On the morning of March 17, Franziska Bruckner was walking her dog, a Pomeranian named Cookie, when she tried to cross Moores Chapel Road in northwest Charlotte on her way home.
She never made it to the other side of the two-lane road that Saturday. Bruckner, 85, was hit and killed by a Hyundai Sonata just before 10 a.m. Cookie died beside her.
“She took that little dog every day for three to five miles,” said her daughter, Christine Bruckner, who raced to the scene only to learn that her mother had been declared dead by paramedics. Franziska Bruckner, who survived World War II as a girl in Germany and moved to the U.S. after marrying an American G.I., had crossed that road hundreds of times, Cookie by her side.
“It was a total shock,” said Christine Bruckner. Her mother was in such good shape that the family assumed she’d live at least another decade. “It’s been awful.”
Bruckner was one of 25 pedestrians killed so far this year in Charlotte, a number that’s approaching the record 27 pedestrian deaths in 2017. With six weeks left this year, Charlotte could eclipse that grim total.
The deaths so far this year have included a 15-year-old girl trying to cross Youngblood Road to reach a school bus in southwest Charlotte, a 13-year-old girl crossing North Tryon Street to get to a friend’s house and a 61-year-old man trying to cross Shamrock Drive near North Sharon Amity Road in a wheelchair. The total excludes two pedestrians hit by trains and a man who was run over and shot in what police said was a robbery.
While city leaders have spent hours in recent meetings debating whether safety rules are needed for new electric scooters, a quieter crisis is claiming two to three lives each month on Charlotte’s streets. Pedestrian deaths are still often seen as routine and unavoidable.
Bruckner’s death illustrates many of the dangers Charlotte pedestrians face. There’s a crosswalk a few dozen feet from the scene of the accident, but it doesn’t connect to the sidewalk on the other side. A strip of mud and weeds, which Christine Bruckner says grow knee-high, separates the crosswalk from the sidewalk. Bruckner’s family believes that’s why she was crossing on the other side of the intersection. There’s no stoplight or other electronic aids, such as flashing lights a pedestrian can trigger, to make crossing easier.
The speed limit on that stretch of the road is 35 mph, already close to the average speed at which nearly all pedestrians will die in a crash. And Christine Bruckner said drivers often speed much faster down the straight, nearly level stretch of asphalt.
“You can feel the wind,” said Bruckner.
On Nov. 26, the City Council is expected to vote on a set of traffic safety measures, including preemptively lowering any neighborhood street speed limits that aren’t already 25 mph and making it simpler and easier for neighborhoods to request speed bumps and stop signs.
Those preliminary steps might not have a huge impact, however, because most pedestrian deaths aren’t taking place on neighborhood streets. An Observer analysis showed that of the 25 deaths this year, 20 were on main or secondary roads such as Tryon Street, The Plaza, Sharon Road and Eastway Drive. Five were on limited-access roads, Independence Boulevard and Brookshire Boulevard.
But city officials say the November vote is just a first step. To cut down on pedestrian deaths, Charlotte is developing a strategy for “Vision Zero,” an international initiative that three dozen U.S. cities have signed up for. The goal is to reduce traffic deaths to zero by 2035, by engineering safer roads, enforcing rules like speed limits and changing driver behavior. The Charlotte Department of Transportation is preparing to unveil a draft proposal with concrete steps the city could take next month.
“You have to shoot for zero and do the best you can aiming for that number,” said Angela Berry, Charlotte’s traffic safety program manager. “If you don’t shoot for zero, what do you shoot for? Do you say 10 is fine?”
“I really think speeding is probably the first thing we’re going to tackle,” she said. “Enforcement is definitely a component.”
Other elements of the plan could include educational campaigns for drivers and pedestrians, and looking for dangerous stretches of roads where people have been injured crossing. The city could convert more four-lane undivided roads, such as West Boulevard, into safer but slower three-lane roads with a middle turn lane, like East Boulevard. But that strategy would take years and tens of millions of dollars.
For example, a similar change to Parkwood Avenue would cost $2.5 million, the city estimates. And that’s just one of dozens, if not hundreds, of comparable streets in Charlotte.
Earlier this year, the city closed loopholes in its ordinances that had allowed developers to build narrower sidewalks right next to traffic, which are considered inferior for pedestrians.
The $118 million worth of transportation bonds Charlotte voters approved this month includes $30 million worth of funding for sidewalks and pedestrian safety. The city plans to build 10 to 12 miles of sidewalks annually and construct 15 new pedestrian crossings.
Advocates say those goals are good, but they fear the city isn’t moving fast enough.
“If we’re only chipping away by putting in 15 improved crossings a year, it’s going to be a long time before these fatalities come down,” said Shannon Binns, executive director of Sustain Charlotte, which promotes walking and biking. He’s a supporter of Vision Zero, and his group has participated in the city’s planning efforts, but said Charlotte has a long way to go given its history as an auto-centric city.
“We have a really sad dearth of pedestrian crossings,” said Binns. “We’ve designed our entire transportation system around moving cars.”
The uptick in Charlotte pedestrian deaths mirrors a nationwide spike. There were 5,977 pedestrian deaths in 2017, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That’s down about 2 percent from the previous year, but a 28 percent increase from 2007. Urban areas accounted for most of that rise, with deaths jumping 46 percent in cities.
