The last-minute errand to the convenience store for refried beans would be quick. She could dash across South Four Mile Run Drive in Arlington and be back in time for dinner in front of her favorite Spanish-language soap opera.
But on that cold winter evening, Gladis Lazo and her 5-year-old daughter, Lucy, never made it home. Exactly five months after they arrived from El Salvador, they were struck by a car. Lazo was critically injured, and the little girl was killed.
Her death raised the already disturbing toll among Hispanics in the Washington region, where the rate of pedestrian fatalities among Latinos far outstrips their presence in the population. The trend is most pronounced in the major suburban counties, where Latinos are up to three times as likely as other residents to be struck by a car and killed.
Highway safety analysts and Latino activists say most such victims are immigrants, many of whom lack cars and are concentrated in apartment complexes along heavily traveled thoroughfares such as South Four Mile Run Drive -- suburban neighborhoods more suited to drivers than pedestrians.
The arrivals often come from rural areas of El Salvador, Mexico and other countries, where poor roads make for slow speeds and the few cars share the way with people and animals.
"It's automobile culture clashing with immigrant culture," said Gloria Ohland, who has analyzed pedestrian safety for the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a Washington-based planning and advocacy group. "Many immigrants can't afford cars and are very used to walking in the countries where they come from and they try to walk here with disastrous results."
Of the more than 270 pedestrians killed in the District and inner suburbs since 1995, at least 43 were Latino, according to information gathered from area police and highway departments. In Montgomery and Prince George's counties, about 21 percent of the deaths since 1995 have been among Hispanics, though they make up 8 percent of the residents. The numbers are even more dramatic in Fairfax County, where Hispanics represent about 23 percent of the deaths since 1993 but only 8 percent of the residents. Only in the District were the numbers not disproportionately high.
Though no study has been conducted nationwide to examine the link between pedestrian deaths and minority groups or immigrants, the subject is emerging as a growing concern across the country. It has prompted safety campaigns including pamphlets, radio spots -- even federally funded Spanish-language soap operas entirely based upon the heartache of traffic accidents.
"We certainly have anecdotal data from groups that work with the Latino community that they're at greater risk for pedestrian injury," said Maria Vegega, a specialist in pedestrian safety at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which commissioned the soap operas.
Alarm over pedestrian safety in the Hispanic community erupted this summer in Santa Ana, Calif., the oldest of the Orange County suburbs of Los Angeles and a popular destination for recent immigrants, after a study by the University of California at Irvine named it the most dangerous for foot traffic in Southern California.
"It is disproportionately the Latino community that is getting the short end on these pedestrian accidents," said Luis Arteaga, associate director of the Latino Issues Forum in California.
And researchers at the University of North Carolina recently embarked on a study of traffic safety in their state's burgeoning Latino community, with pedestrian crashes a key topic of inquiry.
In the Washington area, members of the Hispanic community already have recognized the need to address the problem.
"Our immigrant population is at a disadvantage because the information doesn't get to them," said Silverio Coy, an Arlington lawyer who primarily handles personal injury and immigration cases for Latin American immigrants. "They come straight from Morazon or Intipuca [El Salvador], rural places that didn't have all this traffic. It's a cultural-social shock here."
A Fatal Route
On the night her daughter was killed, Jan. 29, 1998, Lazo was doing what she and her mostly Latino neighbors always did. She took the shortest path from her apartment complex to a strip of stores across Four Mile Run, almost 200 yards in either direction from a crosswalk and a traffic signal. It was a direct, but dangerous and unlawful route.
A year and a half after the accident, Lazo, 28, cries hard as she recalls the moment in her hospital room when she was finally told her daughter was dead. The woman's arms and legs show the jagged scars of her wounds. But inside, she bears an even deeper emotional injury.
"They told me it wasn't a street for pedestrians," she said, "that I had committed a crime."
The motorist who hit them was convicted only of driving without headlights. In deciding whether to file criminal charges in such cases, prosecutors weigh two main factors, said Richard Trodden, Arlington County commonwealth's attorney. These are whether the driver exhibited gross negligence, such as driving drunk or traveling much faster than the speed limit, and whether the driver's behavior was the actual cause of the accident. If the pedestrian might have contributed to the crash -- for instance by jaywalking -- charges are less likely, Trodden said.
In Maryland, the family of Adan Rodriguez Gomez also is perplexed by the idea that his behavior could be partly responsible for his death. He and his older brother, Abraham, had left a 400-person village in El Salvador to work in Chinese restaurants in Prince George's County.
Adan Rodriguez, 29, was on his way to buy sodas at a market at Laurel-Bowie Road and Old Stage Coach Road on Nov. 13, 1996 when he was struck by a car. A witness told authorities he had crossed against a red light.
An hour after the accident, his brother, walking home from work, came across the accident debris: a pool of blood and a pair of black shoes. He didn't learn they were his brother's until the next morning, when he called police to report him missing. No charges were filed against the driver.
