Chattanooga mayor, council members, residents respond to crash that killed two pedestrians on Frazier Avenue

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Joseph Coleman with the Chattanooga Police Department traffic division walks past a makeshift memorial at the intersection of Forest and Frazier avenues on Monday after a deadly crash over the weekend killed two pedestrians.
Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Joseph Coleman with the Chattanooga Police Department traffic division walks past a makeshift memorial at the intersection of Forest and Frazier avenues on Monday after a deadly crash over the weekend killed two pedestrians.

Note: This story was updated Dec. 1 to correct the spellings of the victims' names.

Days after a deadly crash that killed two pedestrians on Chattanooga's North Shore, Mayor Tim Kelly called the incident an "extreme outlier" and promised his administration would work to prevent pedestrian deaths.

At Tuesday's Chattanooga City Council meeting, council members addressed Saturday's crash, and many residents spoke against what they see as the dangerous design of Frazier Avenue — a pedestrian-heavy, four-lane thoroughfare.

On Saturday afternoon, a Dodge Grand Caravan and Nissan Titan collided in the 200 block of Frazier Avenue. After the collision, the Caravan jumped the curb and struck three pedestrians on the sidewalk before crashing into a building housing the Walnut Bridge Gift Shop.

The crash killed two people — Ana Posso Rodriguez, 41, and her son, Jonathan Devia, 1. The third person struck, 40-year-old Octavio Devia Paz, sustained life-threatening injuries and remains in critical condition, as of Tuesday.

The Caravan's driver, 44-year-old Randy Vega from Florida, faces two charges of vehicular homicide by impairment and charges of aggravated vehicular assault, driving under the influence, reckless endangerment, reckless driving and failing to maintain a lane.

Witnesses of Saturday's crash said it appeared to begin as a road rage incident.

With the deaths of Posso Rodriguez and her son, 17 pedestrians in Chattanooga this year have now been struck and killed by drivers, up from the six reported this time last year.

Aside from this year, the highest annual number of pedestrians killed since 2013 was eight in 2015.

"Like all of our residents, I am concerned about the increased number of pedestrian fatalities we've experienced this year," Kelly said in a post on social media. "My administration is committed to reversing this sad trend using a combination of data-informed tactical interventions at pedestrian hotspots, roadway design improvements and traffic enforcement."

(READ MORE: With streets built mostly for cars, some want Chattanooga to make way for pedestrians)

Kelly described Saturday's crash as an extreme outlier given the impairment and reckless driving charges.

The mayor said Chattanooga police have increased enforcement of speeding violations along Frazier Avenue and Cherokee Boulevard.

To deter speeding in general, Kelly said the city has installed 61 speed bumps this year, and Kelly cited underway roadway redesign efforts such as the restriping of Central Avenue into three lanes.

A few other restriping projects in the city, such as segments of North Moore Road, are in the works, said Ben Taylor, deputy administrator for the Chattanooga Division of Transportation, in an interview.

The mayor said the city's Division of Transportation has 575 miles of new thermal lines and markings this year to make crosswalks more visible to drivers.

Taylor said these markings last up to seven years, well beyond the lifespan of painted crosswalks.

He said his office and the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Agency are working together to determine where to install other safety measures, such as bollards, curb extensions, solar-powered signage and road reconfigurations.

Taylor said these measures would make streets safer by diverting traffic and incentivizing lower speeds.

"Bottom line is that we are taking action to make our streets safer and will continue to do what is necessary to reverse the trend," Kelly said.

'Honor my family'

Following official business from Tuesday's City Council meeting, 38 residents spoke during public comment, addressing Saturday's crash.

Many residents told stories of either witnessing the crash or hearing it. Others spoke about other crashes across the city in the past in which they, a family member or a friend were hurt.

Others spoke about how they feel unsafe walking in Chattanooga.

In addition to the residents, Adolfo Devia spoke. He said he is the brother of Octavio Devia Paz, the victim of the crash still in the hospital.

Devia said his family was visiting Chattanooga from Florida for Thanksgiving.

"You have the power to honor my family," Devia said. "You have the power to prevent other accidents."

Council Member Darrin Ledford, of East Brainerd, said during public comment that Kelly, who was not in attendance Tuesday, should go back and watch and listen to everyone's stories.

"I know we have another term that he's wanting to see," Ledford said.

He also thanked everyone who spoke.

"I'm hurting. You're hurting. Everybody's hurting, and we got to do this together," Ledford said. "I'm seeing it in your faces, and I'm hearing it in your hearts, and you're using your voice, and I appreciate you."

Council Vice Chair Jenny Hill, of North Chattanooga, also thanked those who spoke.

To support changes to pedestrian infrastructure, Hill, whose district the crash was in, encouraged people to vote come election time.

"When the time comes, make sure you vote because if Mayor Kelly runs on a platform with multimodal infrastructure, and if people don't show up to support that, you'll end up with the opposite," Hill said.

'A death wish'

Jon Jon Wesolowski, a pedestrian advocate associated with the Chattanooga Urbanist Society — a local group that calls for more equitable urban design — spoke during Tuesday's public comment, calling Frazier Avenue's road design dangerous.

"It's a death wish. It wasn't a matter of 'if,' it was a matter of 'when,'" Wesolowski said. "That's the crown jewel of our city, the Walnut Street Bridge, dumping pedestrians onto that meat grinder."

Wesolowski called for changes to the city's road design amid the spike in pedestrian deaths.

"The mayor made a statement about everything that we're doing, and I like that we're doing something," Wesolowski said. "But if what we're doing has brought us to where we are, we need to do something different."

He specifically called for lining cones along Frazier Avenue to reduce the number of lanes.

Council Member Chip Henderson, of Lookout Valley, said in response that the city had previously done such a measure as a test in 2016, but residents and business owners disapproved.

"That was a different time," Henderson said. "Maybe we're willing to accept that now."

Hill said in her time as a politician, talk of accommodating pedestrians and cyclists often divides people, but she sees that changing.

"The way that we use our streets is very different," Hill said. "I've seen the conversation change in the last two and a half, almost three years.

"I am devastated that we have had a loss of life that will be the catalyst for change. But I am thankful that we are not simply being reactive, but that this community has been working diligently to be proactive."

Emerson Burch, a business owner on Brainerd Road, said his storefront has been struck by cars multiple times due to unsafe road design.

"People don't drive the speed limit," Burch said. "They drive the speed the roadway was designed for."

Matthew Jackson, a resident of the Hill City neighborhood in the North Shore, said the design of Frazier Avenue made a crash like the one on Saturday inevitable.

"We all know this was a predictable, predicted and easily preventable crash," Jackson said. "We could have done something, and we didn't, and two people died."

(READ MORE: Q&A: Famed city planner Jeff Speck talks walkability in Chattanooga)

Contact Ben Sessoms at [email protected] or 423-757-6354.

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