Memorial honors 38 pedestrians killed on Nashville streets, calls for action
In the 15 months since their son was killed walking across a Nashville street, Darlett and Ernie Sowers said they can't help but notice every road lacking sidewalks, crosswalks and sufficient lighting.
Timothy Joshua "Josh" Sowers was killed while crossing Antioch Pike on his way home from work in October 2020. He was 36.
His parents shared his story Saturday at Walk Bike Nashville's 5th Annual Pedestrian Memorial, hoping to educate drivers and push for change to prevent other families from suffering.
In 2021, 38 pedestrians were killed on Nashville's streets. In all, 132 people died in traffic incidents in Nashville last year — the area's deadliest year for traffic deaths since 1966.
"Too often we don't hear about the human lives that are tied to these statistics," nonprofit Walk Bike Nashville Executive Director Meredith Montgomery said Saturday. "We don't hear the stories of the people who were lost. We don't hear from their families because they are mourning and suffering."
Chancy Merrel, a 39-year-old wife and mother of three, was killed at East Thompson Lane and Murfreesboro Road on Dec. 28 by a driver who did not stop.
Ronald Lindsey, 55, was a carpenter who enjoyed camping, fishing, and hiking and spending time with his family and children. He was killed in a hit-and-run incident while walking on the side of Haywood Lane in June 2021.
"We cannot tell the stories of every person we lost, but we know that together their stories illustrate deep inequities in the design of our streets," Montgomery said.
More than 50% of all pedestrian deaths in Nashville occur on just seven roads, according to data collected by Walk Bike Nashville and Vanderbilt University.
Eleven Metro Council members stood Saturday in a parking lot near the corner of Murfreesboro Road and Millwood Drive — one of the city's most dangerous intersections — to read the names of the 38 people killed last year.
Advocates for pedestrian and bicyclist safety called on elected officials and Nashville Mayor John Cooper to take immediate action to prevent future deaths on Nashville's most dangerous corridors including:
Old Hickory Boulevard
Rosa Parks Boulevard
Buena Vista Pike
Cooper did not attend Saturday's memorial. His administration released the Vision Zero Action Plan in January. The document aims to guide the city in its effort to reduce the number of traffic-related deaths to zero, but advocates say progress has been slow and physical changes to these streets are needed now.
"This is a good place to start, but we know that year after year, more families and communities are affected by these deaths," Walk Bike Nashville Schools Manager Cathy Carrillo said.
Walk Bike Nashville is pushing for immediate implementation of small fixes: adding more time to signal changes, increasing lighting, repainting crosswalks and identifying places where pedestrians can cross.
"We know that the money is there, in the budget, to make these changes," Carrillo said. "It is important for this city to start putting first the communities that are most affected and most marginalized."
Parents of victims push for lower speed limits, driver caution
The driver who killed Darlett and Ernie Sowers' son said she didn't see him cross the street. Darlett said improving lighting over crosswalks could help, but drivers need to "retrain their thinking" to look for pedestrians.
"When you were taught to cross the street as a child, you probably learned 'look both ways and see if there's any cars coming,'" she said. "And when you learned to drive, that translated to, 'look both ways and see if there's any vehicles coming.' You're not looking for pedestrians if you're only looking for vehicles."
Chuck Isbell, a member of advocacy group Families for Safe Streets, attended Saturday in memory of his son Nathaniel "Nate" Elijah Isbell. Nate Isbell was killed after being struck by a speeding driver on a residential street in Rutherford County on Halloween in 2020.
Chuck Isbell is collecting signatures to petition Rutherford County to lower speed limits to 25 miles per hour on all residential streets.
Nashville began lowering speed limits on its neighborhood streets from 30 mph to 25 mph in March 2021 as part of the Vision Zero plan.
Chuck Isbell said he still wakes up every day thinking it's Nov. 1, 2020, before he reminds himself what happened to his son.
"Why is it that people always say they should not have been in the road?" he said. "They should have been looking out for cars. They should have used a better place to cross the street. Not every area has a crosswalk, a sidewalk or even streetlights.
"If you're driving a car, the burden of responsibility is on you," Isbell said. "Look out for pedestrians. Pedestrians have the right of way."
Call for infrastructure improvements intensifies
Walk Bike Nashville conducted more than 200 surveys along Murfreesboro Pike in 2021. Respondents said they don't feel safe crossing this road.
The nonprofit noted people tend to walk in unprotected bike lanes and cross where there are medians due to "huge gaps" between stretches of sidewalk and lighting.
Walk Bike Nashville is collaborating with the Nashville Department of Transportation to make changes, but stressed the need is urgent.
Metro Council member Angie Henderson, a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, noted the majority of Nashville's most dangerous streets are state routes. The city must work with the state and hold the state accountable to fix city streets before widening highways, she said.
"That does not mean we can abdicate responsibility," Henderson said. "It is incumbent upon us to push for these improvements. Our Vision Zero Action Plan must be indeed an action plan, with a specific number of years and a specific number of projects to achieve within those years."
As the memorial came to a close Saturday, elected officials, victims' families, advocates and community members joined in a moment of silence to honor those who died. The quiet was punctuated by the sound of a steady stream of passing cars.
Remembering pedestrians killed in 2021
A total 38 pedestrians were killed in Metro Nashville in 2021. Listed in chronological order:
Orlando Rodriguez Carrillo
William Tucker, Jr.
Reach reporter Cassandra Stephenson at email@example.com or at (731) 694-7261. Follow Cassandra on Twitter at @CStephenson731.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Memorial honors 38 pedestrians killed on Nashville streets