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For pedestrians, getting from one side of Richmond Highway to the other is a matter of life or death.
Photographs by Charles Steck
The particulars of Jose Salamanca’s death are not in dispute.
Monday, March 18, 5:15 a.m. It was dark, rainy, and cold.
Salamanca, who was born 50 years ago in El Salvador, drew some of his last breaths while standing among the weeds and gravel and empty malt-liquor cans that littered a seedy stretch of Route 1 in Fairfax County.
He stood on the west side of the highway. At his back was the Belvoir Park and Shop strip mall: Margarita’s Grocery, Ginza hairstylists, Hans TV repair, Crown Laundromat, and Johnny Mac’s barbecue shack, an eatery painted white with faded red trim. Around the corner, a 7-Eleven dispensed coffee to the early crowd. An adjacent parking lot of clunker cars looked like a mini-junkyard.
To his left and right unfurled a treacherous segment of Richmond Highway, an eight-mile ribbon of asphalt stretching from the Capital Beltway to Fort Belvoir. The road is bordered by new shopping centers interspersed with the kinds of establishments that cater to Fairfax’s underside: tattoo parlors, cheap motels, and late-night video stores.
Salamanca had risen early and gone out before work, a neighbor said. Depending on whom you ask, he labored as either a landscaper or a construction worker. His sister says his goal each month was to send $400 to $500 to his wife and three children in El Salvador. His youngest child was 6 years old.
He had made it halfway across the highway when he was struck by a red 1989 Chevrolet Celebrity traveling in the northbound through-lane. The initial impact took his legs out, according to detectives who reconstructed the crash. Salamanca rolled onto the hood of the car. His head slammed into the Celebrity’s windshield, his skull cracking open. The moving vehicle carried his body for several moments, much the same way a train equipped with a cowcatcher picks up and carries the animals it strikes. The car propelled Salamanca’s body into the lot of the Charcoal Grill, where it came to rest.
According to police, Salamanca died attempting to cross Richmond Highway to get to Ray’s Mobile Colony, a trailer park on the east side of Route 1, where he was staying.
Officially, it was an open-and-shut case. Visibility was poor, and Salamanca was inconspicuous. He was wearing a striped blue shirt, bluejeans, black sneakers, and a dark-colored baseball cap. He had brown skin, dark hair, dark eyes. An autopsy determined that he had alcohol in his bloodstream. He walked into the path of a vehicle that appeared to be traveling the legal speed limit, whose driver appeared to be unimpaired and obeying the law. No charges were filed.
Since 1995, Fairfax County emergency personnel have responded to more than 275 reported incidents on Richmond Highway involving pedestrians struck by vehicles. Of those, 16 resulted in a pedestrian fatality.
That’s two pedestrian deaths per mile of highway since the middle of the last decade. If every road in the region had a similar kill rate, metropolitan Washington would look like the set of Death Race 2000.
Like other roads in the region that pose serious risk to walkers, Richmond Highway exhibits a familiar cluster of characteristics: a large residential population of poor people, many without cars, clustered around a poorly designed major thoroughfare carrying a large volume of high-speed traffic.
Little surprise, then, that the people flattened by the traffic are disproportionately poor, the very young or the very old, and people of color. People like Jose Salamanca.
“I’m horrified by what I see,” says Maridol Garcia-Joy, a local pedestrian advocate. “It’s the poor minorities, mostly Hispanics, who are becoming roadkill.”
A ragged man in a Washington Redskins T-shirt darts onto Richmond Highway on a Monday in May. The man, who calls himself Wilson, is a resident of the nearby Eleanor U. Kennedy Shelter for the homeless. He is looking to buy cigarettes at the Hess service station on the other side of the road.
Richmond Highway, he says, is dangerous “from here to Alexandria,” eight miles north. Both walkers and motorists are to blame, Wilson says, for not being more cautious. He expresses contempt for drivers who refuse to accommodate pedestrians with impaired mobility. “Those muthafuckas don’t care,” he says.
Wilson doesn’t bother with the crosswalk, instead sprinting across the highway 20 yards from the light.
