Note: This story has been edited to change “fatal accidents” to “fatal collisions.”
Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows moved to Indianapolis in 2017. The New York City native came to the Circle City by way of Chicago. With her residential history, Baskerville-Burrows was accustomed to walking to get around town. But in Indianapolis that seems to be nearly impossible.
“I’ve never seen a city with so few sidewalks,” Baskerville-Burrows said. When biking with friends to train for a marathon, Baskerville-Burrows said they avoid main roads as much as possible, not just because of inadequate sidewalks, but to avoid reckless drivers.
According to a study from the National Safety Council, vehicle-related deaths nationally rose 8% from 2019 to 2020. Throughout Indiana, the rate of fatal collisions rose 8.1% in that same period. In Marion County, that number rose 31%.
In 2021, there have been 189 vehicle incidents involving pedestrians that resulted in 19 deaths, and 58 vehicles collisions with cyclists, resulting in four deaths, according to the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD). In 2020, 19 pedestrians died as a result of an incident with a vehicle.
On Aug. 27, a driver struck Saleina Marcelus, 12, as she crossed Mitthoeffer Road to get to her bus stop. The driver took off and has not been identified. Marcelus died of her injuries days later. There are no sidewalks on the stretch of road Marcelus had to cross. Just three weeks later on Sept. 15, a driver involved in a two-car collision struck and killed 7-year-old Hannah Crutchfield outside her school in Irvington. Two adults were injured, as well.
These incidents sparked citywide outcry and a call to action from Indianapolis leaders.
Following Crutchfield’s and Marcelus’ deaths, Reps. Mitch Gore and Blake Johnson proposed legislation in the state House of Representatives to address reckless driving by giving municipalities the option to add cameras to school zones, as well as allowing Indiana State Police and other agencies to apply for funding to pay overtime to officers working traffic enforcement.
Gore, who is also a captain with the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, said one reason for the uptick in collisions is drivers got used to less traffic during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and never adjusted when people started going back to work.
“I know, personally, my commute during the shutdown took about 15 minutes as opposed to 25,” Gore said. “When people started going back to work, no one reset their expectations for what their commute used to look like pre-pandemic, that they can’t drive like they used to when the roads were empty.”
Dawn Olsen may be considered lucky. In 2019, a driver hit her while she was running through the intersection of Pennsylvania and Vermont streets. Though Olsen had the right of way, the driver attempted to “beat” her through the intersection, and Olsen ended up on the hood of the car. After sliding herself off, the driver took off without stopping to make sure Olsen was OK. Olsen was able to walk back home with bruising on her back and hip.
“You feel, worthless isn’t the right word, but it’s like I had absolutely no value to them as a human being,” Olsen said. “They had no interest in figuring out if I was OK. They just cared about making sure they put a distance between myself and their vehicle.
“I still run downtown, but I’m hesitant, not just because of this incident, but I know other people who have been hit and had close calls,” she said.
While this was the first time someone actually hit Olsen, she said she’d had a few close calls.
“I have, admittedly, slammed my fists on more hoods than I should,” Olsen said. “If I can touch your car, you’re way too close to me.”
Gore said having more officers enforcing traffic laws in communities can help curb reckless driving, a sentiment that some in the community disagree with.
“It’s not the right move,” said a transportation worker in the city, who asked not to be identified to protect employment. “There are plenty of ways to slow people down and keep people safe that doesn’t involve men with guns.”
The worker said implementing raised crosswalks, narrower lanes and having trees planted in medians can help drivers slow down and keep pedestrians safe.
Part of the workers’ issue with tasking police with traffic enforcement is that he’s seen police disobeying traffic laws, including parking their squad cars in designated bike lanes, a practice that can lead to safety hazards for cyclists.
IMPD did not respond to a question about what happens to officers caught violating traffic laws.
Gore said he and Johnson will keep an eye on how the legislation, if passed, is enforced to ensure it isn’t doing harm to communities of color and over-policed communities.
“We want to remain conscientious of how these dollars affect communities,” Gore said. “One thing I hear the most about right now is reckless driving, and we hear about it from a diverse group of constituents. We’ll keep an eye on it locally, should these funds be approved, and make sure they’re used equitably. It’s beyond time to get a hard reset for how Hoosiers drive.”
Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.