Hostile Territory for Travel by Foot

Along much of the Fairfax County's roadways is a no-man's land of missing sidewalks and dirt paths.
Along much of the Fairfax County's roadways is a no-man's land of missing sidewalks and dirt paths. (James M Thresher - James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)
By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Saturday afternoon outings were one of Halimo Abdi's last links with the world she knew. Driven from Somalia by civil war, she endured a refugee's life in Kenya and Egypt before coming to Baileys Crossroads with her children in 1999.

Weekdays in her fifth-floor apartment on South George Mason Drive were difficult, her son Abdul Jama said. Abdi, 66, knew little English and was uncomfortable using the telephone. The long blocks and wide streets, lined with glass-sheathed high-rises, made it a challenge to get around. In that way, at least, Mogadishu was easier.

"She missed talking to people freely the way she did back home," Jama said.

But on Saturdays she joined a small group of Somali women in a townhouse on Columbia Pike. They read the Koran, traded stories, enjoyed each other's company. Early on the evening of Jan. 28, Abdi began the one-mile trek home, crossing busy Leesburg Pike (Route 7) around 6:18 p.m.

Witnesses told police that Abdi, dressed in dark clothing, was in the crosswalk but walking against the light when she reached the three eastbound lanes. Traffic in the first two lanes halted, but before she reached the curb, a 2000 Dodge Caravan, traveling under the 35 mph speed limit, killed her instantly. Police said the driver will not be charged.

Walking is by far the most dangerous form of travel in America, according to federal accident data, and that is especially true in Fairfax County. Along much of its 2,700 miles of roadways, designed to channel torrents of commuter traffic, is a no-man's land of missing sidewalks, shabby grass and dirt paths, and unregulated intersections.

"Too often, roads come first," said Supervisor Catherine M. Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill).

They come at a price. Over the last four years, 48 pedestrians have died in traffic accidents in Fairfax -- comprising 21 percent of the county's total traffic fatalities. That is nearly twice the national rate of 11.4 percent, as calculated by the Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP), a privately funded group in Washington that studied national accident data from 1994 through 2003. Using federal data, the group calculated that the fatality rate per 100 million miles traveled for walkers is almost 20 times higher than for motor vehicle drivers.

Fairfax recorded its second pedestrian casualty of the year this month when Thomas Edward Hope, 48, died from injuries sustained while crossing the 7400 block of Little River Turnpike near Annandale Road in the early evening on Feb. 3. Neither alcohol nor speed was a factor in the accident, police said, and no charges have been filed against the driver.

Nationally, pedestrian deaths overall declined nearly 13 percent from 1994 to 2003, STPP's research shows. But for the elderly and nonwhite, the risks remain elevated. A 2005 study by the Inova Regional Trauma Center found that Hispanics in Northern Virginia suffer the highest rate of hospitalization for pedestrian accidents, eight per 100,000 population, followed by African Americans (six per 100,000). The rate for whites was three per 100,000. The study, funded by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, also found that people 65 and older are the age group with the highest percentage of pedestrian deaths in Northern Virginia.

The rates of injury and death have a discernable economic impact. Between 1999 and 2003, according to the Inova study, total pedestrian injuries in Northern Virginia produced hospital charges of $10.9 million.

Although Fairfax and the state of Virginia added 17 miles of sidewalks and 24 miles of multipurpose trails from 1999 to 2004, a task force told the Board of Supervisors last month that the county remains hostile territory for joggers and those walking to schools, neighborhood shopping centers or bus stops.

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