Of his tendency to jaywalk, Wilson says, “I just got a habit, off and on. I’m not trying to make a habit of it.”
It’s hard to blame Wilson for spurning the pedestrian crossing. If you stand at the crosswalk, you’ll wait the better part of three minutes for a walk signal. You don’t get very far across the seven lanes of asphalt before the walk signal goes out. The “Do Not Walk” sign doesn’t come on—burned out, probably—so then you’re on your own. The impulse is to sprint. Moving quickly, you cross in 17 seconds.
“They do not have good crosswalks,” says Tim Beckwith, another resident of the shelter. “They’ve got people here who are invalids, and they can’t do it.”
In a region where daily vehicle-miles traveled increased by more than 50 percent between 1985 and 1996, Richmond Highway is particularly crowded. The road has become a safety valve for motorists trying to avoid entanglements elsewhere—most notably, construction projects to improve the Springfield Mixing Bowl and replace the crumbling Wilson Bridge.
Following Sept. 11, more traffic was diverted onto the highway when Fort Belvoir discontinued public access to Woodlawn Road and Beulah Street, well-traveled connectors between Route 1 and Telegraph Road. Beulah Street winds by Belvoir’s major recreational facility. One local politician, frustrated by the impact of the closing on local roads, quipped that the Army was keeping the golf course safe for democracy.
The trends that have made Richmond Highway a death trap for pedestrians haven’t sidestepped other local jurisdictions.
* In the District, automobiles crash into pedestrians more than 10 times each week, on average, according to a recent study by the D.C. Division of Transportation. The worst intersection for pedestrian collisions in D.C. is at the crossroads of Benning Road and Minnesota Avenue NE, in Ward 7. Neither weather nor alcohol was cited as a contributing factor in most collisions involving pedestrians.
Between 1994 and 1999, a four-mile stretch of Florida Avenue/Benning Road claimed 12 lives, the highest toll in the city, according to D.C. at the Crossroads, a report issued by Walk D.C., a regional pedestrian-advocacy group.
* In Montgomery County, a blue-ribbon panel reported that, in 1999, motor vehicles crashed into pedestrians 416 times, up from 369 two years earlier. During the same period, deaths resulting from those crashes rose to 18 annually, up from 11, a two-year increase of 64 percent.
“More people in the county were killed trying to cross the street than in homicides,” the report noted. Of 41 pedestrian deaths in the county between 1997 and 1999, more than half involved persons born outside the United States.
* In Fairfax County, home to Richmond Highway, 19 pedestrians were killed in both 2000 and 2001, more than doubling the nine deaths tallied in 1996.
The increasingly dire statistics about area roads contrast with the prevailing national trend of fewer pedestrian victims. In 1990, nearly 6,500 pedestrians died in collisions with cars on U.S. streets. In 2000, that figure dropped to 4,739, a decrease of 27 percent, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Capt. David Lyons, a 25-year veteran of the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, encounters all sorts of human suffering on his beat, including car crashes, drownings, and the like.
Of all the mishaps, though, pedestrian casualties are particularly unnerving, he says. He has heard the wail of a mother whose boy lay still in the street. He has faced the angry crowds that gather at the curb demanding to know why nothing is being done. “This is an issue that many people are angry about,” he says.
“Richmond Highway is one long stretch of pure government neglect,” Lyons says. “The whole thing is a public-health hazard.”
The road, he says, sends a starkly unwelcoming message to the county’s poor, the underclass that performs the jobs no one else will do: “‘Clean up my shit and get out of town.’”
“The bald truth is, if people were getting injured and killed in more affluent areas, there would be an outrage. Here, there is barely a squeak from local government or VDOT [the Virginia Department of Transportation] or anyone.”
“There are places out here where it’s a near-death experience trying to get across the road,” says Lyons, a third-generation descendant of Irish immigrants who arrived in Boston 80 years ago. For years, he says, he appealed to local authorities to put crossing lights at perilous intersections that lacked them. Mostly, those pleas fell on deaf ears. “We’re a very pedestrian-unfriendly county,” he says.
