throughout the rest of the city. Schools aren't the only crosswalks in town. If they start with the two intersections mentioned above, they won't need to wait very long for an opportunity to ticket someone for something more dangerous than overtime parking. I don't know of a single incident of a pedestrian being killed or injured by a parked car, yet they seem to be the only vehicles getting ticketed.

Meanwhile, I will once again caution people traveling on foot to be extra careful when crossing intersections downtown. Drivers here have learned that enforcement is lax, and they drive accordingly. They know that they have an upper hand and that no one is paying attention to their disregard for pedestrians, their rolling rights-on-red, or other careless offenses. Unless and until that changes, please be careful. And then, be careful anyway.

Knoxville is generally considered to have a very walkable downtown due to its scale. But that environment needs to be cultivated as a safe one. KPD needs stricter enforcement standards for vehicles traversing our downtown grid. An urban area on the upswing can be expected to have some growing pains. But not one of those pains should be fatal.