Eriberta Mota crossed the unlit, four-lane highway with her two little boys so she could call home to Mexico from a nearby business. As the family crossed back with Mota cradling her 18-month-old and grasping her 3-year-old’s arm, a car slammed into them, killing the older boy and fracturing the skull of the younger.
This scene played out on a recent evening in the Atlanta suburb of Norcross, but such tragedies have become all too common across the South.
Since many of the new Hispanic immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries have limited access to vehicles or public transportation, they walk where they need to go. At the same time, pedestrian infrastructure in the South is often lacking, officials say.
The result has been deadly, with Hispanics accounting for the highest rate of pedestrian fatalities across most of the region.
“You end up on the road because there’s no side of the road you can walk on,” said Stephanie Bohon, a University of Georgia demographer who studies immigrant issues. “These people are walking under hazardous conditions. They know they’re taking a risk, but they haven’t many other options.”
In Georgia, it is estimated that nearly 80 percent of non-Hispanics drive to work, but only 34 percent to 58 percent of Latinos do, Bohon said. Standing in the way for many are immigration-related issues, such as the difficulty of getting a driver’s license, but also a more basic issue — poverty.
“It’s more of a socioeconomic issue and lack of planning than a Latino issue,” said Jerry Gonzalez, spokesman for the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.
Disproportional rate of deaths
While that may be true, Hispanics are disproportionately victims across the South. They die in pedestrian-vehicle accidents at a higher rate than any other racial or ethnic group in every Southern state except Arkansas, Florida and Tennessee, where only blacks die at a higher rate, according to 2002 data reported by states to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The highest pedestrian fatality rates for Hispanics were in Mississippi, with 4.72 pedestrian deaths per 100,000 Hispanics; Alabama, with 4.71 per 100,000; and South Carolina, with 4.62 per 100,000.
Nearly two out of every five pedestrian-vehicle deaths in the United States occur in the South.
Critics blame poor urban planning. As Southern cities and suburbs expanded rapidly in recent decades, planners have focused more on resolving traffic congestion and other growth issues than ensuring pedestrian safety, said Sally Flocks, president of Atlanta-based Pedestrians Educating Drivers on Safety.
Sidewalks in the South ‘an afterthought’
“Northern cities are better designed for pedestrians because most boomed before vehicles became the main mode of transportation. That didn’t happen in the South until after cars became dominant. Sidewalks then became an afterthought,” Flocks said, adding that crosswalks, pedestrian bridges and adequate lighting are also lacking in many suburbs.
“Counties aren’t investing their money in things like that,” she said. “They’ve been cheap toward pedestrians.”
Because the carless population tends to be poor and politically uninfluential, little to nothing is being done to address the problem, said Adelina Nicholls, president of the Coordinating Council of Latino Community Leaders.
“There’s no interest on the part of the government to solve the transportation issue,” Nicholls said.
Experts say Hispanics are struck by vehicles at a higher rate because, quite simply, they tend to walk more than other demographic groups. Another factor is car culture. In Mexico and other countries where people have emigrated from, most communities are not built around traffic patterns like they are in the United States so they aren’t fully aware of the rules of the road.
Groups trying to solve pedestrian problem
Advocacy groups and government agencies, including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, have distributed brochures, flyers, posters and radio public service announcements in Spanish aimed at educating Hispanic immigrants on U.S. pedestrian traffic rules. Pedestrians Educating Drivers on Safety has created a Spanish supplement to the Georgia state driver’s manual on the issue.
A CDC study conducted in four metro Atlanta counties in the late 1990s first brought attention to the problem. It found that the pedestrian fatality rate for Hispanics in those counties was nearly six times higher than for non-Hispanic whites and more than two and a half times higher than for blacks.
Gwinnett County, where Mota and her boys were struck on a recent evening, was included in that study. So was neighboring DeKalb County, where Latinos make up 36 percent of pedestrian deaths but only 8 percent of the total population. Health officials in that county have started their own bilingual pedestrian safety awareness campaign.
The county includes Buford Highway, the main thoroughfare for one of the state’s highest concentrations of Hispanic immigrants. It’s not unusual for cars to travel more than 50 mph down the highway and come within feet of hitting a family standing precariously in the middle of a lane, waiting for a break in traffic to complete their crossing. Along the highway, some crosswalks are more than a half-mile apart.
State highway officials have identified it as one of the most dangerous pedestrian roads in Georgia. They are planning to install “refuge islands” or raised medians so crossers can safely divide their trips across the seven-lane highway.
“There was no really pedestrian traffic there when they created Buford Highway. Obviously that area has changed quite a bit, and now there’s a Hispanic community that is very much used to walking,” said Yancy Bachmann, assistant state traffic safety and design engineer for the Georgia Department of Transportation. “Changes are going to have to be made.”