Last summer, in a last-ditch effort to find a solution, Lyons organized Safe Crossings, a grass-roots group dedicated to making Route 1 safer for pedestrians. Without knowing it, he was enlisting in an unofficial and loose-knit confederation of pedestrian activists in the region, a growing fraternity whose number and voice have gained strength in the past few years.
“How do I keep driving up and down the highway every day and not try to do something about it other than to pick up who got hit?” Lyons asks.
Like other roads in low-income areas in the region plagued by high rates of pedestrian injuries and deaths, Fairfax County’s stretch of Route 1 lacks many of the traffic-calming techniques and safety devices that have sprouted in upscale business districts and affluent residential areas: rumble strips to encourage drivers to slow down, narrowed lanes, highly visible pylons to provide safe havens for pedestrians, walk signals that count down the seconds that pedestrians have to safely cross the street, and curb extensions to reduce the distance pedestrians must travel to cross.
Little adjustments, say activists, save a lot of lives for few dollars. Raised medians, for instance, provide refuge for people crossing busy streets and reduce accidents by a factor of 10, says Mike Farrell, of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. Yet long stretches of Richmond Highway have no such oases. For lack of a few square feet of concrete, pedestrians find themselves at the mercy of vehicles hurtling toward them, often in excess of the posted speed limit of 45 mph. (A pedestrian struck by a vehicle traveling 20 miles per hour has a 1-in-20 chance of being killed. At 40 mph, 17 of every 20 who are struck will die.)
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More intensely engineered solutions, such as pedestrian walkways above the highway and barricades to herd walkers toward safe crossing areas, tend to be prohibitively expensive, says the Fairfax County Police Department’s Capt. J.F. Bowman.
So local municipalities tend to favor actions that don’t require new line items in the annual budget. Montgomery County has trained its cops to conduct sting operations intended to punish motorists who violate laws that protect pedestrians. In Fairfax, an initiative dubbed “Safe Corridor” resulted in some 4,000 tickets to motorists. The program began on March 1, roughly two weeks before Jose Salamanca’s death.
Public funds to create safer pedestrian environments seem to spring up much more readily in affluent areas, say pedestrian advocates. In recent years, for example, Arlington County has focused efforts to improve pedestrian safety on the Ballston-to-Rosslyn corridor, a booming strip along the Metro’s Orange Line. But Columbia Pike, in South Arlington, is the county’s most treacherous road for pedestrians, 167 of whom were struck there in 2000. Of the county’s intersections with the most accidents involving pedestrians, 11 of the top 23 are on Columbia Pike.
When they’re not taking low-budget steps to counter pedestrian casualties, governments often opt for agendas of apparent hostility toward people who walk. Until a few years ago, for example, Maryland did not allow its highway administration to build sidewalks next to state roads.
Nationally, government appropriations for pedestrian safety are poor. In 1997 and 1998, states spent an average of $72 per person of their federal transportation dollars on highways. By comparison, spending on pedestrian projects averaged just 55 cents per person.
On Richmond Highway, planners appear to be operating on the assumption that everyone owns a car. The new Engleside Branch post office is designed like a NASCAR pit stop. Drivers sluice into and out of the facility on an access road that makes it possible to mail letters in record time. Pedestrians crossing the highway to the facility must dodge cars without benefit of a traffic signal.
Similarly, Fairfax County recently put the finishing touches on a new government center just north of the post office. The attractive, five-story building has green-tinted windows and landscaped grounds. But it doesn’t have a controlled crosswalk that would allow people to reach the building safely from the other side of the highway.
A pedestrian-friendly ideology must infiltrate the courthouse as well, say advocates. Unless a motorist involved in a pedestrian crash is intoxicated, winning a conviction is often difficult. And when guilty verdicts are returned, they are frequently followed by lenient sentences.
In December, a Montgomery County court assessed a $500 fine to Christopher Brockman, 20, who pleaded guilty to a charge of reckless driving following the death of a woman in a crosswalk on Rockville Pike. The driver had been weaving through traffic and speeding before running a red light and striking the woman, according to local news accounts.
