West St. Paul Pedestrian Killed by Motorist: How Can We Improve Safety?

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On Wednesday morning an 84-year-old woman walking along Marthaler Lane in West St. Paul was struck by a motorist and later died at Regions Hospital. This is the second pedestrian accident in West St. Paul in a week, in a year that’s seen more than double last year’s number of accidents. This is the first pedestrian or bicyclist death in West St. Paul since 2007.

The driver, a 57-year-old woman from West St. Paul, stopped at the scene and is cooperating with police. According to Interim Police Chief Brian Sturgeon, the driver did not appear to be impaired by drugs or alcohol and was driving at a “slow speed.”

The Minnesota State Patrol is assisting the West St. Paul Police Department in the ongoing investigation. The name of the victim hasn’t been released yet.

Update (Oct. 31, 2019): According to Sturgeon, the motorist was backing out of a driveway when she struck the pedestrian in the street. There doesn’t appear to be anything criminal, but that’s what the investigation will determine. They’ll also look at environmental factors such as blind spots to see if they can determine what caused the accident.

Lack of Pedestrian Infrastructure

The section of Marthaler Lane where today’s accident occurred does not have any sidewalks, an ongoing issue across West St. Paul. The city’s 2011 Pedestrian and Bike Master Plan proposed sidewalk for this section of Marthaler Lane—along with much of the central and southern portion of the city that lacks sidewalks. The City Council recently changed the assessment policy in hopes of speeding up the process of installing new sidewalks. But that’s still an expensive and slow solution.

The city is making progress. New trail has gone in on Oakdale and Marie Avenues. A tunnel is going in under Robert Street for the River-to-River Greenway Trail. County projects have proposed sidewalk going in on Thompson and the south side of Wentworth.

But it’s a slow process. Meanwhile, the city has missed out on other opportunities to increase pedestrian safety.

How Do We Make Streets Safer for Pedestrians & Bikes?

At Monday night’s city council meeting, I spoke about the need for increased traffic safety (jump to 0:02:40 to watch my remarks). I was motivated by comments from residents, and before I could make my statement we heard about pedestrians injured. Now, only days after delivering those remarks, someone has died.

I’m not writing this to point fingers, but we do need to rally to make changes. New sidewalks, tunnels, and roundabouts will help, but those solutions are expensive and slow. We need creative solutions now to make West St. Paul safer for everybody.

Here are a few of the ideas I shared Monday night:

  • Lower speed limits: With the recent change in state law, cities now have the power to set speed limits on their own streets. That won’t help county or state roads such as Thompson, Oakdale, Butler, Robert, etc., but maybe there are local city streets where we need to lower the speed limit.
  • More crosswalks: Are there places where we need more crosswalks? Thompson and Carrie strikes me as an ideal location, especially to give those residents greater and safer access to the Greenway. Last year during the discussion about Garlough’s site plan, Council Member Anthony Fernandez raised the issue of a crossing near Charlton and Kent to help kids more safely access Dodge. Has that crosswalk been pursued? Smith and Mina has new ADA ramps, but no crosswalk lines. 
  • Neckdowns: Last year with MNDoT’s work on Smith Avenue, we missed out on the opportunity to add what’s known by traffic nerds as a “neckdown,” where the curb juts out (you can see it in action in winter when snow creates a “sneckdown.” This creates a shorter and safer crosswalk for pedestrians, and also subtly encourages drivers to slow down. Are there projects where we should be doing that?
  • Stopping shortcuts: Some of the residents at the Planning Commission complained about drivers cutting through Carrie Street. They raised the issue of turning it into a cul-de-sac. Maybe we need to study that, or try other options like speed bumps or the ‘paint the pavement’ traffic calming program that both Minneapolis and St. Paul have done.
  • Enforcement: We also have to face the reality that in some cases there’s not a single change we could have made that would have prevented an accident. Sometimes people behave badly. So what are we doing about enforcement? How much is the city cracking down on speeding and distracted driving?

This has been an ongoing problem in West St. Paul that’s been ignored for far too long. Given increasing traffic, it’s only going to get worse.

