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On a Sunday last November, Chinese exchange student Yao Lu finished a day of shopping and grabbed dinner with friends at the Galleria Market in Northridge.
Her friends dropped her off at the University Shopping Center, about a mile and a half south of the Galleria on Reseda Boulevard at Nordhoff Street not far from CSUN, where Lu was studying in the Intensive English Program (IEP). Lu then walked back to her off-campus apartment.
As Lu was steps away from reaching the northeast corner of Reseda Boulevard and Vincennes Street, she made eye contact with a man driving what witnesses later described as a gray or silver four-door sedan, the student later told Bessie Karras-Lazaris, academic director of IEP. The art major, who was using a marked crosswalk, saw the driver long enough to notice his blue eyes, the pattern on his Bluetooth headset and how his hair fell on the sides of his head, all of which Lu was able to later sketch for Karras-Lazaris.
Though their eyes met, the man – who was on his cell phone – hit the student, throwing her three feet into the air, said Karras-Lazaris, who knew Lu well and frequently visited her while she recovered in the hospital. The camera she was wearing across her body was destroyed (Lu later told her adviser it might have protected her from further injuries), and her purse and its contents were strewn onto the sidewalk and street. Had it not been for the CSUN ID card in her pocket, Lu’s identity might not have been known in time for her friends to find her at Northridge Hospital, where she would spend eight days in a coma. The unidentified driver left the scene of the crime and despite a police sketch of his face and a $50,000 reward, he has not been found, according to Detective James Deaton of LAPD Devonshire.
Lu is not the only pedestrian who has suffered injuries or faced death in marked crosswalks near the busy 356-acre CSUN campus, where a close to 36,000 students attend and about 4,000 faculty and staff work.
In 2009 alone, 10 pedestrians were killed in motor vehicle accidents in the San Fernando Valley – including two in accidents adjacent to the campus. Victoria Santos, 60, died when she was hit by a car as she crossed Zelzah Avenue at Lassen Street in early March. Another CSUN student, 19-year-old Johoney Lobos, died when she was struck by a vehicle as she crossed Lindley Avenue near Devonshire Boulevard. The motorist was arrested and charged with driving under the influence in the late afternoon crash.
Research by student journalists found all three of those intersections were among some of the highest accident-prone intersections near the university. Of the roughly 50 intersections located near the campus, the highest-risk intersections include Reseda Boulevard and Devonshire Street – where 33-year-old Olivia Almalel was left paralyzed after a Christmas day hit-and-run, Lindley Avenue and Devonshire Street (where Lobos was killed), Zelzah Avenue and Lassen Street (where Santos was killed), Reseda and Nordhoff Street, and Reseda and Vincennes Street (where Lu was seriously injured).
Despite statistics that show pedestrian fatalities are decreasing as a whole in the state of California, accidents and deaths are on the rise on the streets near CSUN. In the San Fernando Valley alone, 1,000 people have reported being hit by a vehicle since 2006, according to the Los Angeles Police Department Valley Bureau.
From 2006 to 2007, national statistics from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) show pedestrian fatalities decreased by roughly 3 percent. The DOT also found 11 percent of motor vehicle fatalities were pedestrians, and that a pedestrian is injured in a traffic accident every eight minutes.
In California, the state’s Office of Traffic Safety found that pedestrian fatalities are at a record low since the federal government began keeping track in 1975. The accidents dropped by 11 percent from 2006 to 2007 and bicycle fatalities decreased by 23 percent during the same period.
The statewide findings, however, are a sharp contradiction of the rise in fatal pedestrian accidents in the CSUN area, student journalists uncovered.
Though there was a 19 percent overall decrease in pedestrian and motor vehicle accidents in the San Fernando Valley since 2008, accidents in the area near CSUN have increased 47 percent compared to last year, according to data compiled by the Los Angeles Police Department’s Valley Traffic Division. Additionally, their records show a 25 percent increase in the Devonshire division – which encompasses the university – for motor vehicle and pedestrian accidents from January 2008 to January 2009. The Valley Bureau also includes the Van Nuys, West Valley, North Hollywood, Foothill, Mission and Topanga stations.
Student journalists found that of 119 pedestrian and/or bicycle and motor vehicle-related accidents reported to the Devonshire division from 2006 to 2008, 48 percent resulted from drivers who were at fault for not yielding to pedestrians or cyclists, while 26 percent of those accidents were determined to be the fault of bicyclists or pedestrians. Even more alarming is the rise in cyclists getting hit – there was a 66 percent increase from 2007 to 2008. The rise in accidents could be explained by the increase of people getting out of their cars and commuting by bike as a result of unpredictable and fluctuating gas prices, but the fact remains that cyclists and pedestrians alike face growing risks using the Valley’s streets. And in spite of the growing number of accidents, the city voted to increase Zelzah Avenue’s speed limits – a street where several pedestrians have died and where two high schools are located.