“If you want to kill someone and get away with it, run them over at night while they’re crossing the street,” says John Wetmore, a Maryland resident who produces Perils for Pedestrians, a monthly cable-access television program dedicated to improving pedestrian safety. “You’ll get a slap on the wrist.”
A cursory look at the evidence suggests that Norman Mackie was fully responsible for his own unsightly death on Richmond Highway.
On a cold evening in early February, Mackie stepped off a bus and onto Richmond Highway. A 2000 Honda Odyssey van driven by a Woodbridge woman struck and killed him. According to the police report, Mackie had been drinking before he strayed into traffic.
Safety advocates dwell not on Mackie’s state at the time of the accident but rather on the pedestrian environment he stepped into.
Sgt. Pat Wimberly, who runs the Fairfax County Police’s Accident Reconstruction Unit, says Richmond Highway is “an urban environment with a rural road system.” He compares the act of crossing the highway to an advanced version of Frogger, an early video game that challenged players to guide a hapless amphibian across a road. With each crossing, the traffic became thicker and more difficult to navigate. Play continued until the game ended with a splat.
The Frogger dynamic is especially inimical to a growing demographic around Richmond Highway: poor immigrants. Many nearby residents arrive here from countries such as Ghana, Sierra Leone, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Researchers have documented that a connection exists between race and pedestrian crashes around the country. In late-’90s Atlanta, for example, Latinos had pedestrian fatality rates six times those of whites, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“These people don’t know what the rules are,” says Bowman. “They’re used to walking and being in traffic that is different from the United States….Like it or not, the vehicle is king in the United States of America.”
Sarah Boakye fits the profile of a Richmond Highway nomad. She came to Fairfax two years ago from her native Ghana. On a May day, she is waiting to catch a bus that will take her to her job at a Popeyes restaurant. Boakye says she is saving money to buy a car. She crosses the highway only at controlled intersections.
“I’m scared of cars,” she says. “I don’t want anybody to hit me.”
Without cars, folks like Boakye depend on an inhospitable system of public transportation. Riders embark and disembark at precarious stops that are often nothing more than unsheltered patches of roadside marked by rusted signs planted at haphazard angles.
“If you look at the bus stops, half of them [require] people getting off in a ditch,” says Marie Birnbaum of the region’s transit facilities. Birnbaum is a director of Walk DC, a local pedestrian-advocacy group.
It is common to see walkers here doing an odd roadside dance, a high-stakes hokey-pokey. Typically, the macabre maneuver is executed by a pedestrian who begins to cross the road by putting, say, a right leg in, then, thinking better of it, pulling the right leg out. The maneuver may be repeated several times, the walker bobbing to and fro before finally mustering the courage to bolt for the other side.
“I think it’s a sin that the community that has the highest number of pedestrians has some of the worst pedestrian safety,” says Keary Kincannon, pastor of the Rising Hope Methodist Church on Route 1. “Something’s got to be done. There are too many people putting their lives at risk trying to cross the Route 1 corridor.”
“Our low-income community,” Kincannon adds, “doesn’t have to be second-class citizens to the wealthier families in our county.”
Kincannon has an emotional stake in the issue through Mackie, who attended Rising Hope until his death. Mackie was an archaeologist for the National Park Service before he fell victim to mental illness and alcoholism. He lost his family, his home, and his job, and he ended up on the street.
Having hit bottom, Mackie, 42, began the long, slow process of executing his life’s U-turn. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous, moved into the home of his sponsor, landed a job at a Starbucks, went to Rising Hope, and with the permission of his doctor, went off his psychotropic medication. “He was beginning to beat some of the odds,” says Kincannon. “The tragedy is that the time when he was putting it together is when he got hit. Norm has been a symbol for us in the church…of how difficult life is for people on the Route 1 corridor.”
You stand where Mackie died and you are taken by the unrelenting vehicular flow. The surge creates a constant, white noise, like surf breaking on the beach. The larger vehicles whip up a stiff breeze. Close your eyes and the cackling of crows almost sounds like gulls.
But you don’t dare shut your eyes.