Unfortunately, West St. Paul isn’t alone in this. Minneapolis saw a recent pedestrian fatality on Lyndale Avenue that prompted a protest:

Inconveniencing motorists in West St. Paul (or anywhere) seems like a risky tactic. But if that’s what it takes to get drivers to slow down, it might be worth it.

Whether it’s protests, painted intersections, or penalties for drivers, West St. Paul is going to need to get creative.

Slow down and be safe out there.

Update (Oct. 31, 2019): Safety Stats & Potential Improvements

I spoke with Interim Police Chief Brian Sturgeon to get a number of updates on the accident, safety factors and past incidents.

Safety Stats

As reported earlier, there have been 17 pedestrian/bicycle crashes in West St. Paul so far in 2019, over only 8 in 2018. That increase was concerning to Sturgeon, so his department dug into the numbers to get a better picture of what’s happening:

  • Seven of the accidents occurred in the roadway, six were in a crosswalk, and four were in a parking lot.
  • Five incidents involved bicycles, and in four of those cases it was the fault of the biker (e.g., running a stop sign, not wearing a light after dark, etc.).
  • Two pedestrians were struck in a crosswalk while walking against the light.
  • In 10 of the accidents the driver was primarily at fault—eight cases of failing to yield, one careless driving and one distracted driving.
  • In eight of the accidents the victim was not transported to a hospital, and three of those reported no injuries at all.
  • Speed was not a contributing factor in any of the accidents.

The department is also looking deeper into the data in recent years and we’ll update this story when we have more.

Pedestrian/Biking Fatalities (Update: Nov. 1, 2019)

According to the West St. Paul Police Department, this is the third pedestrian/bicyclist death since 2000:

  • February 2000: 18-year-old Amy Kuehnl was run over and killed by her 16-year-old friend on the 1100 block of Livingston. Both girls had been drinking. The 16-year-old driver pled guilty to criminal vehicular homicide.
  • July 2007: 55-year-old Cynthia Ann Kowarsch was struck and killed by a van while riding her bike on Robert Street south of Crusader.
  • October 2019: Pedestrian killed at 1300 block of Marthaler Lane.

How to Improve Traffic Safety

Sturgeon said the most effective thing the city can do for pedestrian safety is improve trails and sidewalk infrastructure.

Sturgeon pointed to the city’s current efforts to prioritize infrastructure, including spending something in the neighborhood of $4 million on trails and sidewalks in 2019 alone. He also pointed to the planned $500,000 increase in property taxes starting in 2021 to address the backlog of streets without sidewalks.

“For a city our size, that’s good,” Sturgeon said. Unfortunately it takes money and time to make these changes.

In terms of more immediate improvements, Sturgeon addressed a number of options:

  • Increased enforcement: West St. Paul already has a dedicated traffic enforcement officer, and the city has seen 2,153 traffic stops so far in 2019 (Sturgeon was surprised the number was that high). But the city doesn’t have the resources to increase enforcement enough to make a difference. And to dispel the myth, traffic enforcement does not pay for itself. Law enforcement as income generation raises other issues, and as Sturgeon put it simply, “It’s unethical.” Furthermore, Sturgeon added, “You can hit a spot time and time again, but once you leave the speeds go up again.”
  • Lowering speed limits: Speed limits are often an engineering decision, not a law enforcement one. Sturgeon pointed to Dakota County raising the speed limit on Butler from 30 to 35 mph over the objections of the police department and the sheriff. Sturgeon also pointed to the stats cited above where speed wasn’t a factor in any of the crashes. In most crashes speed isn’t a factor and Sturgeon doubted a 30 to 25 mph speed limit decrease would reduce crashes.
  • Education: When asked what the city can do in the short term, Sturgeon pointed to education. He highlighted partnerships, such as the bike rodeo event with the library, senior driving classes at the Thompson Activity Center with AAA, and schools teaching driver’s education. He wants to see more education efforts and partnerships so everyone can be safer and more mindful.

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