The Pedestrian-Death Crisis Came to My Neighborhood

Nina Larson was one more pedestrian struck and killed in a city—and a country—where that happens all the time.

A pedestrian crossing sign
The Atlantic

Nina Larson was 24 years old, and she wanted to be an opera singer. On Saturday afternoon, she was crushed by a car on the street outside my apartment building in Washington, D.C. My neighbor heard the sound of the accident from her sixth-floor window, and the driver’s horrified screams. Nina was trapped for a while, according to police reports, before emergency workers were able to free her from the car’s underbelly. I witnessed only the aftermath—the detectives’ chalk analysis on the pavement, the flowers piling up outside the nearby restaurant where Nina was a server. On Sunday, local news stories announced that Nina had died of her injuries at the hospital. Many of those stories featured the same photo of a lump of black fabric, presumably Nina’s coat, lying in the middle of the road.

This is the part that I cannot stop thinking about: the fact that Nina’s life, in all its human complexity, was in a matter of hours reduced to a handful of images—an old Facebook profile photo, a strand of yellow caution tape, an abandoned jacket. The horrible reality is that, for the people who did not know her, Nina Larson will be remembered as one more pedestrian struck and killed in a city where it happens all the time, in a country where it happens all the time. Data from the Governors Highway Safety Association suggest that American drivers struck and killed more than 6,700 pedestrians last year, a number unmatched in this century. The rate at which drivers kill pedestrians surged by 21 percent from 2019 to 2020, the largest annual increase on record.

It’s still not clear exactly how or why the driver hit Nina that afternoon—did she simply not see her? Was Nina in the crosswalk, or somewhere else in the street? But I’ve almost been hit in the same place, at Columbia Road and Biltmore Street, approximately 100 times. The intersection comes right after a stoplight, and Columbia doesn’t have a stop sign or a speed bump. Cars zoom through at unbelievable speeds, despite the fact that the area is packed with shoppers and restaurant-goers at all hours of the day. “This was not an accident. This was someone making the choice to drive recklessly, and they killed my beautiful girl,” Nina’s mother, Matilde Larson, told The Washington Post.

My neighborhood isn’t unique. So far this year, 15 pedestrians have been killed by drivers in the nation’s capital, and total traffic fatalities are up to 37—the highest number since 2008. This is all despite Mayor Muriel Bowser’s goal to end traffic deaths by 2024 as part of the Vision Zero program signed on to by leaders of D.C. and other major U.S. cities. The District Department of Transportation has made some changes to protect walkers and cyclists, such as reducing speed limits and installing more bike lanes. Ironically, total traffic fatalities have increased steadily since the program began. (Bowser did not respond to requests for comment.)

The same trend is reflected in cities across America. Part of the increase in pedestrian deaths is probably because our vehicles are bigger than ever. “Our pickup trucks and SUVs are gigantic compared to the sizes they used to be,” giving drivers less visibility and a greater sense of security, which makes them more aggressive on the road, says Rohit Aggarwala, a fellow at the Urban Tech Hub at Cornell Tech and the former director of long-term planning and sustainability for New York City. During the pandemic’s early days, as fewer Americans drove to work or school, it seemed safe to assume that fewer pedestrians would die. Instead, fatalities have jumped. Conclusive research isn’t out yet, but the increase is likely at least in part due to a drop in traffic congestion and an ensuing increase in speed:People were still walking around their neighborhoods during lockdown, and you had a [small] number of people on the streets driving very, very fast,” Aggarwala told me. Older adults, people walking in low-income areas, and Black and Native Americans are all overrepresented in pedestrian-death statistics.

Most pedestrian deaths are preventable, and experts believe that the solutions are straightforward. Aggarwala and his team at Cornell Tech are pushing for three major changes to America’s driving infrastructure: more robust traffic-camera enforcement, to capture not just speeding but all kinds of moving violations; road redesign that would decrease lane size and add speed bumps to nudge drivers to slow down; and finally, upping the standards for vehicle safety. Car manufacturers in Europe are required to test cars for pedestrian impact; they design hoods to slope downward so that drivers can see anyone who might wander into the road. American automakers could do the same, or add pedestrian-detection systems or speed limiters to cars. Many of these changes would not only make roads safer for pedestrians but also could reduce police violence at the same time. “The U.S. hasn’t considered any of this,” Aggarwala said. “We have a tradition of focusing on vehicle safety as only being about the occupant.”

On the corner where Nina was killed this weekend, someone erected a cardboard sign reading STOP FOR NINA in spray paint. Last night, friends held a vigil for her there, next to the restaurant and its shrine of flowers, candles, and other assorted tokens of love. It’s strange, the way we so often choose to honor victims of tragedy—by reducing them to the corner where they died, the place they worked, or a 1,000-word article for a magazine. Nina Larson’s life was much bigger than the circumstances of her death. A better honor would be to make sure that no more lives end the same way hers did.