Last month, 83-year-old Christina Pittman was killed while attempting to cross the street in Bay View by a man driving a Dodge Ram pickup. At the time she was struck, Pittman, who lived just a block away, was within the crosswalk and had the right of way. However, the 59-year-old driver, presumably, was attempting to beat oncoming traffic and made a deadly left-hand turn.
Pittman, who died at the scene, was the 25th person killed while walking in Wisconsin this year.
"This is a case where, although you don’t want to draw too many conclusions, the prevailing sentiment is convenience and getting to a destination faster is becoming more and more how people are driving," says Tom Held, the "Share and Be Aware" ambassador for the Wisconsin Bike Fed.
In April, Rattanawadee Kotewong, a 32-year-old biochemistry doctoral candidate from Thailand, was struck and killed by an SUV while crossing the street at the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Milwaukee’s Ellie Bradish works at the Medical College and crosses the same street that Kotewong died on every day. Bradish says although the college has taken numerous measures to ensure pedestrian safety – including hiring crossing guards – drivers continue to blow through the crosswalk anyway.
Recently, Bradish experienced a couple of "close calls" at that intersection, and she believes that, in general, crossing the street has become more and more dangerous throughout the city.
"It has a lot to do with cell phones," says Bradish. "I also think our city streets just simply have more traffic and that adds to it, too."
According to statistics released by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation in 2015, 55 people died walking across the street, which was an increase of 22 percent from 2014. So far in 2016, there have been 25 pedestrian deaths.
Both anecdotally and statistically, it’s become less safe to cross the street in Wisconsin. An increase in the population and the number of drivers on the road contributes to increased deaths, but certainly doesn't fully explain the increased safety hazard.
"Keep in mind the increase in pedestrian and cyclist collisions may track with the increased number of people walking or cycling. So walking or cycling may not be getting more dangerous, it's just that there are more people around to get into collisions. But it may also indicate more distracted driving, which is an increase in danger," says Jason McDowell, the president of the Milwaukee Bicycle Collective and OnMilwaukee’s creative director.
Anyone who walks around the city will notice that the majority of motorists have either forgotten or are unaware that it is illegal not to stop for a pedestrian at a crosswalk. Further, a crosswalk does not have to be marked (with white painted lines or signs) for it to be considered a crosswalk.
"Any point where there is a natural crossing for a sidewalk, pedestrians have the right of way," says Held. "It’s not an option for drivers to stop or not stop – they are obligated by law to yield or stop."
Arguably, some of the most difficult places to cross the street in Milwaukee are Brady Street (despite signs and flashing lights), Lincoln Memorial Drive, Greenfield Avenue, North Avenue, West Burleigh Street, South Second Street, Oakland Avenue and Oklahoma Avenue.
Jake Kowalczyk walks almost every day in the Walker’s Point, Bay View and Downtown neighborhoods and says when crossing the street he often angers drivers to the point that they will beep or swear at him. A few times drivers have inched forward while he was attempting to cross the street or floored it as soon as he walked past their car but before he had made it to the other side of the street.
"This car culture we've created is insane. It's gotten to the point that I can't even walk to the store without almost being murdered," says Kowalczyk. "I've started yelling at drivers for not stopping. I recently yelled at a cab driver, I flipped off a UPS driver and, just last week, I threw a water bottle I was carrying at a woman who actually honked at me for being in the crosswalk and didn't even slow down."
Dr. Robert Schneider, a professor and traffic safety researcher at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, conducted a three-year analysis of 8,222 crashes in which automobiles hit people walking or biking statewide between 2011 and 2013.
Schneider’s work revealed that Wisconsin is one of the worst states in the country for adherence to pedestrian right of way and that motorists generally ignore the state law requiring them to yield to walkers.
"What we saw was that many of the pedestrian crashes, the fatalities in particular, took place where pedestrians had a right to cross the road and the driver should have yielded," Schneider says. "Many drivers may be in a mindset that they only have to think about stopping at red lights or stop signs."
Most pedestrian-related collisions occur when a driver is distracted (often by their phone) or under the influence of alcohol. According to Held, about a third of all pedestrian deaths occur because a driver was drunk.
"Welcome to Wisconsin," says Held.
