In Indianapolis fatal pedestrian crashes, 2022 has outpaced 2021. What's being done?

·13 min read

A doctor walks on a sidewalk in Meridian Kessler. A 3-year-old dribbles a basketball in Castleton. A mother crosses the street on the near east side.

Then their lives come to an end, like dozens of others every year in Indianapolis, in an unceasing epidemic of road killings.

This year is on track to be one of the deadliest yet, as the number of fatal pedestrian crashes within city jurisdiction has, as of Aug. 1, surpassed the total for all of 2021.

The Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department investigated 24 fatal crashes involving pedestrians last year, and four involving cyclists. By Aug. 1 this year, there were 25 pedestrian fatal crashes, and one cyclist fatal. At least 10 people died while walking in July alone, according to an IndyStar analysis of public police reports.

There aren't particularly new patterns police are noticing, a department spokesperson said. Like everywhere in the country, speeding and reckless driving have seen a notable uptick since the pandemic started. Infrastructure funding is still woefully short of needs, so city officials prioritize crumbling roads with limited dollars and pursue grant money for things like trails and sidewalks. Some residents, who've taken it upon themselves to pursue data or mini infrastructure projects to address the safety crisis, feel frustrated, like they're shouting into a void.

In-depth:Indianapolis' fatal crash problem is worsening. What can be done?

A grant program created by President Joe Biden's infrastructure law forces the issue into focus, quickly. By Sept. 15, local governments can apply for a new pot of money specifically for projects that address safety issues for all users of the roads. Last week, the Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization published a draft action plan, filled with illuminating new data on the problem, that officially makes the Central Indiana region eligible for this money.

Some of the potential projects included in the plan are "short-term," meaning they could be accomplished in the next one to three years; some are "long-term," meaning deployment would be seven-plus years out. None are in time to change the fate of the 26 people who have been killed or the ones who likely still will be killed this year.

Leslie Mason was 40 years old, and imbued in her four boys a love for parks and all kinds of bugs, especially butterflies. When she was feeling well, she also loved teaching them how to cook, her mother, Rhonda Dilley, said.

Her parents, who had largely lost contact with her for the past year as she struggled with an opioid addiction, don't know why she was walking across East Washington Street the early morning of July 7. That "why" hardly matters in the face of reality.

"She’ll never have the chance to get clean and get home to her boys," Dilley said.

New data, same problem

In Central Indiana, the eight-county region the Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization covers, the 30% increase in fatal crashes from 2019 to 2020 far outpaced the national average of 6.8%. Pedestrian and cyclist deaths in the region doubled from pre-pandemic to 2020.

Residents who responded to the IMPO's survey for their draft Safe Streets & Roads for All Safety Action Plan have reported seeing more crashes in the past year than before. Chief among the suspected reasons: distracted driving and speeding.

This has generally been attributed to the sudden drop in traffic on the roads during the early pandemic, leaving wide open lanes for faster travel.

"We typically think of traffic being a bad thing," senior planner Andrea Miller said. "But traffic also slows people down."

When traffic picked back up, people didn't adjust their behavior accordingly. Some of Indianapolis' wide thoroughfares do little to inhibit this behavior.

2020 was the most dangerous year for pedestrians in at least the last 15 years, when IMPD investigated 32 fatal crashes involving pedestrians and seven involving cyclists, according to a list of crash reports obtained by IndyStar.

The bustling intersection of 38th and Illinois streets in Indianapolis on Thursday, May 27, 2021.
The bustling intersection of 38th and Illinois streets in Indianapolis on Thursday, May 27, 2021.

IMPD has half the number of traffic patrol officers it did a decade ago and therefore writes far fewer tickets than it used to. But the department has picked up the pace this year with a campaign to use overtime and partner with state police to crack down on reckless driving and drag racing.

More:Police announce summer crackdown on reckless driving, drag-racing

The IMPO's Safety Action Plan is the first step for local governments within the region to become eligible to apply for new Safe Streets For All funding later this year. The federal program will dole out $5 billion in grants over the next five years, with a new opportunity to apply each year. Eligible projects must first be listed in a regional plan, such as the IMPO's.

