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NM’s Surge in Pedestrian Deaths Has Parents & Teachers Divided On Bike to School Programs

@Freddy via Flickr | Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Programs of a different kind are sprouting all across New Mexico’s education system with one singular goal in mind– encouraging kids to get to class by walking or biking. 

But, as KSFR’s Bryce Dix reports, advocates, teachers, and parents are divided on how truly safe it is to let our kids bike the streets.

One of these programs is piloted by the Nina Otero Community School and El Camino Real Academy in Santa Fe. This summer, kids enrolled in the schools were offered bike safety classes to prepare them to safely bike to school for fall classes. 

But, these programs come at a dangerous time to be any sort of pedestrian on New Mexican roadways. 

A recent Governors Highway Safety Association report ranked the state of New Mexico as having one of the highest pedestrian fatality rates in the country back in 2019– with 4 in every 100,000 people dying on our roadways. That trend continued in the first six months of 2020, with 2.12 deaths per 100,000. 

However, even with this overwhelming data, some biking advocates are adamant about having more kids, and really more people, bike and walk all over the city. 

“I really want to encourage my son, my friends, the people that I live around to feel empowered to use their roadways. It really helps people do the things that they really enjoy at a very visceral level. That’s something I want my son to grow up feeling like he can do– that he doesn’t need to get in a car to go someplace. I want him to feel some power in his own volition in being able to get himself where he needs to go.”

That’s Lee Anne Ratzlaff. She’s an avid cyclist and advocate for Albuquerque’s Vision Zero initiative, which was established by the city to combat pedestrian fatalities. She told me the driving habits of New Mexicans is a big part of the issue here.    

“People want to walk. People want to bike. People want to be out on their streets in a way that keeps them connected to each other, to their families, to their friends, to the people that live around them. And, people don’t because they don’t feel safe.”

Not only are we one of the most dangerous places to ride a bike to work or walk to a coffee shop, but we have some of the most distracted drivers in all of the country. 

According to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, New Mexico once again ranked #1 in the nation for the most traffic fatalities involving distracted driving in 2019– think texting, calling, and using hands-free devices while on the road. 

So, I began to wonder, as you might as well, why Ratzlaff was so persistent in having people walk or bike on roadways.

“We’re not going to improve the safety on our roadways if we’re not participating in them, if we’re not walking on them, if we’re not biking on them. If everybody’s always just driving, then we’re not going to see any change. The way we get safer streets is by people using the roadways in a variety of ways.” 

Makes sense. However, not everyone agrees with her. 

Thea McCollum is a single mother of a hearing impaired daughter in Santa Fe. 

When we talked, she explained that, in her situation, it’s not a simple task to get her kid to school. Dangerous train tracks and multiple busy intersections stand in between their home and the school’s campus. Plus, add in the fact that she’s a single, working mom. Mccollum tells me she recently tried to send her daughter to school alone once, and she got lost and disoriented while walking back.

“And I’m afraid we’re not going to be able to get a bus because we’re within a mile [of school]. It’s totally unreasonable to expect them to walk over there or ride their bikes.”  

McCollum took a minute to think. 

To her, it’s more about a family’s privilege when we decide to let kids walk or bike to school– you know, those things like wealth, location, infrastructure, distance, and health that vary from family to family. And, she added that no school program can fundamentally change this reality of life we all live with.

And that, some teachers would have to agree with. 

“My whole thing is distance. Where do kids live? How do they get to school? I know it’s great to have our kids being healthy, to be exercising. But, we also have to consider, first and foremost, if it’s safe for them to get to school on foot or on bike.” 

That’s the voice of Christine Velazquez. She’s a public school teacher based in Albuquerque’s Old Town. But, she tells me that  crime also plays a large role in this conversation.

“We have a high crime rate in the city of Albuquerque. I think it would be foolish for anyone to think that’s not a factor and that could affect our kid’s safety if we choose to have them walking to school or riding their bikes.” 

Velazquez says that most of the kids in her community walk to school, not bike. 

“Our community here is very diverse, even when you’re talking financially it’s very diverse.So, it could be a possibility of not having the bike or could be a possibility that parents literally don’t want their kids taking the risk of riding their bike to school and either get it stolen maybe or not getting to school safely. You know, we do have some certain areas on their walk to school that do have sidewalks and some don’t.”

But, cyclist and advocate Lee Ann Ratzlaff points out it’s more important to step back and look at the big picture of pedestrian safety in the state. Here she is again. 

“Yes we have a lot of pedestrians dying. Yes we have a lot of bicyclists dying. But, how many people are killed while they are driving?  And if there’s no alcohol involved, if there are no drugs involved, there are very, very few examples of anyone getting any sort of consequence for that. They don’t go to jail. They don’t pay a fine. There’s nothing.”

Just this week, on August 27th, the Associated Press reported that South Dakota’s Attorney General (Yeah, the person who is quite literally the top legal officer for the area) will not serve any jail time for a crash he caused that killed a pedestrian. 

It’s examples like this, Ratzlaff said, that makes her blood boil. So, I asked her how we can stop all this unnecessary death from happening in the first place. 

“Slow down! Slooooooooow Dooooooown! Stop driving so fast across the board. If people just slowed down, we would see a fundamental shift in our entire driving culture. There’s a huge amount of work that needs to be done with regards to infrastructure and changing the way that our system is designed. We don’t have the political power. We don’t have the money."

"But, unfortunately, we live in an extremely individualistic society and if people don’t take responsibility for making the roadways safer by taking personal and individual change, and letting more vulnerable road users have the right of way, then we won’t see any meaningful change on our streets.”    

That driving culture she mentioned? It’s prevalent in our state.

Known as the low-rider capital of the world, New Mexico has an active car culture that revolves around the historic Route 66, car shows, those low-riders I was talking about… And these are things that make New Mexico, New Mexican.

I’m not saying these are the reasons so many pedestrians are scared to walk their streets, but maybe we should take Ratzlaff’s advice and exchange those keys for some pedals and a handlebar to experience what the real issues on New Mexico’s roadways are.

Then, we might see some change on our roadways.

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