There are, of course, many other factors that contribute to pedestrian accidents, including speed. "We’ve come to accept that 5 or 10 miles over the speed limit is the norm, and we don’t appreciate the danger we create in doing that," says Held.
High speeds also cause pedestrians to believe they have enough time to cross the street based on the distance of the vehicle when they leave the curb, but result in the walker getting stranded in the middle of the street.
It’s possible that something shifts for many people once they get behind the wheel. Drivers – who outside their vehicle might be compassionate humans and supportive of car-free forms of transportation – become obsessed with destination, disconnected and rage filled.
"There’s a sense of autonomy and control that we have behind the wheel," Held says. "In the driver’s seat, we’ve created our own little world so we’re not as connected to the people and the environment around us."
However, drivers obviously – most of the time – don’t want to kill pedestrians and are absolutely devastated after claiming a human life.
"I’ve noticed in crash reports that people who are driving the cars are devastated. In some cases, they’ve been so distraught they needed medical attention themselves," says Held. "They didn’t set out to kill somebody; they just didn’t realize that going a little too fast or not paying attention could have that result."
Pedestrians are responsible for their safety, too. They have to cross the street at the intersection – not "jaywalk" – and start crossing when a vehicle is at least a half block away. That said, pedestrians also have the right to walk across the intersection at a leisurely speed.
"Most people you see crossing the street are running or speed walking to get across without being hit," says Kowalczyk. "We shouldn't have to do that. It just takes a few seconds for a person to get from one side of the street to another, even if they are walking and not sprinting."
Michael Hupy is a personal injury lawyer and award-winning activist in Milwaukee who has created advocacy campaigns to save lives called "Watch for Motorcycles," "Yield To Pedestrians" and "DNT TXT N DRV."
"There is not pedestrian safety in Wisconsin," says Hupy. "There never was, and it’s gotten worse."
Hupy has professional and personal experience to back up his statement. At the age of 4, he was struck by a vehicle and spent six weeks in the hospital recovering. He also walks around Downtown every day and often finds it challenging to cross the street at crosswalks.
"People in this city don’t stop," he says. "It is the social responsibility of me and other personal injury lawyers to reduce the number of accidents and the severity of injuries."
Hupy also believes that neither signs nor flashing lights make drivers more likely to yield and, consequently, believes increased police support is needed.
Sgt. Timothy Gauerke of the Milwaukee Police Department says citations are issued.
"Failing to yield for a pedestrian in a controlled intersection has a forfeiture amount of $98.80 and $250 for uncontrolled intersection," says Gauerke.
But Hupy disagrees that citations are issued – or issued often enough. Hence, he wrote a letter to all of the police chiefs and mayors in the 19 Milwaukee and suburban communities asking them to ticket drivers who fail to stop for pedestrians.
"I’ve asked them, repeatedly, to please start giving out tickets. You get what you’re willing to tolerate and if you don't give tickets, they won’t stop," says Hupy.
Schneider’s solutions to pedestrian safety include reducing speeds, adding median islands and curb extensions to reduce crossing distances at crosswalks, educating drivers and pedestrians about safe road use and enforcing the yield-to-pedestrian laws. However, Hupy is firm in his belief that safety won’t improve until the consequence is money-based and that the only way for that to happen is through police intervention.
"When people finally understand they are going to get a ticket and have to pay money they are going to obey the law," says Hupy. "But most importantly, they are going to save lives."
The "Crossing Law" In Wisconsin
Wisconsin State Law 346.24: Crossing at uncontrolled intersection or crosswalk.
- At an intersection or crosswalk where traffic is not controlled by traffic control signals or by a traffic officer, the operator of a vehicle shall yield the right of way to a pedestrian, or to a person riding a bicycle or electric personal assistive mobility device in a manner which is consistent with the safe use of the crosswalk by pedestrians, who is crossing the highway within a marked or unmarked crosswalk.
- No pedestrian, bicyclist, or rider of an electric personal assistive mobility device shall suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and walk, run, or ride into the path of a vehicle which is so close that it is difficult for the operator of the vehicle to yield.
- Whenever any vehicle is stopped at an intersection or crosswalk to permit a pedestrian, bicyclist, or rider of an electric personal assistive mobility device to cross the roadway, the operator of any other vehicle approaching from the rear shall not overtake and pass the stopped vehicle.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.