Phoenix Built a Crosswalk Outside a Senior Center. Three People Have Died In It

Ronald Adams' mother, Carolyn, died at the crosswalk on 19th Avenue, just north of Sunnyside Drive.EXPAND
Ronald Adams' mother, Carolyn, died at the crosswalk on 19th Avenue, just north of Sunnyside Drive.
Steven Hsieh
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On the evening of January 24, 2018, Carolyn Adams left her mobile home off 19th Avenue in north Phoenix and headed for mass at Valley Christian Church on the other side of the road.

She didn’t make it across the street.

As Adams walked west on a pedestrian crosswalk in the dark, one driver heading north narrowly missed her. But Eric Welch, driving a 2000 Mercury Grand Marquis in the same direction, struck Adams in the fast lane, sending her flying forward.

Witnesses at the scene said she had a look of fear on her face before she was struck, according to a legal document.

Adams was pronounced dead four days later at John C. Lincoln Hospital. She was 72.

Welch was arrested and later pled guilty in Phoenix Municipal Court to a moving violation causing serious injury or death, a misdemeanor.

Adams left behind four grown children.

Ronald Adams, one of her three sons, said his mother’s hobby was “doing things for other people.” He said his mother stopped by her 92-year-old neighbor’s home every day to help clean, despite her bad knees.

"She could go to a thrift store and spend the last 10 bucks to buy socks and find homeless people and give them the socks,” Ronald Adams said.

Carolyn Adams was at least one of three fatalities at the crosswalk since the city installed it in 2013, according to Monica Hernandez, a spokesperson for the city’s street transportation department.

In 2017, a driver killed a 20-year-old woman crossing the street at night, according to Arizona Department of Transportation data. The driver was going 41 miles per hour. Hernandez did not provide specific information on the third death, other than the fact that it occurred in 2018.

Now, Adams’ four grown children are suing the city of Phoenix for negligence, claiming the city did not adequately mark the crosswalk where their mother died. Each child asked for $1.5 million in damages, according to a notice of claim filed in July.

The deaths at the crosswalk highlight potential improvements for safer streets as Phoenix confronts one of the highest pedestrian fatality rate among large cities in the United States.

Between a senior center and mobile home community, a couple of hundred feet north of Sunnyside Drive, the crosswalk where Carolyn Adams died bridges six busy lanes.

Dozens of pedestrians — including the elderly and people in wheelchairs — use the crosswalk every day to get to catch the bus or grab a drink at the neighborhood bar directly across from Christian Care Manors, a retirement center.

To warn northbound and southbound drivers of pedestrians, two yellow signs mark the crossing. Below each sign, a pair of small rectangular caution lights flash when a pedestrian presses a “walk" button.

Small rectangular lights below the diagonal caution sign flash when a pedestrian pushes a button to cross.EXPAND
Small rectangular lights below the diagonal caution sign flash when a pedestrian pushes a button to cross.
Steven Hsieh

Welch, the driver who killed Adams at night, told police he did not see the yellow lights. Witnesses said they were flashing when the fatal accident occurred.

The yellow lights don’t belong on the 19th Avenue corridor, where the posted speed limit is 40 miles per hour and many drivers barreling down its six lanes go much faster, wrote engineer Albert G. Letzkus in an analysis for the Adams' legal counsel.

Phoenix instead should have installed an overhead traffic light at the crossing, creating what’s known as a High-Intensity Activated Crosswalk (HAWK), said Letzkus, who runs a traffic engineering consulting company in the Tucson area.

The city in recent years has undergone a campaign to install HAWKs at high-traffic pedestrian crossings, including four spots on 19th Avenue.

Officials plan to do the same at the crosswalk where Adams died.

Phoenix city council member Debra Stark — whose district includes the crosswalk — said this week that the location is part of a federally funded project, approved in 2018, to install HAWKs at 13 high-crash spots around the city. Originally slated to begin construction in 2022, the city received a grant last month to speed up the process and complete the project by 2020.

In addition to the overhead lights, Letzkus recommended installing new, brighter lighting fixtures in the area’s streetlights and making a crosswalk-facing smoke shop replace its lit sign with a non-illuminated one.

A bus stop directly south of the crosswalk should have been moved north so as to prevent blocking the view of oncoming traffic, Letzkus added in his analysis.

Ronald Adams used to blame himself for his mother’s death. Carolyn Adams was headed to Bible study at the time, and he was the one to turn her to the church. But he let that go.

Ronald said the driver should have been more careful, but he can’t blame him 100 percent either.

"He has to live with that for the rest of his life. There’s nothing I can say or do to this guy to make it any worse,” he said. "This driver wasn’t alone in his negligence; there was something that caused him to not yield.”

That yellow sign with the little black figure was too ambiguous, Ronald said. A red light would be much clearer.

"Red means stop,” he said. "There’s no interpretation there. Cease motion."

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