Walking north from the homeless shelter, you follow a trail tramped into the roadside. The shoulder narrows and steepens, and you try to balance yourself on a steep incline as vehicles slingshot around a bend and down a steep grade in your direction. Up ahead, the massive concrete supports of an overpass crowd the shoulder, which tapers to almost nothing. To pass on this side of the road, you must execute something of a vertical limbo—and hope that no vehicles drift into the few inches afforded you for safe passage.
Being sideswiped is of particular concern along the stretches of Richmond Highway where there are no sidewalks, as well as beneath overpasses and at creek crossings, where structural supports encroach on the road’s shoulder. Forced into the road, pedestrians face down commercial vehicles and SUVs.
Simply walking along the highway’s shoulder can be hazardous. And all the SUVs and pickups remind you of yet another pedestrian worry: the mirror hit.
“There is an arms race among motorists to provide for their own personal protection at the expense of everyone else,” says Riley Geary, an Arlington resident and the founder of the Institute for Traffic Safety Analysis, an independent research organization that analyzes federal safety data.
You finally decide that the east side of the highway is safer—and run like hell to reach it. You walk in a concrete culvert to put as much distance as possible between yourself and the traffic, which comes at you from behind now.
You become lulled by the rolling mechanical cacophony that plays a few feet away. Guttural diesel groans. The whomp whomp whomp of bad tires. The screech of worn brake pads.
But when a tuba of a dump truck rumbles past in basso profundo, you startle.
You happen on a giant light pole that lies toppled in the grass, knocked clean from the concrete base on which it was bolted.
The landscape changes constantly. A sidewalk begins—and ends abruptly, 50 yards later. Then begins and ends again. Then there is a walkway of cracked asphalt. Then nothing.
You begin to cross the intersection of Mount Vernon Memorial Highway (no crosswalk, no walk signal) when a red Firebird barrels into your path and stops you in your tracks.
Such incidents are more common in the region than they were just a few years ago, say people who follow such things.
“More and more over the last decade, the rise in aggressive driving has been fueled by congestion and stress on the roadways,” says George Branyan, the pedestrian and special-program coordinator for the Maryland Highway Safety Office. “You combine that with the fact that motorists are driving around in 2.5-ton vehicles, and they’re going to win any confrontation with a pedestrian. People get a little intoxicated with their power to freeze a pedestrian.”
If you walk far enough north, Richmond Highway becomes walkable.
Inside the Beltway, Richmond Highway becomes Patrick Street and opens onto Old Town Alexandria. The historic district is several miles and a world away from Woodlawn. Old Town is a place of strict zoning requirements, powerful community associations, lower speed limits, and police who enforce them, a place where affluent people shop at fancy boutiques, dine at pricey restaurants, and take carefree strolls for ice cream at Ben & Jerry’s by the Potomac. In Old Town, people tend not to be dispatched in the street like dogs.
The speed limit here drops to 25 mph—a fact that is impossible to ignore. First, you see the posted limit. Then a large sign spanning the street to alert motorists that the limit is enforced by radar. Then a sign noting that the traffic signals here are set for 25 mph. Then another posting of the speed limit. All in less than a mile.
Back at the Belvoir Park and Shop, at the spot where Jose Salamanca began his final walk, three teenage girls scan the traffic for a break that will allow them to pass. Like Salamanca, they are on their way to the trailer park on the other side of the highway. Natalie, Angel, and Elizabeth reconnoiter by committee, the three of them looking this way and that, bouncing on the roadside, tugging on one another’s arms.
Following a protracted pause, they move en masse, hanging off one another, pausing midway, then bolting for the other side. They sense the danger, but at their age, death is not a consideration. They make it across on the steam of nervous giggles.
They know about Salamanca. One of their fathers was his friend.
Capt. Lyons knows about Salamanca, too. He was there that morning.
“I saw the blanket and the body, and there was no doubt what had happened,” says Lyons, who came upon the scene on his way to work. “It’s such a stark thing to stand there in the street and you’re looking at this person and the life is running out of them on
“We’re determined to make the roads safer,” Lyons says. “It’s a pretty basic human right. You should be able to get to work and drop your kids off without getting killed.” CP