By Ken Williams | Editor
Esperanza Torres-Gies lived to tell her story about how she became a dreaded traffic statistic in San Diego. Not once, but twice.
On two separate occasions, Torres-Gies was struck by a car while trying to cross a street. She is one of the 488 pedestrians and bicyclists injured by traffic violence in San Diego from 2006-16.
Believe it or not, Torres-Gies considers herself among the lucky ones. During that time span, 292 pedestrians and 40 bicyclists have lost their lives after collisions with cars.
But Torres-Gies is not your ordinary pedestrian: She is legally blind. Her challenges are immense — compared to pedestrians who are not visually challenged — because she must rely almost exclusively on her hearing to judge when it might be safe to cross the street.
Torres-Gies shared her compelling story on Friday, Nov. 17, as Circulate San Diego observed the World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims.
Colin Parent, interim executive director of Circulate San Diego, said he chose to hold the somber ceremony at the intersection of University Avenue and Normal Street in Hillcrest because University Avenue is considered the “most dangerous street in San Diego.”
Indeed, a large cutout of a pedestrian figure — showing the most dangerous streets in San Diego — indicated that University Avenue ranked first ahead of busy thoroughfares such as El Cajon Boulevard, Garnet Avenue, Mission Boulevard and Broadway.
Five of the “Fatal 15” intersections in San Diego involve University Avenue. They are:
- University Avenue and Marlborough Street, City Heights.
- University Avenue and 52nd Street, City Heights.
- University Avenue and Park Boulevard, Hillcrest/North Park.
- University Avenue and Menlo Avenue, City Heights.
- University Avenue and Fairmount Avenue, City Heights.
“We’re here to recognize people killed in traffic violence,” said Parent, who is also a La Mesa City Council member. “This is the first time San Diego has participated in this international observation.”
Afterward, ceremony participants pinned butterfly-shaped sticker messages on two poster boards to recognize the 292 pedestrians and 40 bicyclists who died in the past decade.
Chris Ward, who represents District 3 on the San Diego City Council, also spoke at the gathering.
“Not one more life needs to be lost in San Diego if we implement Vision Zero,” Ward said.
Circulate San Diego’s Vision Zero initiative, which has been adopted by the San Diego City Council, calls for zero traffic deaths in San Diego by 2025.
On average, one person in injured every day in San Diego while driving, walking or bicycling. People like Torres-Gies.
Twice, after attending night classes, Torres-Gies was hit by cars while trying to cross the street. She said she initially felt ashamed of becoming a traffic victim, worrying that it would negatively impact the blind community. But later, Torres-Gies said, she realized that her story could help make a difference by inspiring other activists who are determined to make our streets safe for everyone: pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists.
Torres-Gies attended the ceremony along with Pat Olafson, as the two women represented the San Diego Center for the Blind.
Olafson said that when she lost her vision, she attended classes at the Center for the Blind, including one on “orientation and mobility” that teaches blind and visually impaired people how to travel safely on foot or by public transportation.
“This class in mobility really opens up our lives, allows us to be an active part of the community,” Olafson said.
“But there is a dark side to mobility” for the visually impaired, she added. “Last year, I had 20 people in my class: Four were hit by cars, and one of them twice.”
Olafson urged drivers to look in all directions when making a turn. Accidents often happen when a driver makes a right turn while looking left, failing to see pedestrians or bicyclists who are already in the intersection. Another accident waiting to happen occurs when a driver exits an alley, looking left at ongoing traffic while turning right, but failing to look right to see if there are pedestrians or bicyclists trying to cross in front of them.
People whose vision are impaired, Olafson said, are taught to “Stop. Listen. And cross the street when it is quiet.”
Olafson said the “talking” countdown traffic signals are very helpful to the blind as well as the wide stripes that designate pedestrian crossings. “They seem to make drivers more aware,” she said.
And one final piece of advice?
“Don’t be afraid to ask us for help!”