A newly arrived St. Thomas resident attempts to cross Veterans Drive about 10 o’clock one night and is struck and killed by a car.
On St. Croix, a middle-aged man walking on the side of the road in Estate Ratan is the victim of a hit and run driver.
A motorist pulls off the Queen Mary Highway, gets out of his vehicle, tries to cross the roadway and is struck and killed by a passing car.
On the East End of St. Thomas, a driver loses control of his vehicle, veers across a lane, and strikes and kills a man walking along Brookman Road.
The Virgin Islands clearly deals with its fair share of tragic accidents involving pedestrians. Those mentioned above are just a few fatalities from recent years.
Even more indicative of safety concerns may be the total number of accidents involving pedestrians, not just those that end in deaths, with 1,102 pedestrian-related accidents occurring in the past 12 years; that averages to 91 per year. St. Thomas had far more pedestrian-related accidents than St. Croix, 669 compared to 387. The much smaller St. John reported 48.
These statistics drive Daphne O’Neal to action. As the director of the USVI Office of Highway Safety, it is her job to try to lower them, and to do that, she tries to look for patterns. Are there areas that appear more prone to accidents than others? Does driver or pedestrian behavior contribute to the potential for accidents?
“Anywhere there’s a lot of activity,” there will be the increased likelihood of accidents, O’Neal said. And “being a tourist-oriented place,” the Virgin Islands is peppered with areas where people tend to congregate.
From the time the VI Office of Highway Safety began keeping statistics in 2008 through the end of 2019, 40 pedestrian fatalities have occurred on territory roads, putting the territory on the high side of national statistics.
Unfortunately, exact comparisons remain difficult. The federal Office of Highway Safety keeps tabs on all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, but it does not include other territories.
In 2016, the most recent date for statistics posted on its website, the federal office shows the national average (states and D.C., but excluding Puerto Rico) for pedestrian deaths as 1.85 per population of 100,000.
Looking just at 2016, the rate in the Virgin Islands, with its population of roughly 100,000, compares favorably with the national average; there was only one fatality in the territory in that year, according to statistics from the local office. But with such a small population, annual averages can be misleading. A more reliable rate for the Virgin Islands may be an average over the past 12 years since the local office began keeping its own records. And that rate is 3.3, well above the national average.
Critics point to weaknesses in the territory’s infrastructure, specifically inadequate lighting in some areas and a general paucity of crosswalks, sidewalks and other pedestrian accommodations as contributing to a general lack of safety in the territory.
The fact that St. Thomas regularly hosts more tourists than St. Croix might partially explain the higher numbers of pedestrian accidents listed for St. Thomas, along with visitors’ unfamiliarity with their surroundings. “If we had more sidewalks, especially in the town areas, I think it would help,” O’Neal said. Secondly, those sidewalks would need to be wider than many of the existing ones because vehicles are getting wider.
O’Neal also cited human errors and omissions as a major cause of accidents.
“This is just my opinion,” O’Neal stressed, but she said she believes many pedestrian-vehicle accidents result from a lack of attention; either the driver or the pedestrian, or both, is distracted in some way.
Then there are those who are not merely distracted, but who knowingly commit infractions. Again, this may be a driver who is texting, speeding, or drinking or a pedestrian who steps into a heavily trafficked roadway, expecting cars to give way.
“In the territory, the jay-walking laws are really not enforced, and we have a lot of jay-walking,” O’Neal said. Figures she provided, based on VI Superior Court records, show jay-walking tickets are nil.
Last year, on St. Thomas and St. Croix, 55 tickets were issued for distracted driving, 12 for speeding and just one for jay-walking. In fact, over the last five years, no jay-walking tickets were recorded for St. Croix and only three for St. Thomas. Other categories all stand as high or higher than for 2019.
“The easiest fix is the visibility of police,” O’Neal said. “Any time that enforcement is visible, there will be a reduction” in infractions. And a reduction in infractions should translate into a reduction in accidents.
Pedestrian safety is just one part of O’Neal’s mandates. The Office of Highway Safety conducts public awareness campaigns on a range of issues, including seat belt usage, bicycle safety, speeding, and the dangers of distracted driving.