RICHMOND, Va. -- A driver was charged with involuntary manslaughter, reckless driving endangering life, and two counts of failure to obey a traffic signal in connection to the January 2023 death of Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) student Mahrokh Khan.
A driver hit and killed Khan while the 22-year-old student crossed the street at Laurel and West Main streets near the Altria Theater and Monroe Park.
After hearing evidence in the case, a Richmond Grand Jury indicted Shanthi Bhagat, 21, on four criminal counts.
News of the indictment came several days after a Pedestrian Safety Study of the downtown campus was released by the university and City of Richmond.
The aim of the study was to "reduce pedestrian conflicts, traffic calming elements to reduce vehicular speeds, and roadway improvements to enhance pedestrian safety and access throughout the VCU campuses."
It cited Khan's case and the death of fellow student, Shawn Soares (which happened after the study was already underway), as a example of the need for urgency to address this issue.
A spokesperson for the Richmond Police Department said Soares' case remains under investigation.
The report made several recommendations broken down into five categories: No Turn on Red Recommendations, Pedestrian Crossing Improvements, Signal Improvements, Roadway Improvements, and Maintenance and Operations Recommendations.
The recommendations include:
- Evaluation and implementation of “no turn on red” signs.
- Corner clearance markings that eliminate parking near crosswalks.
- Curb extensions and speed tables (i.e., speed humps) that reduce crossing distance and vehicular speed.
- Upgrades to crosswalks, signals and signage.
- Additional gateway features that define campus boundaries.
- Continued traffic signal retiming.
- Speed feedback signage on campus.
- Collaborative enforcement and outreach plans.
“The safety and well-being of our community is vitally important. It is clear that significant change is needed to slow traffic and enhance pedestrian safety in Richmond,” said Meredith Weiss, Ph.D., vice president for the VCU Division of Administration, in a news release. “Through our partnership with the city, we are enacting meaningful change. This study provides a clear roadmap for safety improvements, and we have begun implementing the recommendations.”
“The city is committed to improving traffic safety measures and continuously making assessments, securing grants to provide new technology for traffic safety upgrades/improvements and traffic calming measures throughout the City of Richmond,” said Bobby Vincent, director of the Richmond Department of Public Works. “That commitment is evident with the city’s Vision Zero pledge to reduce traffic-related fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. Vision Zero is designed to change the traditional mindset that traffic-related deaths and those resulting in severe injuries are inevitable to the mindset that they are preventable. The VCU Pedestrian Safety Study is in alignment with the Vision Zero strategy and an example of how stakeholders play a role in helping the city address best practices for traffic safety.”
The city added that the firm behind the study and they provided early recommendations, several of which the city began to implement before the start of the fall semester.
Among them was the installation of speed tables near the site of Khan's and Soares' crashes. VCU said initial speed data indicated that average vehicle speed had been reduced by half.
News of the recommendations was welcomed by VCU students that CBS 6 spoke to.
"Pedestrian-wise, there's a lot of things that they can improve upon, obviously, like crosswalk infrastructure, like making it safer for the public in general," VCU student Aru Chaturvedi said, who added he had a near miss with a car that was turning right on a red light (the report recommended several intersections bar this from being allowed).
Another student, Mason Smith, said despite current or future pedestrian infrastructure, he still is cautious when walking.
"I always try to be conscious of how the drivers are acting and how other people are, kind of, acting in my environment, as opposed to the actual signage posted in the area," said Smith, who added this message to drivers. "Just to be conscious of the pedestrians and try to look towards the people, especially if, you know, turning on red, making sure looking that there's nobody ever walking up."
"I think all of the measures that they have been proposed are a good thing," added Rebecca Thomas, who isn't a student but cycles frequently through VCU — something she said is 'scary' and 'unpredictable'. "They will not only save lives, but actually make this a more livable and pleasant area to be in."
Thomas said while some pedestrians are not paying attention to their surroundings, it is not something she blames them for.
"These are young people, it is our job to safeguard them, it is our job to create systems by which they can safely cross streets and not be have a hyper amount of vigilance like I have to do," said Thomas. "People want to send their children here and know that their children are going to come home for the holidays, they're going to see their grandchildren again. If the situation is left as it is, that could not happen."
In their release announcing the study, the city said it was committed to improving traffic safety throughout the city and Thomas said she hoped the city would follow through with that.
"Now it's time for city leadership," Thomas said. "Take the ball and run with it and protect us and frankly, make the city as vibrant, interesting, profitable as it can possibly be."
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