Experts haven’t identified a clear cause, though several trends are probably at work. More people are living in close-in urban and suburban areas and walking. The return of cheap gas prices means drivers are also logging more miles on the road. Some point to distracted driving or pedestrians walking and texting.
Cars have gotten safer, with advanced safety features now standard in many models, which have contributed to lower crash deaths overall for drivers and passengers over the same decade. But the brutal physics of a 3,000-pound car hitting a 200-pound human haven’t changed.
“I wish I had a good answer,” said Berry. “We’re still trying to figure that out. Each crash has different circumstances surrounding it. There’s the added complication of not being able to ask questions. You can’t ask, ‘Why did you choose to cross here?’”
Even though there’s no single cause Berry and others can point to behind the spike in deaths, several trends are clear:
▪ The most common type of road pedestrians to die on in Charlotte is a two- or four-lane street with a speed limit of 35 mph or 45 mph. Such roads have accounted for about 80 percent of pedestrian fatalities in Charlotte so far this year. Berry said CDOT is working to map out a “high-injury network” of roads as part of Vision Zero. So far, they’ve found 10 percent of roads account for about 90 percent of the city’s deaths and serious injuries, which should help focus efforts.
Charlotte abounds with such roads — think Park Road, Graham Street, Sugar Creek Road, Beatties Ford Road — which were the norm in the post-war USA, when Charlotte and other Sunbelt cities exploded. The car was king, with scant thought given to pedestrians in road design.
“Charlotte really grew up as an automobile city,” said Berry.
Those speeds — 35 to 45 mph — might not seem so fast. But at 40 mph, nine out of 10 pedestrians hit by a car will be killed, national data show.
▪ As with gun violence, poverty and other dangers, black Charlotteans are disproportionately at risk of being killed while walking. Fourteen of the pedestrian deaths this year were black pedestrians, accounting for over half of victims identified so far. Most of the fatal crashes have taken place in the “crescent” of lower-income neighborhoods that has long ringed uptown Charlotte to the north, east and west, while only two have occurred in the higher-income “wedge” neighborhoods in southeast Charlotte.
▪ A large majority of crashes — at least 19 out of the 25, according to police reports — occurred with pedestrians outside of crosswalks. Berry said that while it’s tempting to blame pedestrians who cross mid-block, people need to examine the totality of circumstances. In many areas, a crosswalk or sidewalk simply isn’t available, or would add a half-mile to a pedestrian’s trip.
“You can’t fault someone for trying to cross mid-block at a given location. That’s probably because they didn’t have a whole lot in the way of opportunities or choices,” she said.
A few examples bear that out. Eric Elsea, 34, was killed walking along Lawyers Road in east Charlotte last month in a hit-and-run crash with a pickup truck. “This section of the roadway has no sidewalks or shoulder,” Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police noted in a description.
Michael Ellis, 61, died in October trying to cross Shamrock Drive in his wheelchair. He was crossing in the middle of the block, police said, not near any crosswalk. The nearest marked crosswalk, however, was almost half a mile away in either direction.
And Tuesday, 81-year-old Christa Frazier died trying to cross Sharon Road, near Sharon Towers, at about 6 p.m. The CMPD news release included a typical line.
“The victim was not crossing in a crosswalk,” CMPD investigators noted. “However there are no crosswalks in the area.”
The nearest crosswalk is a half-mile away.
Binns said the lack of crosswalks on older streets is a common thread among many Charlotte crashes, and it’s unfair to blame people on foot for not walking 15 minutes or more out of their way every time they need to cross a street.
“People are only going to go so far out of their way to cross the street,” he said. “They’re not going to go half a mile or even a quarter of the mile out of the way.”
CMPD Sgt. Jesse Wood, who oversees the Major Crash Unit, understands the temptation to cross outside of crosswalks. But he’s seen the consequences too many times.
“I wish they could come with me when we have a fatality, and go to that family’s house and knock on that door and tell them what’s happened, and watch them break down,” said Wood.
Still, he’s used to seeing pedestrians sprint across busy roads like Tryon Street and Independence Boulevard.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time they make it and it’s not a problem,” said Wood. “It’s just that one time.”
While drunk, distracted and speeding drivers cause many crashes, Wood said pedestrians share responsibility for some. It’s not true that pedestrians always have the right-of-way, he said.
“That’s a myth,” said Wood.
There are some common themes he sees: Pedestrians wearing dark clothing in the evening or night. People crossing mid-block. Distracted or impaired pedestrians — five of the fatal crashes so far this year have involved impaired pedestrians, according to police reports and news releases. All of those serve to increase the risk of a fatal crash.
“It’s usually not just one thing that goes wrong. It’s a series of things,” said Wood.
Bruckner’s family still has questions about the crash that killed her. Christine Bruckner is upset that the driver, an 83-year-old woman, wasn’t charged with anything.
Her mother’s last act, Christine Bruckner believes, was carrying her dog Cookie across the street to make sure he was safe. She often did so if the dog was tired or couldn’t keep up.
“If he couldn’t walk, she’d carry him,” Christine Brucker said. “That’s what she was doing.”