Rising US traffic deaths put focus on one Philadelphia road

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Just one more step and the stroller would have been on the curb.

The thought haunts Latanya Byrd years after a driver racing down Roosevelt Boulevard in Philadelphia struck and killed her 27-year-old niece, Samara Banks, and three of Banks’ young sons as they crossed the 12-lane road. Nine years later, many of the conditions that led to the fatal crash still exist.

Byrd has since co-founded the nonprofit Families for Safe Streets and become an advocate for safer streets, including for Roosevelt Boulevard where 10% to 13% of the city’s traffic fatalities happened each year prior to the pandemic.

And now, amid a national surge in traffic fatalities and studies showing Black communities have been hit even harder during the pandemic, plans to redesign the city’s “corridor of death” — as some residents and safety advocates call Roosevelt— could be gaining traction.

Roosevelt Boulevard is an almost 14-mile chaotic maze that passes through some of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods and census tracts with the highest poverty rates. Driving can be dangerous, but biking or walking can be even worse with some crosswalks longer than a football field and taking four light cycles to cross.

“You would not design a street or a road like that today,” said Christopher Puchalsky, policy director for Philadelphia’s Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability. “It feels like an expressway, but it’s in the middle and between neighborhoods.”

Many of the city’s ideas for fixing Roosevelt have been championed under new federal strategies including Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s “ safe system” approach that encourages taking into account more than just driver behavior when designing roads.

The Biden administration also created funding for safety improvements, including the bipartisan infrastructure law and a $5 billion aid package to cities over the next five years. Federal officials have pledged to prioritize equity in the wake of a disproportionate 23% jump in Black traffic fatalities in 2020.

Philadelphia is hoping for federal money to begin a long-term, billion-dollar redesign of Roosevelt outlined in a study released in 2019, but also to fund a series of smaller projects to improve safety at high-fatality stretches on the road by 2025.

Eva Gbaa has been impatient for changes. Her 17-year-old nephew, John “JJ” Gbaa Jr., was killed in a November 2018 hit-and-run as he tried to cross Roosevelt while walking home. He was alone at the time and a lot of the circumstances of the crash were unknown.

The family still agonizes over how someone could leave the big-hearted boy to die.

“JJ would ask me for money. … But I didn’t know until his friends told me after he passed that he would buy them food if they didn’t have any,” said John Gbaa Sr., JJ’s father.

JJ and his father had moved to Philadelphia in 2017, and JJ was making huge strides in school.

“He would say, ‘Auntie, when I graduate, I will go to college and then I will take care of you.’ But he never had the chance,” Eva Gbaa said. “I hope, I hope they do something to make sure no family goes through this, so it doesn’t happen again.”

Around Philadelphia, aggressive driving during the pandemic drove fatalities to 156 in 2020, a sharp increase from 90 deaths in 2019. Preliminary data from the Philadelphia Police Department showed a decrease in 2021 to 133 fatalities, still above pre-pandemic levels.

Police data doesn’t include the race or ethnicity of people killed, but an Associated Press analysis showed fatalities in neighborhoods where more than 70% of residents are people of color increased from about 50% in 2019 to more than 67% in 2021.

Meanwhile, fatalities on Roosevelt stayed steady during the pandemic. Kelley Yemen, director of Philadelphia’s Complete Streets program, credited speed cameras, which went live at eight intersections in June 2020.

More than 224,000 warning tickets for driving more than 11 mph over the speed limit were issued in the first 30 days of a 60-day warning period, but by February 2021, that number had dropped to fewer than 17,000 tickets, according to data from the parking authority.

Overall, speeding is down by more than 91% on the road, city and parking authority officials said.

Despite the impact, the cameras will sunset in 2023 unless extended by the Legislature.

Byrd’s niece Samara Banks was 21 and pregnant with her first child in 2007 when she found a four-bedroom house a few blocks south of Roosevelt Boulevard. Her family had reservations because she’d have to cross it regularly to visit.

But Banks’ mother had died and she needed the larger home to take in her four younger siblings.

After spending a hot July day of swimming and water balloon fights with the kids, Banks decided to walk the mile home rather than calling a cab.

She was pushing her 7-month-old, Saa’mir Williams, and 23-month-old, Saa’sean Williams, in a double stroller. Her 4-year-old, Saa’deem Griffin, was holding onto the stroller and walking beside her.

Witnesses told police two cars had been racing, weaving between traffic and speeding down the boulevard. One of the drivers lost control and slammed into the family, throwing Banks more than 200 feet and crumpling the stroller. She and the three children died.

Banks’ younger sister and 5-year-old son, Saa’yon Griffin, were walking ahead and survived the crash.

Officials have since installed a traffic signal and pedestrian crossing at the intersection, renamed Banks Way. The two men accused of racing were eventually convicted or pleaded guilty to charges in the deaths.

“It was hard. I would tell Saa’yon he needed to be strong, and I remember there was this once he just stomped his foot and said no,” Byrd said. “He told me he was tired of being strong and he just wanted his mom and his brothers back. We all do.”

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Associated Press researcher Jennifer Farrar and Race & Ethnicity Team video journalist Noreen Nasir in New York and data journalist Angeliki Kastanis in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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