Rising road deaths in the US bring a street in Philadelphia into focus

PHILADELPHIA – Just one more step and the pram would have been parked at the curb.

The thought haunts Latanya Byrd years after a driver speeding down Roosevelt Boulevard in Philadelphia struck and killed her 27-year-old niece Samara Banks and three of Banks’ young sons while crossing the 12-lane avenue. Many of the circumstances that led to the fatal crash of 2013 persist today.

Since the crash, Byrd has become an advocate for safer roads, campaigning for automatic speed cameras to be placed along the boulevard, where 10 to 13 percent of the city’s road fatalities happened each year before the pandemic, city officials said.

And now, in the midst of a national increase in traffic fatalities that federal officials have declared a crisis and studies show that black communities have been hit even harder during the pandemic, planning a redesign The city’s “Corridor of Death” may be gaining traction.


Roosevelt Boulevard is a nearly 14-mile maze of chaotic traffic patterns that winds through some of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods and census areas with the highest rates of poverty. Driving can be dangerous when cars switch between inside and outside lanes, but bicycling or walking the boulevard can be worse, as some pedestrian crossings are longer than a football field and require four lightweight bicycles to cross.

“You wouldn’t design a street or street like this today,” said Christopher Puchalsky, policy director for the Philadelphia Office of Transportation, Infrastructure and Sustainability. “It feels like an expressway, but it’s right in the middle and between the districts.”

Many of the city’s ideas for arresting Roosevelt were championed as part of new federal strategies. Amid rising deaths, Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg has made a move “secure system” Approach that encourages cities and states to consider more than just driver behavior when designing roads.


The Biden administration also created funds for security improvements, including the bipartisan Infrastructure Act and a $5 billion federal aid package to the cities in the next five years. Federal officials have pledged to prioritize equity in funding decisions after a disproportionate 23% increase in black fatalities in 2020.

“We will certainly remind the federal government of the justice priorities set by the leadership when applying for grants,” Puchalsky said.

Kelley Yemen, director of Philadelphia’s Complete Streets program, said the city is hoping for federal money to begin a long-term Roosevelt redesign outlined in a study published in 2019. The two options would either make the middle lanes a restricted expressway, or cut speeds and convert car lanes into bike and transit lanes. Both carry billion-dollar price tags.


The study includes a number of smaller projects to improve safety on stretches of road with high fatalities by 2025, some of which have already started but local residents are skeptical.

Eva Gbaa was impatient to see change. Her 17-year-old nephew, John “JJ” Gbaa Jr., was killed in a hit-and-run in November 2018 while attempting to cross Roosevelt while walking home after hanging out with friends. He was alone at the time and many circumstances surrounding the crash were unknown.

A passerby found JJ and called the police, but he died in a hospital. No arrest was made and the family still agonizes over how anyone could have let the big-hearted boy die.

“JJ asked me for money … but I didn’t know until after he died, his friends told me that if they didn’t have any, he would buy them food,” said John Gbaa Sr., JJ’s father. “He loved people. He would spend his last dollar on his friends.”

JJ and his father had moved to Philadelphia in 2017 to be closer to family and JJ was making great strides in school. He loved being around his cousins ​​and he became attached to his aunt as she cooked traditional African rice dishes.


“He’d say, ‘Aunt, when I graduate I’ll go to college and then I’ll take care of you.’ But he never had the chance,” Eva Gbaa said, fighting back tears. “I hope, I hope they do something to make sure no family goes through this so it doesn’t happen again.”

The family has established a school, the John G. Gbaa Jr. Academy for kindergarten through eighth grade, in their home country of Liberia in JJ’s honor, hoping to share his dream of education with others. They pay the teachers and, with the help of small donations, send food, clothing and books to the students.

In the Philadelphia area, aggressive driving during the pandemic resulted in 156 deaths in 2020, a sharp increase from 90 deaths in 2019. Preliminary data from the Philadelphia Police Department showed a decrease in 2021 to 133 deaths, still above pre-levels the pandemic.

