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Decatur residents urge city commission to improve traffic, pedestrian safety

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Decatur residents urge city commission to improve traffic, pedestrian safety

FILE PHOTO USED FOR ILLUSTRATION PURPOSES: Crossing guard Theresa Stephens (left) talks to a young student on the way to school as she waits for the traffic light to change at the intersection of S. Candler St. and Kirk Rd. in Decatur during the Big Walk on South Candler event in 2016. FILE PHOTO: Jonathan Phillips

Decatur, GA — Five-year-old Miles Jenness died in 2018.

Jenness’ car was struck by another car. He was with his father and on the way home from an after-school program at the time of the crash.  They were about one block away from his house. His mother now shares their story to advocate for better traffic and pedestrian safety in the city of Decatur. 

Leah Jenness and members of Calm Decatur, which was formerly Calm Candler, spoke during the city commission meeting on Sept. 25 and asked the commissioners to implement a 25-mile-per-hour speed limit across the city, improve crosswalks and walkways, and increase traffic enforcement.

April Biagioni, with Calm Decatur, added the group is asking the city to increase its efforts to protect the community. 

“We believe that a complete approach is needed to achieve this goal which includes one, a city-wide speed limit of 25 miles per hour; two, improved crosswalks and walkways; three, adopting a comprehensive vision zero policy with concrete steps to achieve it; four, the city should consider innovative enforcement actions; five, challenge the Georgia Department of Transportation’s speed limit methodology; and six, gather and propagate information about our dangerous roadways,” Biagioni said. 

On Sept. 25, 2018, Leah Jenness saw her son alive for the last time.

“It was a Tuesday. He was five and a half. I kissed him as he went off to kindergarten with his dad and told him that I loved him more than anything and that I would see him in three days,” Jenness said.

She was traveling for a work trip that week, but got a call from her neighbor on Sept. 27, 2018, informing her that Miles and her husband had been in a car crash. They had been rear-ended at the intersection of Midway Road and South Candler Street. The crash left Miles in critical condition, and he died on Sept. 29.

As Jenness waited to catch a flight back home from Portland, holding her breath, she got a call from her husband saying there wasn’t anything the doctors could do to save Miles. 

“Though I’m standing in front of you today, I want to tell you that so much of me died on that airport floor that day,” Jenness told the commissioners at the Sept. 25, 2023, meeting. “Traffic crashes happen in an instant, but they have unending effects.” 

Miles lost everything that day in 2018, but he didn’t have to die, she added. 

“The crash that killed him was completely preventable, and there are ways that you might have even protected him from it,” Jenness said. “We may not be able to control drivers’ decisions, but that doesn’t mean we’re powerless to protect our children. We’re only powerless after the fact.” 

One thing Calm Decatur has suggested is improved crosswalks and walkways. Speed bumps and raised crosswalks have been added to Midway Road in the years since Miles’ death. 

“With the addition of those speed bumps, Midway is no longer a straightaway that drivers can just accelerate down unobstructed,” Jenness said. “Had they been there on Sept. 27, 2018, Miles might still be here today. I know they are protecting people every day.” 

She added that Calm Decatur’s proposed safety suggestions could save lives. 

“I’m here today on behalf of Miles to give him a voice where his was silenced,” Jenness said. “We can protect our kids. We can create conditions that anticipate errors and make road safety in Decatur less of a life or death equation.” 

The safety of Decatur citizens is paramount, Biagioni said during public comments. She has also witnessed aggressive driving behavior, particularly in terms of drivers making left turns on red lights. 

Biagioni also pointed to a recent traffic incident where a school crossing guard was hit by a car while in a crosswalk.  

“We believe that immediate action is necessary to address these issues and enhance the well-being of all residents. It is evident from the recent and devastating crossing guard incident that there is an urgent need in our city to prioritize the safety of pedestrians and ensure that our streets are safe for everyone,” Biagioni said. 

Last year, the city was awarded a grant from the federal highway authority for a safe streets for all action plan, Decatur Senior Engineer Cara Scharer said. 

“This plan will work to adopt a safe systems approach toward the city’s streets and transportation network by building and reinforcing multiple layers of protection to minimize the harm when crashes do occur,” Scharer said. 

When it comes to South Candler Street, the city met with the Georgia Department of Transportation at the intersection of Kirk Road and South Candler Street in August to review the corridor in response to resident concerns. 

Scharer said there will be a meeting this month to discuss a path forward for the area with GDOT and members of the Calm Decatur group. 

South Candler Street is a state highway that runs through Decatur. Mayor Patti Garrett said that during a recent meeting with other mayors and GDOT, she stressed the importance of the state highways that come through the city are residential streets. 

“They’re not the same sort of state highways that are in many parts of Georgia,” Garrett said. “I think GDOT is willing to work with us. It just sometimes does take time. In terms of a 25-mile-an-hour speed limit, I think that’s one of the things that this grant will give us some opportunities to take a look at.” 

Later in the meeting, Garrett said the city recognizes the need for enforcement all over Decatur. 

“It is hard to catch people in the act at all times during the day, but we recognize that it is happening,” Garrett said. “We are committed to finding ways to mitigate the circumstances by which things can endanger our children and our community, particularly being vulnerable as a pedestrian.”