Beyond its purpose as a holding ground for eligible local projects, the draft plan also provides policy recommendations. The IMPO suggests local governments prioritize projects that are data-driven and fall within the "high injury network" of streets, urges state lawmakers to consider automated enforcement, and promotes the same "safe systems" approach that the U.S. Department of Transportation has officially adopted, which calls for designing roadways in a way that accounts for human error and has multiple safeguards for all users of the road. This modern approach emphasizes road and vehicle design over human behavior in combating injuries and deaths.

The public can comment on the plan through 4 p.m. Aug. 12 at indympo.org/ss4a.

The plan also unveils some new research about how and where crashes occur in the region. For example, 60% of severe crashes occur on arterial roads, such as Washington Street and 38th Street, which comprise 15% of the region's road mileage. Nearly twice as many severe crashes occur in "Environmental Justice Areas," or Census areas where the population rate of historically disadvantaged populations exceeds the regional rate, than in other parts of Central Indiana.

On a "high-injury network" of local roads the IMPO developed based on crash data, the far east and northwest sides of Indianapolis are particularly over-represented.

This new source of federal money is significant because it's a direct pipeline to local governments with a particular focus on the principals of building safe streets for all users, said Kim Irwin, executive director of Health By Design.

"Locals have a lot more ability to pursue money to take action to fix specific priority areas that has been harder to do in the past because of the flow of money," she said.

Health By Design, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit, is working on its own pedestrian-focused crash research spanning data from 2010-20, which it's getting ready to publish later this year.

Preliminary results show that an average of 7.5% of Marion County’s crashes involving pedestrians end up being fatal, though that proportion had doubled in 2020. A fifth of these crashes end up leaving pedestrians “incapacitated,” or severely injured.

"There's a lot of attention on fatals, but one out of every five people having to go to the hospital is a big deal," Irwin said.

The data reveal some patterns illuminating the manner in which crashes occur. A fifth of these pedestrian crashes were hit-and-run, and in more than half, the driver was heading straight prior to hitting the person. Based on this data, left turns account for three times as many pedestrian-involved crashes as right turns.

An Indianapolis Metropolitan Police car blocks traffic at East Washington and South Lasalle streets, not far from where Leslie Mason was fatally struck the morning of July 7.
An Indianapolis Metropolitan Police car blocks traffic at East Washington and South Lasalle streets, not far from where Leslie Mason was fatally struck the morning of July 7.

Some of the highest priority projects listed in the IMPO plan involve signal improvements on heavily trafficked roads like Michigan Road and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street, and pedestrian infrastructure on Washington and 38th Streets.

Though the city juggles many priorities, pedestrian safety received a call-out from Mayor Joe Hogsett in his budget introduction Monday night.

The city will "make critical investments in our efforts to calm traffic, protect pedestrians and cyclists, and reduce the rise in deaths associated with antiquated street design," he said, introducing a $1.1 billion plan for roads, sidewalks and stormwater projects over the next five years.

The proposed 2023 budget includes $1 million set aside for pedestrian safety upgrades ― the first time this has had its own line item, apart from the pedestrian-focused upgrades that already come with other infrastructure projects, a Department of Public Works spokesperson said ― as well as funding for a full-time staff member devoted to traffic and pedestrian safety issues.

More:Takeaways from 2023 Indianapolis city budget

The $1.1 billion is a similar size investment seen over the last seven years, with a notable shift toward more investment in trails, "complete streets" and road "diets," or a de-emphasis on adding driving lanes. Yet the safety crisis continues to grow.

"I could give you the political platitudes," Councilor Ali Brown said ― they've adopted an updated and strengthened "Complete Streets" ordinance, they're working on reducing speed limits on neighborhood streets, this record infrastructure budget includes funding for protected bike lanes.

"But none of that helps someone tomorrow."

Citizens take matters into their own hands

Two life-threatening scares moved Eric Holt, a 41-year-old software engineer, to make noise.