"The family still doesn't understand that [Adan] could have done anything wrong," said Joseph Malouf, a Silver Spring personal injury lawyer originally from Guatemala, who represents the family.
Malouf speaks frequently about pedestrian safety on Spanish-language radio, one of a number of local education efforts underway.
This week, Arlington police officers visited the English classes at a community center to teach immigrants some elementary traffic lessons. Montgomery County police have blanketed certain Metro stations and bus stops with bilingual pamphlets on the importance of crossing streets at crosswalks.
In one unorthodox program, the federal highway safety administration signed a $200,000 contract with Lisboa, a multimedia communications company in the District, to produce two Spanish-language videos, or telenovelas, similar to the melodramas that captivate millions of Latin Americans. The videos are being distributed nationally through community groups, and officials hope to air them on Spanish-language networks.
Lessons about watching for cars and minding children are woven through these steamy productions: a 45-minute video geared to parents and a 30-minute one for the elderly. Like true telenovelas, they drip with passion and betrayal, jealousy and intrigue, but with the twist that the plots turn on pedestrian accidents.
In one, an elderly but dapper gentleman is run down and killed as he heads toward a cafe liaison with his new, blonde flame. His body is discovered in a puddle of blood and rose petals. The other video spins the yarn of a young girl battling for her life in the hospital after being struck by an ice cream truck. Her parents, estranged since her brother was previously run over and killed, are reunited.
"It's something unique, but it appeals to our community," said Elizabeth Lisboa-Farrow, the firm's chief executive officer and president.
A more traditional effort has been mounted by the Spanish-language public education show, "Linea Directa," seen locally on the cable channel Univision, which has devoted several segments to the issue. Spanish-language newspapers have given lawyers column space to warn readers that financial compensation for injuries or deaths is nil as long as any traffic law -- particularly jaywalking -- is violated by the pedestrian.
Montgomery County District Court Judge Marielsa Bernard, who has written about the issue in the Spanish-language press, said immigrants often are "not used to the volume of traffic we have."
Lack of Cars Heightens Danger
The shortage of cars among recent immigrants is widely seen as a contributing factor to the high pedestrian fatality rate. Hispanic households are two-thirds more likely not to have a car than are non-Hispanic homes, according to the 1997 Consumer Expenditure Survey. And a 1995 survey by the U.S. Department of Transportation showed that Latinos are nearly twice as likely to make trips on foot. That alone makes them more probable victims.
"If you end up walking to work and you don't own a car, you're more likely to get hit," said Richard Schieber of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "In the Washington area, it is no picnic at all. There are very busy roads and an element of aggressive driving."
Another factor is geography. The fatalities are clustered in some of the older suburbs inside the Capital Beltway, where many immigrants have settled in apartments along four-, six- and eight-lane thoroughfares. Eight Hispanic pedestrians have been killed in the vicinity of Langley Park and Four Corners in Maryland since 1995. In the area of Baileys Crossroads and Seven Corners in Virginia, seven Hispanics have died since 1993.
Along Leesburg Pike between Seven Corners and Baileys Crossroads for instance, sidewalks are few, often disconnected and isolated strands of concrete. A makeshift path through the adjacent grass has been trampled bare by countless pedestrians, plodding along the expanses between the strip malls, hugging the roadside only feet from the racing cars.
An additional factor, traffic safety analysts said, could be the use of alcohol. Nearly one-third of all adult pedestrians killed are intoxicated, according to a study by the traffic safety administration. The agency found that male Hispanic victims are more likely than white victims in general to have elevated blood alcohol levels. Moreover, focus groups conducted by the agency with Latinos in Washington and elsewhere suggested that Hispanic pedestrians, chiefly men, put themselves at risk by drinking.
"Compounded by street lighting that is inadequate and sidewalks being inadequate, it really makes for a bad combination," said Arteaga of the Latino Issues Forum.
The consequence is "very, very sad," said Officer Karen McNally, the Montgomery police liaison to the Hispanic community. She spends days, sometimes weeks, trying to run down the identification of Latino immigrants who are struck while walking drunk so that their bodies can be claimed and buried properly.
"I talk not only to victims of pedestrian accidents . . . but families of the victims as well who say, `I came here to have a better life and I've had a very tragic life,' " she said. "You would think with the violence and the civil war in Central America, certainly the risk was more there than here in the United States. But look what happened. It's a really unfortunate, meaningless tragedy."
The number of Latino pedestrian fatalities in the Washington region:
Location victims victims
Montgomery, Prince George's 26 124
Alexandria 1 2
Arlington 2 9
Fairfax 12 53
D.C. 2 82
NOTE: All figures are for 1995-1999. The number of Latino fatalities are estimates because ethnic identity was determined by victims' names on police reports.