Decatur being the most walkable city in Georgia is a paradox because pedestrians often feel unsafe, Commissioner Kelly Walsh said. According to Walk Score, Decatur is somewhat walkable and has a walk score of 60. Downtown Decatur is a “walker’s paradise” with a walk score of 96 out of 100

“It is really hard to sit with the pain and the distress and the anxiety that you have and shared with us, and that I think we all feel too, at least a shade of it when we walk and bike in our city,” Walsh said. 

The city has a lot of work to do, she added, and the city’s 2018 transportation plan pointed that out. 

“There are a lot of things that have been fallow that are more in progress than they have been, but we have to accelerate that, and we have to work really hard on it,” Walsh said. 

Walsh would also like to see an active mobility board, “which could be another complimentary board toward these efforts so that we have more channels for cooperation, more human bandwidth to work on this, and we can amplify what our traffic engineer…is working on,” she said. 

She’d also like to see slower speeds, more pedestrian and bike amenities, and improved infrastructure.  

The city has done some road improvements and road diets and has received criticism about those projects. 

“If I get yelled at because we’re going to do that in south Decatur then yell at me, because if it prevents one more fatality, then it’s worth it, because no parent should have to sit through what [Jenness] sat through and experienced,” Mayor Pro Tem Tony Powers said. 

He added that the city can take incremental steps, like widening sidewalks, providing more accessibility or lowering speeds, but the community has to work together to change driver behavior. 

“If we can talk about light pollution for 30 minutes, by God sake, we can talk about pedestrian safety forever, and that’s what we’re going to try to do,” Powers said. “We’re going to make sure that we put efforts into doing those things we said we would do. Nothing less.”

According to a post in the Calm Decatur Facebook group, these are the requests of the city commission:

Calm Decatur Vision Statement:

Our vision is to create safer streets throughout our city for all road users, with special attention to the most vulnerable users, including school kids, pedestrians, and people on bikes or in wheelchairs. Toward that end, we believe the following goals must be achieved.

1. A City-wide Speed Limit of 25 MPH:

– A uniform 25 mph speed limit should be adopted for every road in the city, including arterial routes, to prioritize safety for all residents.

– Excessive speed is the number one factor in deaths and serious injuries caused by automobiles. Studies show that 25 mph is a safe limit.

– Adopting this limit would not significantly affect travel times for motorists. For example, to drive the length of South Candler Street from the southern city limits to the end of the street at College Avenue, it takes 2:05 minutes at 35 mph and 2:56 minutes at 25 mph (assuming a constant rate of speed). That’s just 50 seconds longer to travel at a speed that is far less likely to kill a school child. For Scott Boulevard, where many people have been seriously injured and a number killed, to travel the 1.63 miles within the city limits, it takes 2:27 minutes at 40 mph and 3:55 minutes at 25 mph, just 1:30 minutes longer.

2. Improved Crosswalks and Walkways:

– All crosswalks in the city should be better marked and fully maintained.

– Crossings for the most dangerous streets (such as Candler, College, Clairemont, and Scott) should be raised crosswalks or, at the very least, tiled or bricked so they have a different texture. In addition, devices such as rumble strips should be installed beforehand to warn motorists to slow and pay attention. This should be done at both intersections and mid-block crossings.

– Sidewalks, multi-use paths, and curb cuts should also be carefully constructed with vulnerable users at the center of designs.

3. Adopt a Comprehensive Vision Zero Policy with Concrete Steps to Achieve it and Yearly Review of Success and Failure:

– The city should formally adopt the Vision Zero initiative, as promised in its strategic plan.

– But it’s not enough to adopt the language. It must also develop a clear and comprehensive set of intended outcomes with specific steps and deadlines for reducing traffic fatalities and injuries, including periodic review of success.

4. The City should Consider Innovative Enforcement Actions:

– Cities elsewhere in Georgia (Tallulah Falls, for example) have been able to adopt strict speed enforcement by camera within their boundaries, even on state routes controlled by GDOT. Decatur’s leaders should aggressively explore such options and other policies, with a goal of ensuring that speeding and unsafe driving is not tolerated anywhere within city limits.

5. Challenge Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) Speed Limit Methodology:

– For more than a decade, the Georgia Department of Transportation has refused to lower speed limits on Decatur’s most dangerous roadways. It does so because it is in thrall to an outdated and dangerous method for determining optimal speed limits: the so-called 85th Percentile Rule. According to this procedure, engineers measure rates of speed along a roadway and determine the speed that 85% of drivers do not exceed. That, then, is made the speed limit. The faster drivers feel like going, the higher the speed limit GDOT selects. Many engineer and street safety groups have pointed out that this policy might work for sparsely populated areas but isn’t suitable for urban or dense suburban areas like the City of Decatur. We believe it’s time for GDOT to prioritize the safety of school kids over speeding drivers.

6. Gather and Propagate Information about Our Dangerous Roadways:

– We call upon city and police officials to systematically and publicly share data about crashes involving cars, trucks, and buses within the city limits on a regular basis (monthly or quarterly) and in a format that is easy to understand and use.

– We also call upon the city to use that data to identify places with the greatest dangers and implement, on a yearly basis, plans to decrease those dangers.

– We also intend to supplement such data with individuals’ stories, with a view toward propagating them, to make clear the constant fear and serious danger that citizens and visitors constantly experience when trying to navigate our city, whether by car, by bus, by foot, by bike, or by wheelchair.

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