Pedestrians in peril

Sacramento city and county topped 4,700 hit-and-run crashes in a year, with nearly half of city’s fatal crashes involving pedestrians

Two pedestrians cross North 16th Street near where George Kouklis was killed by a hit-and-run driver.

Two pedestrians cross North 16th Street near where George Kouklis was killed by a hit-and-run driver.

Photo by Graham Womack

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Before his life unraveled again and before his senseless death, George Kouklis achieved some measure of serenity. He built up 16 years of sobriety, worked as a truck driver in Long Beach for the Salvation Army and helped others undertake the strict recovery program that helped him overcome years of substance abuse and mental health problems.

But old demons had flared up by Aug. 24, when, according to the Sacramento Police Department, the 60-year-old homeless man and Sacramento native got into an afternoon argument near North 16th Street and McCormack Avenue with 26-year-old Deante Whitaker.

“There was an altercation,” said Kouklis’ sister Mia Kouklis, as she sat on the porch of her McKinley Park home on a recent afternoon. “I had heard my brother had a hammer. But the person had a car.”

Whitaker allegedly ran down Kouklis with his black Dodge Charger, critically wounding Kouklis and fleeing the scene. Kouklis died the following day, with surveillance footage and witness accounts leading detectives to arrest Whitaker on Sept. 11. Whitaker was arraigned on a felony murder charge two days later, according to the Sacramento Superior Court website.

Aside from the particularly brutal and deliberate manner in which it occurred, though, it’s not that unusual a story in Sacramento. Both the city and county rank among the most unsafe places in California for hit-and-run crashes—and local leaders are grappling with what to do.

The numbers don’t lie: Sacramento can be an unsafe place to walk, with the drivers to blame often skirting responsibility.

According to statistics provided by the Sacramento Police Department through a SN&R public records request, the city had 927 hit-and-run collisions in the 12 months from Oct. 1, 2018 to Sept. 30, with 370 injuries and at least five deaths.

The numbers get worse in outside the city limits.

According to the California Highway Patrol, there were 3,835 hit-and-run crashes in unincorporated Sacramento County during the same 12-month period—an average of more than 10 of hit-and-runs a day—with 1,293 people injured and 13 deaths.

Both Sacramento PD and CHP representatives said in response to the public records requests that they did not know how many of these incidents resulted in arrests and that they could not offer demographic information for the victims and perpetrators.

Kirin Kumar, executive director of Walk Sacramento, said his group has been able to glean some findings from its own research.

“We also know that the folks who are getting hit and killed in the county are likely either in disadvantaged communities or are transit-dependent,” Kumar said.

Again and again in a 645-page report that the CHP provided, detailing every hit-and-run crash for those 12 months, the primary factors of unsafe speed and alcohol use are cited for the hit-and-runs.

This mirrors 2016 findings from the California Office of Traffic Safety—the most recent statistics available—citing Sacramento as the most likely of the state’s 15 largest cities to have alcohol-related or speed-related collisions resulting in injury or death.

“Speed is one of the most significant issues that we have in the city and is a challenge for us,” said Jennifer Donlon Wyant, the city’s active transportation specialist.

The study also ranked Sacramento third most likely for hit-and-run crashes.

The city noted in a 2018 report that, while only 13% of all trips in Sacramento were made on foot, 40% of all fatal crashes in the city involved pedestrians. The same report noted that from 2009 to 2015, 151 people died on city streets, with roughly half killed while biking or walking.

In response, the city started a study of five of its most dangerous corridors: Marysville Boulevard; El Camino Avenue; Broadway at Stockton Boulevard; Stockton Boulevard and Patterson Way; and Florin Road. While the streets are in different parts of the city, each generally runs through an older, poorer and less white area.

City leaders also launched a local version of Vision Zero, an ambitious program that originated in Sweden and that posits that all traffic incidents are predictable and therefore preventable. The city adopted a formal Vision Zero Action Plan in August 2018 and has set a goal of eliminating all traffic deaths by 2027.

“I’m optimistic,” said Councilman Eric Guerra, whose district includes Stockton Boulevard. “If you don’t set an aggressive goal, you’re never going to move the needle.”

Still, for a number of reasons, this goal might be difficult to reach locally, particularly when it comes to eliminating hit-and-run crashes in Sacramento.

Justin Risley, who serves as chief of security operations and police services for Sacramento Regional Transit, noted that the causes of pedestrian fatalities can be difficult to pinpoint.

“They’re really tough because there was no specific causal factor,” Risley said. “Many occasions, people just were not being entirely aware of their situation and then really kind of putting themselves unfortunately in these really difficult circumstances where a person would meet a car and the outcomes were not good.”

One problem is reaching the potential victims. Risley, who is contracted to RT through the police department, said public education through websites like NextDoor can help.

“Unfortunately, the person, the people that we’re trying to reach in many of these cases are a difficult group to get to,” Risley said. “They don’t always have social media. They’re not paying attention to these types of things.”

It’s people like Kouklis, who bounced between Loaves & Fishes, his sister’s backyard and other spots in the final years of his life, finding temporary shelter in a variety of precarious places, including near freeways. Lots of people injured in hit-and-run crashes are homeless or from disadvantaged communities or are non-English speakers, Kumar noted.

Enforcement has also been lax due to staffing shortages, with Guerra noting that after the Great Recession, Sac PD’s traffic division shrunk to four officers for the entire city.

“When you don’t have enforcement, you create an environment that allows bad drivers to continue their bad habits,” Guerra said. “Only until recently have we been able to increase the number of traffic officers because of commitments from the City Council and Measure U,” a half-cent sales tax increase that passed in 2012 and restored budget cuts from the recession.

The biggest challenge, though, might still be funding. Donlon Wyant said transportation projects aren’t budgeted through the city’s general fund. Instead, the city uses gas tax and Measure A dollars to fund staff time and a local match to qualify for grants.

“I like to say that we rub two nickels together to make a dollar,” Donlon Wyant said.

This results in a lack of traffic signals at some busy intersections and even the removal of some crosswalks, Kumar said. One of these removals, he noted, was followed by the death of a woman who was attempting to cross Freeport Boulevard south of Raley’s.

In response, Donlon Wyant said the city must follow published safety standards and can’t just add a crosswalk on a busy street. Crosswalks on busier streets need controls to let drivers know they need to yield to pedestrians. This costs from $400,000 to $600,000 per crossing.

“I can definitely say the city of Sacramento does not have enough funding for the transportation needs that we have,” Donlon Wyant said. “We have to have the local dollars invested in roadway safety if we’re going to make any sort of progress toward achieving Vision Zero—rapidly, too.”

In 2016, the Sacramento Transportation Authority attempted to address shortfalls with Measure B, a sales tax initiative that would have provided $3.6 billion over 30 years for roadway and transportation improvements. Opponents successfully thwarted this measure, with a radio ad in the days before suggesting that local politicians had plenty of funding through the existing Measure A.

“If you look at the budgets and if you look at our goals and you look at the needs around the investment in the Sacramento region, that’s just patently false,” Kumar said. “We just don’t have the transportation dollars we need to … achieve our transit riderships, to grow a system that actually gets folks out of their cars, and invests in roadway safety.”

The transportation authority is crafting a potential new Measure B for the November 2020 ballot.

Asked if an additional sales tax could saves lives, Kumar said, “Absolutely.”