Carrying a food tray in his hands, a 46-year-old man attempted to run across the westbound lanes of I-20. Tommy Lee Jenkins made it to the third lane, according to witnesses, before he tried to run back across I-20 to safety around 6:30 p.m. on a Wednesday.
It was too late.
A Cobb County man immediately applied the brakes when he saw Jenkins, but the driver’s Ford van couldn’t stop fast enough, according to an Atlanta police report. Jenkins was struck on the interstate and died from. his injuries.
Pedestrian fatalities are up 11 percent from last year on Georgia roads, according to the state Department of Transportation. And an alarming trend in metro Atlanta has transportation leaders and law enforcement looking for answers: Why are people trying to cross interstates on foot? In a two-week period, it has happened six times on Atlanta interstates, killing Jenkins and others. Often, investigators can only speculate why.
“There’s a lot of things we don’t know because we can’t talk to the person after they’ve passed,” Natalie Dale, GDOT spokeswoman, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The recent wrecks have involved pedestrians seemingly overlooking the dangers of darting across an interstate, leaving drivers with few options and snarling traffic for hours.
“Unfortunately, due to the high rate of speed most vehicles are traveling, pedestrians often do not survive injuries sustained when struck on interstates,” Carlos Campos, spokesman for Atlanta police, said.
On Nov. 10, a Georgia Tech freshman was killed while attempting to cross the Downtown Connector, baffling his family and police. Kaden Campbell was a Brookwood High School graduate, a straight-A student and skateboarding enthusiast, his father, Brandon Campbell, said days after his son’s death.
“And if he made a mistake and got himself in this situation, it doesn’t diminish how great of a young man he was, and how much we love him and miss him,” Campbell said.
Mental illness a problem
The following week — the day before Jenkins was killed — a 47-year-old woman was struck and killed on the Connector north of University Avenue, according to police.
“There was no explanation for why (the pedestrian) was on the interstate, much less why she was in the third lane of travel from the right,” the police report states.
Though all of the recent cases remain under investigation, police speculate that mental instability, homelessness or substance abuse could have been involved, Campos said.
“We believe in three of the most recent incidents that the victims may have been homeless individuals,” Campos said. “This population, unfortunately, can be particularly vulnerable due to impairment from alcohol abuse or mental illness.”
Many pedestrian deaths involve alcohol
In some cases, a person is struck after getting out of their own vehicle, maybe after a fender bender, the DOT’s Dale said. It is illegal to be a pedestrian on the interstate, she said.
On Aug. 17, Josefina Sanchez and three others were changing a tire beside I-75 when the group was struck by a driver. Sanchez died from her injuries. In July 2016, David Wesley, a 20-year-old musician, was killed as he changed his tire near Spaghetti Junction in DeKalb County.
“We understand that there are some times that people feel like they need to get out of their car,” Dale said. “When you exit your vehicle on the interstate, you are going to drastically increase your chance at becoming a fatality.”
Almost half of crashes that killed pedestrians involved alcohol, either by the driver or the pedestrian, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2015, 5,376 pedestrians were killed nationwide in traffic crashes, or roughly one person every 1.6 hours. The same year, Georgia ranked fifth out of all states and the District of Columbia with 193 pedestrian fatalities, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
In 2016, that number climbed to 206, Dale said. By Wednesday morning, 228 pedestrian deaths had been reported to GDOT in 2017, she said.
Fatal wrecks involving bikes, motorcycles and trains have declined in Georgia, Dale said. But wrecks involving commercial vehicles and pedestrians are on the rise, she said. Personal responsibility is key to avoiding pedestrian deaths on interstates, along with continued education on the dangers, Dale said.
“It’s 100 percent preventable,” she said.
Staying safe on the roads
If you’re involved in a crash or your vehicle breaks down, never get out of the car on a freeway, unless your life is in imminent danger. Here’s what to do:
1. If possible, pull onto the nearest shoulder as far from travel lanes as possible.
2. Stay seat-belted inside with the doors locked.
3. Turn on your hazard lights and turn your front wheels in the opposite direction of the roadway.
4. If you can’t drive the vehicle to the shoulder, turn on your hazard lights and stay seat-belted inside with the doors locked.
5. Call 911 for law enforcement and emergency personnel. For vehicle assistance, call 511 for a HERO on metro Atlanta highways.
1. Walk on a sidewalk or path when one is available, but never on an interstate.
2. If no sidewalk or path is available, walk on the shoulder, facing traffic
3. Stay alert and don’t get distracted by phones or other electronic devices
4. Be cautious night and day when sharing the road with vehicles.
5. Never assume a driver sees you. Make eye contact with drivers as they approach.
Sources: GDOT, U.S. Department of Transportation, Atlanta police