Walking in downtown Chicago? Beware the taxicabs
BY TINA SFONDELES AND CHRIS FUSCO Staff Reporters September 3, 2012 7:44PM
Number of pedestrians killed for every 100,000 people in Chicago.
Of 15 large U.S. cities, Chicago has the fifth-lowest pedestrian death rate, behind Boston, Seattle, San Jose and San Diego. New York ranks 6th, Houston 8th and Los Angeles 11th.
3 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Time that most pedestrian crashes occur in Chicago. Thursdays have the most pedestrian crashes; Saturdays the fewest.
Percentage of pedestrian crashes in Chicago that occurred
at intersections between 2005 and 2009. Nationwide,
46 percent of crashes occur at intersections.
15 to 18
Age range of pedestrians most likely to be struck by
drivers in Chicago.
Pedestrian deaths nationwide in 2009, 12 percent of the people
killed in traffic crashes that year.
Pedestrian injuries nationwide in 2009.
Pedestrian deaths in Illinois in 2009, 12 percent of the people
killed in traffic crashes statewide that year.
Pedestrian injuries in Illinois in 2009.
Sources: Chicago Department of Transportation, Illinois Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
Updated: October 5, 2012 6:03AM
Beth Dugan locked eyes with the cabdriver as she walked through a crosswalk just outside the Loop.
He was turning left, to head north onto Desplaines, as she walked west along Lake.
“You look at the cabdriver, and you think he sees you,” Dugan says. “I looked at him. And then he accelerated into me.”
Dugan, then 33, bounced off the taxi’s hood and landed in the intersection near a gutter.
She was rushed to the emergency room, where doctors told her nothing was broken. But two days later, she learned she needed surgery as quickly as possible because her left Achilles tendon had ruptured.
After six months wearing a boot and getting around with a walker, she finally could walk on her own. She still has scars on her ankle — a reminder of the 2008 crash.
“It’ll never be the same,” Dugan says of her foot. “It just feels tight. I healed very well and I had an amazing surgeon, but it’s just never going to be the same.”
Dugan is among more than 3,100 pedestrians injured in traffic crashes since 2005 in and near downtown Chicago, according to Chicago Department of Transportation figures. More than 400 of those walkers, nearly 13 percent, suffered fatal or “incapacitating” injuries, such as broken bones, that kept them from continuing their trips.
In the Loop and on the Near North Side — the city’s central business district — one out of every four pedestrian crashes involved a taxi, according to CDOT’s 2011 Pedestrian Crash Analysis report.
Last month alone, 11 pedestrians died in crashes citywide — an unusually high number given that there have been fewer than 35 pedestrians a year killed in crashes throughout the city in the past three years.
Among them was Eric J. Kerestes, 30, an engineer and University of Chicago business school graduate student who died the morning of Aug. 14 after an out-of-control taxicab struck him as he waited for a bus near Chicago and Milwaukee.
The taxi, which seriously injured two other pedestrians, had no mechanical defects, police have found. But officers from the Major Accidents Investigation Unit have acknowledged “vehicles may malfunction for a split second,” police spokeswoman Melissa Stratton says. No charges have been filed.
So far this year, there have been 31 pedestrian fatalities in Chicago, putting the city on pace to have its highest number of pedestrian traffic fatalities since 2008.
Not surprisingly, the greatest percentage of pedestrian crashes in Chicago, 12 percent, happened in the Loop and on the Near North Side between 2005 and 2009, according to city and state records.
In the five highest-crash areas within downtown, more than half the pedestrians were hit while walking through crosswalks with the walk signal — which was the case with Dugan. That likely means drivers weren’t paying attention to them.
Twenty-eight percent of pedestrian crashes in the central business district involved taxis, according to CDOT’s 2011 Pedestrian Crash Analysis report. Outside downtown, taxis in Chicago were involved in only two percent of pedestrian crashes.
In January, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the City Council beefed up safety standards for Chicago cabs in hopes of improving safety and service. The reforms included limiting cabdrivers to no more than 12 consecutive hours behind the wheel each day and lowering the maximum number of miles allowed on a new taxi from 150,000 to 75,000 to keep older taxis off the road. The mileage limit is being phased in and will be fully in place by 2014.
“The new 12-hour work rules are in place for the safety of all Chicagoans, the drivers, passengers and pedestrians,” says Jennifer Lipford, spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection. “Research clearly demonstrates that accidents increase dramatically after 12 hours on the road.”
It’s too early to tell whether those reforms are affecting the number of cab crashes.
Still, “you can definitely see that there is a high incidence of reckless driving by taxis,” says CDOT Commissioner Gabe Klein, Emanuel’s top transportation official. “That does not mean that all taxi drivers are bad or not following the rules. . . . But these are licensed professional drivers by the city and, as such, they need to be actually setting an example for how to drive versus setting a bad example.”
George Lutfallah, a Chicago cabbie who publishes the Chicago Dispatcher taxi-industry newspaper and website, says the new 12-hour driving limit for cabbies might not be a panacea. That’s because some cabbies are working their 12 hours and then tackling other jobs between shifts to make ends meet.
“If you restrict the number of hours a person can work without increasing their pay rate, there’s only two ways I can think of that will bring them the same revenue,” Lutfallah says. “They can work more aggressively in that shorter time span, which isn’t good for public safety, or they can take another job, in which case they will not be properly rested and will still be a threat to public safety.”
The solution, Lutfallah and other cabdrivers say, would be the City Council hiking taxi fares for the first time since 2005.
Though City Hall made permanent as of July 1 a $1-per-trip fuel surcharge to offset high gas prices, cabdrivers say that’s been offset by more expensive cab-leasing fees — including costlier rates that apply to newer, more fuel-efficient taxis.
“If there is a causal relationship between taxicabs and pedestrian fatalities, driver income is likely a contributing factor,” Lutfallah says.
Lipford says the city’s data shows the shift to cleaner and more fuel-efficient vehicles will increase a driver’s take-home pay. She says experts estimate that moving from a Ford Crown Victoria to newer cab can save $38 a day, with $21 of that going to the driver.
Citywide, pedestrian deaths have declined steadily since 2002, when 69 pedestrians were killed. In the past 10 years, 553 pedestrians have died in Chicago, including 35 last year.
What’s changed? The city began installing countdown timers on walk-don’t walk signals in 2006. The timers now are at more than 1,000 of the city’s 3,000 signalized intersections.
There’s also a growing number of “leading pedestrian intervals,” which give walkers a three-second jumpstart to begin crossing a street before traffic moving in the same direction gets a green light. The intervals, which the city began using about three years ago, are at nearly 150 locations, with some put in place because of proximity to schools and senior centers, as well as at intersections with high crash rates and pedestrian volumes.
“Pedestrian refuge islands” — waiting areas midway through huge intersections that allow pedestrians to get halfway across — are more prevalent, too. Several were recently added during the rebuilding of Congress Parkway.
CDOT officials also meet regularly with the police department to discuss crash trends.
“We’re . . . targeting particular police districts where we have a lot of crashes so that police in these districts can be aware of this and be considerate when they are doing their patrolling,” CDOT Deputy Commissioner Luann Hamilton says.