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VCU student death highlights worsening pedestrian fatalities trend in Richmond. How can the city fix it?

Posted at 6:45 PM, Jan 30, 2023

RICHMOND, Va. -- Some students at Virginia Commonwealth University said they were on high alert Monday after the death of 22-year-old VCU student Mahrokh Khan who was hit and killed by a driver on campus last week.

Police said Khan was hit on Friday just before 9 a.m. at the intersection of West Main Street and Laurel Street, which is located by Monroe Park and a student dormitory. According to Richmond Police, the circumstances surrounding the collision were still under investigation as of Monday afternoon and the driver has not been charged.

CBS 6 spoke with several students at that intersection Monday who raised safety concerns about the area and some who said they've had their own close calls with drivers.

“Some of the time, the cars be driving by too fast," one student said.

“There are the times people just like to go speeding and I kind of just want to flip them off," another student said.

One student said she believed the students "are the problem," because they cross the street when it's not safe.

“If we don't see any cars coming, then we'll just walk, but nine times out of 10, there is a car coming, so we just take the chance," she said.

A fourth student said the intersection where Khan was fatally hit is "pretty bad," because cars have a green light while pedestrians simultaneously have a walking signal at the crosswalk.

"You have to go at the same time, and when it's class change time and there's 200 people walking down the street, people get impatient," he said.

In an interview with CBS 6, VCU Police Chief John Venuti said he was devastated by what happened to Khan.

“I think parents send their kids to college and assume that they're going to be safe, and in this in this situation, that didn't happen," Venuti said.

Venuti said last week, one million cars passed through the Monroe Park campus. Since the campus is comprised of VCU property and city streets, he said the university must collaborate with the Richmond City government to make the area safer through traffic calming initiatives.

“The city has made a lot of enhancements on the VCU campus to include pedestrian head starts at the crosswalks, and that is an evidence-based approach to ensure that drivers can see pedestrians in the crosswalk, and it actually gives the pedestrian a little head start into the intersection," he said. "High visibility crosswalks are another really important aspect, and we're in constant dialogue and partnership with the City of Richmond."

Venuti, who also serves as Chair of the quarterly VCU-city infrastructure meeting, said a recent safety perception survey showed the number one concern among VCU students was pedestrian safety.

He said some other measures that VCU Police focus on to promote pedestrian safety center around traffic and parking enforcement.

“Traffic enforcement is one piece of the puzzle. Traffic enforcement alone is not going to make VCU a safe campus. I think we focus on parking. A lot of times vehicles that are improperly parked obstruct vision of pedestrians," he said. "We focus on parking issues as well as speed initiatives."

Across Richmond, at least 24 people were killed in crashes last year, according to data provided on the city's Vision Zero dashboard, which is the highest number since 2015. At least eight of the 24 were pedestrians.

Vision Zero is a global program the city launched in an effort to promote safety on the roads and decrease traffic fatalities. However, Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch, whose 5th district includes VCU, said the city underfunds the program.

“We’re doing $200,000 a year. I think we are going to need to invest more than that clearly," Lynch said.

Lynch estimated the city has more than $5 million worth of pending requests for traffic calming measures such as bump-outs, speed tables, and traffic lights. However, she said the requests have been on a backlog, and more funding is necessary to clear them.

The councilwoman, who has seen two pedestrian fatalities in her district in the past four months, also continues to push to lower the citywide speed limit for residential areas from 25 mph to 20 mph. Lynch said she'd also like to see the city establish a department of transportation.

"If we had that kind of champion internally day in, day out, that was connecting, not only the law enforcement side, but the community side to raise public awareness... I think that would help us make some remarkable progress," she said.

But Lynch said the city alone cannot solve all pedestrian safety issues. She believes poor driving behaviors are at the heart of the problem.

"Probably 60%, if not a greater portion of actually fixing this issue, is the cultural shift that we need to have as a city and as commuters," she said. "We have got to slow down. We have to obey. When we put the infrastructure in, when there are stoplights and hybrid pedestrian beacons, when the road is narrow, we've got to slow down, and we've got to pay attention.”

Venuti echoed a similar sentiment.

"There's obviously an obligation on drivers when they're operating motor vehicles to pay attention, follow traffic laws, follow traffic signals, follow speed limits. There's an obligation for cyclists to do the same, ensuring that they're following all of the traffic laws," Venuti said. "And I think for pedestrians, being aware of the environment around you and observing all of the traffic and pedestrian signs and signals, is really, really important. This is a shared responsibility."

However, Brantley Tyndall, Director of Sports Backers' advocacy program Bike Walk RVA, said improved infrastructure is the clear answer to crack down on bad driving and protect pedestrians.

"People who are killed walking in dense urban environments are saved because traffic calming has been built around them," Tyndall said. "We really want to avoid these traps of blaming one person against the other and really, if we want to save lives, we have to do it by changing how our streets are engineered."

In fact, Tyndall said he believes a raised crosswalk at the intersection of Laurel and West Main could've impacted the crash involving Khan. He said the measure is designed to make pedestrians more visible and force drivers to comply with safe speed.

Analyzing data provided by the DMV last year, Tyndall found that more than half of pedestrian fatalities in the Richmond region involved people over the age of 50.

"What's changing is not that they are suddenly more likely to jaywalk, or more likely to do something totally erratic as a pedestrian. What's changing is there are more and faster and sort of less predictable drivers," he said.

CBS 6 requested an interview from the city's Department of Public Works Monday to discuss their Vision Zero efforts and did not hear back.

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