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‘Pedestrian Safety Zones’ could become Nevada’s next school zones


By April Corbin Girnus
This story was originally published by Nevada Current.

Every year, dozens of people are killed trying to cross Nevada roadways.

A new concept hopes to reduce those numbers. It’s called a pedestrian safety zone. They are designed to reduce driving speeds and raise driver awareness in areas where people are at a higher risk of being struck and killed in collisions with motor vehicles.

The City of Reno established Nevada’s first pedestrian safety zone this week, following its approval by city council in late May. If successful, traffic safety advocates believe pedestrian safety zones will begin to appear in other parts of the state, including Clark County, which has a high rate of pedestrian fatalities.

At a media event Tuesday, City of Reno workers installed the ‘pedestrian safety zone’ and 20 mph signage at the intersection of Lake and Fourth streets, which connects the Regional Transportation Commission’s downtown transit hub, the National Bowling Stadium and the Reno Events Center. Road striping emphasizing the newly lowered speed zone is expected to be installed in the near future.

Pedestrian safety zones come with higher fines and stricter punishments for 23 traffic violations, similar to what drivers are familiar with in school zones or construction zones. Enforcement is expected to begin after a brief ‘grace period’ to allow drivers to get used to the new changes.

“The overall hope is over time they’ll become similar to — and people will treat them the same as — school zones,” says Reno Police Department Lt. Michael Browett, who oversees the traffic division. “You see a school zone, there’s an automatic ‘you’d better slow down.’ That’s the idea.”

After 12 months, each pedestrian safety zone must be reevaluated with updated data. If collision outcomes have improved to the point where the area no longer meets the pedestrian safety zone requirements set in statute, it would be removed with the hope that driver habits have been permanently changed. If outcomes don’t improve, the zone could be left in place.

The concept of a pedestrian safety zone was established by the Nevada State Legislature in 2015, but Browett says it took years to align Reno’s municipal code to allow for its implementation.

Traffic safety advocates say it’s common for one municipality or group to take ownership of a new concept and pave the way for others. Meaning that, with the red tape figured out in Reno, it should now be easier for other Nevada municipalities to establish their own pedestrian safety zones.

“Now that the first one has launched, look for many more, including in Southern Nevada,” said Erin Breen, the director of the Vulnerable Road Users Project at UNLV and a member of the statewide task force that recommended the pedestrian safety zone legislation to the Legislature. “We’ve been talking about them with many folks for years. … I believe it was better to get one launched as the example.”

A heat map of crashes in Reno, with the area of highest severity boxed in yellow.
A heat map of crashes in Reno, with the area of highest severity boxed in yellow. The map was used to analyze the best places to implement new pedestrian safety zones. Image: Reno Police Department

Adds Browett, “No doubt we would hope others would be reaching out to start these things in their own jurisdictions.”

Two other pedestrian safety zones have already been approved by Reno City Council — one on East Sixth Street from Center to Record streets, and another on Sierra Street from Third to Ridge streets.

Adrienne Packer, a spokesperson for the Nevada Department of Transportation, which must approve the creation of any pedestrian safety zone, said there are “no concrete plans in the near future” for any pedestrian safety zones outside of Washoe County.

“We are going to monitor the new safety zone in Reno to see how effective it is,” she added. “We are certainly very interested in bringing this concept to Southern Nevada.”

A spokesperson for the City of Las Vegas said its transportation division is “familiar” with the concept and looking into implementing them as part of its overall Pedestrian Safety Master Plan, which includes 83 active and dozens more proposed projects such as crosswalk improvements and pedestrian flashers.

Patrick Walker, a spokesperson for North Las Vegas, said the city isn’t working on pedestrian safety zones but is “always evaluating new ways to improve safety for all road users.” Walker noted the city sponsored a bill during the 2021 Legislative Session to change the penalty for vehicular manslaughter from a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor, but that bill did not pass.

Representatives from Clark County, Henderson, and Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department did not respond to requests for comment by publication time.

In 2015, during committee hearings for the bill that established pedestrian safety zones, state lawmakers highlighted what was then a 350% increase in pedestrian fatalities in Clark County during the first quarter of that year.

Two years later, in 2017, Nevada would report its highest number of pedestrian deaths — 91 people in one year. An additional 193 pedestrians were seriously injured that year, according to the 2021 Nevada Strategic Highway Safety Plan.

Last year, 83 pedestrians were killed in Nevada. The majority — 62 people — were in Clark Clark.

Nevada is currently on track to match that fatality total this year, according to the most recent data available from the Nevada Department of Traffic Safety. As of May 31, 35 pedestrians had died across the state.

A national advocacy group recently ranked Nevada 11th in the nation for pedestrian fatalities.

Browett says one important facet of the 2015 pedestrian safety zone law is its reliance on data over individual tragedies that might garner the most public attention, such as a child being struck and killed in a collision.

“What legislators didn’t want, and what DOT didn’t want, was these zones going up everywhere,” he says. “As easy as it is to emotionally react to a terrible tragedy, they didn’t want this to be a knee-jerk reaction. While it’s unfortunate if a child got struck, it doesn’t justify the zone if it’s a one off at an intersection. They really wanted the focus to be data driven.”

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