The data does not include the race or ethnicity of people killed, but an Associated Press analysis showed that deaths in neighborhoods where more than 70% of residents are black have increased from about 50% in 2019 to over 67% increased in 2021. The number of accidents in the poorest neighborhoods also increased slightly.


Sonia Szczesna, director of active transportation at the Tristate Transportation Campaign, a nonprofit transportation advocacy group, said black, brown, and low-income communities are often hardest hit by high-death roads.

“They divide these communities, and often residents have to bike or walk these streets without access to quality public transport. So there is an injustice in this infrastructure,” Szczesna said.

Data for the first four months of 2022 showed that so far this year, more pedestrians have died on Philadelphia’s streets than people in cars. And the number of hit-and-runs in the first four months of this year was higher than the same period in the previous two years, worrying police and other city officials.

But deaths on Roosevelt have remained more or less stable during the pandemic, Yemen said, largely because of pilot speed cameras.


Byrd, co-founder of the nonprofit advocacy group Families for Safe Streets, was a strong advocate for speed cameras and wrote hundreds of personal letters to lawmakers telling them about her niece and children. The cameras went live at eight intersections in June 2020, but only after state legislation, a city ordinance and negotiations with the Philadelphia Parking Authority, which administers the program.

In the first 30 days of a 60-day warning period, more than 224,000 warning tickets were issued for driving more than 11 mph over the speed limit, but by February 2021 that number had dropped to fewer than 17,000 tickets, according to the Parks Authority. Overall, speed on the road has dropped by more than 91%, city and parks department officials said.

Despite the impact, the cameras will shut down in 2023 unless extended by lawmakers.

The Federal Road Administration given conditions gave the green light this year to use federal funds to install speed cameras and says they can reduce the number of accidents involving injuries by 50%.


Byrd’s niece Samara Banks was 21 and pregnant with her first child in 2007 when she found a four-bedroom house a few blocks south of Roosevelt Boulevard.

Her family had reservations because she had to cross the boulevard each time she visited. But Banks’ mother had just died and she needed a bigger home so she could accommodate her four younger siblings and raise a family of her own.

Byrd said Banks was the kind of mom and aunt who was always up to something. “At all family gatherings, she would get all the kids in a circle and have them play games and dance, or make up these little skits for them. She always had a plan and the kids always came first,” Byrd said.

After spending a hot July day visiting the kids, swimming, and wrestling with water balloons, Banks decided to walk home rather than hail a cab, which took her the mile across Roosevelt as she did usually did.


She pushed her 7-month-old Saa’mir Williams and 23-month-old Saa’sean Williams in a double stroller. Her 4-year-old Saa’deem Griffin held on to the stroller and walked alongside her.

Witnesses told police that two cars raced, weaved between other cars and sped down the boulevard. One of the drivers lost control and crashed into the family, throwing Banks more than 200 feet and crushing the stroller. She and the three children died.

Banks’ younger sister and 5-year-old son Saa’yon Griffin went ahead and survived the crash.

Officials have since installed a traffic light and pedestrian crossing at the junction, which has been renamed Banks Way in honor of the young mother. The two men accused of racing were eventually convicted or found guilty. One of the men was a teenager when his own mother died crossing Roosevelt Boulevard.

“It was hard. I would tell Saa’yon he needs to be strong, and I remember one time he stamped his foot and said no,” Byrd said. “He told me he was tired of being strong to be, and he just wanted his mother and brothers back. We all do that.”



Associated Press researcher Jennifer Farrar and video journalist Noreen Nasir of the Race & Ethnicity Team in New York and data journalist Angeliki Kastanis in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission.

https://www.local10.com/news/politics/2022/05/31/rising-us-traffic-deaths-put-focus-on-one-philadelphia-road/ Rising road deaths in the US bring a street in Philadelphia into focus

Sarah Y. Kim

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