In 2019, as he rode with a group of cyclists on the newly built 56th Street causeway trail over the Eagle Creek Reservoir, a driver sped into their bike path while trying to pass another car. It was precisely the situation he feared when the causeway was built at the expense of a driving lane, and without some sort of barrier.

"That started the screaming, and I’m not sure I’ve stopped screaming since, unfortunately," he said.

Last May, while his husband was out cycling, Holt noticed an alert on a police scanner app for a "motorcyclist struck" on Lafayette Road. Since he knew his husband would be in the area, Holt had a sickening feeling this wasn't actually a motorcyclist.

"It was honestly my worst nightmare," he said, thinking of the white-knuckled drive to the hospital to find his husband bruised and concussed, but ultimately OK. "It had always been in the back of my mind as something that could happen either to him or to me, and was just kind of that worst-case scenario."

Holt swore off road riding in Indianapolis for the rest of the year. That fall, he spent a two-week period tracking every incident on an app called Citizen that involved a pedestrian or cyclist getting hit. Fellow cyclist Jarrod Burdine tried the same thing earlier this year. The work proved too exhausting to keep up.

This July, with the help of a few collaborators, they created an automated Twitter bot, @IndyPedCrisis, that culls Citizens incidents involving pedestrians and matches them to Indianapolis council districts. Each day, the bot tweets the incidents of the last 24 hours and tags the city-county councilor whose district is involved.

Their hope is that at least no one seeing the account can claim to be ignorant of the scale of the issue.

Councilors and residents know about the various traffic-calming projects neighborhood associations take on in their districts, like painting murals in the streets in Crown Hill and Community Heights. They hear about fatal crashes on the news. Seeing the constant drumbeat of hit after hit has a different impact, said Brown, whose district includes Lawrence and Geist.

On the off occasion she takes a weekend off from Twitter, she's afraid to open the app again Monday morning, fearing the number of tweets she might see that signify another pedestrian or cyclist hit or killed.

"It is a safety crisis," she said. "You don’t see the weight of that until you see that it’s happening constantly."

It's a complicated problem to solve because it involves the centuries-old built environment and human behavior, both of which are difficult to fix quickly.

And that human behavior isn't premeditated, usually. There wasn't an intervention someone could have made that 2009 morning with the driver who made a sudden U-turn in front of Brown's father, killing him on his motorcycle.

Good government needs to provide good infrastructure to make those split decisions harder. Brown feels that on a personal level. But people also need to respect that infrastructure and slow down. And then there's the issue of insufficient infrastructure funding. When it involves families who've lost loved ones, there are no good answers.

"There’s no one who’s going to tell me, sorry Ali, we could have saved your dad, but it was too expensive. That’s not a good answer. Sorry, your life isn’t worth us doing this," she said. "But we’re trying, and it sucks."

Small steps forward

There's at least one thing within Rhonda Dilley's power to do.

Earlier this year, when she taught her daughter's oldest son to drive, she kept a careful eye on his speedometer. She urged him to remove all distractions: put your phone away, don't mess with the radio, stay vigilant.

"I said, 'no no no, you go slow,'" she said. "You don’t know when a kid is going to dart out from a car. You have to be aware, all the time."

After Leslie was killed, it just seemed like one person after another. Dilley thought back to a friend's sister who was killed a couple years ago walking to a gas station at Raymond and Emerson streets.

"This is unreal. These drivers are not paying attention," she said. "I don’t get it. I don’t understand it. I don’t understand how drivers don’t look, they don’t pay attention."

And Holt will keep the steady drumbeat alive, hoping it builds a gradual, widespread understanding of the scale of the problem facing people navigating the roads without a car.

"I never saw myself being in this sort of position of being an activist for this sort of stuff, ever," he said. "I never wanted to be an activist. I just wanted to ride my bike safely, and know that my husband was going to come home from a bike ride alive. But I’ve gotten into this position because neither of those things are true. If it’s what it takes… I will continue to scream."

Contact IndyStar transportation reporter Kayla Dwyer at kdwyer@indystar.com or follow her on Twitter @kayla_dwyer17

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: 2022 may be deadliest year yet for pedestrians on Indianapolis streets