Growing cries for road, pedestrian safety
by Robin Kemp
Above: Bianca Mendoza (right) releases butterflies in memory of those killed in traffic accidents on Clayton County’s roads. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)
Family members of Clayton County residents who have been killed in traffic accidents this year met in front of the Harold R. Banke Justice Center at noon July 21 to put their elected officials on notice.
The scene was set for a public memorial: A giant screen on which the names and faces of the dead floated in clouds. Twenty-five chairs on a mobile county stage, each chair empty except for a bouquet. News reporters and cameras. Uniformed law enforcement officials representing every agency. The district attorney and county solicitor. District 3 Commissioner Felicia Franklin saying she would fix this “if it’s the last thing I do.” Butterflies were released in honor of the dead.
And there was anger from those left behind, who say they’ve been asking why Clayton County has gone for so long without addressing the dangerous road conditions that have taken more lives halfway through this year than in all of the previous two years.
About a mile down Tara Boulevard, you can still see the scrapes on the sidewalk and the tire tracks in the grass where Clayton County Police Ofc. Mendoza’s car spun off the road and struck a fence. Amber and red chips from car lights and bits of black plastic, perhaps from Mendoza’s wreck, perhaps from others’, are scattered across the black dirt. A black-and-blue memorial cross marks the spot where he died. Behind the fence are spray-painted marks and the letters “LR” and “RR”–where the left rear and right rear tires of Mendoza’s 2008 Crown Victoria came to rest.
CCPD’s Fallen Heroes page offers a capsule explanation of what happened:
On Monday, April 19, 2021 at 9:40 a.m., Officer Armando C. Mendoza en-route to an authorized part-time job when he was involved in a two-car accident with injuries located on Tara Blvd at North Main Street. Officer Armando C. Mendoza was seriously injured as a result of the accident. Officer Armando C. Mendoza later succumbed to his injures at the hospital on Monday, April 19, 2021. Officer Armando C. Mendoza joined the Clayton County Police Department Family on May 30, 2020 and honorably served the citizens of Clayton County with distinction.
The other driver, Hue Phan, 81, of Riverdale, was critically injured. He died the next day. A native of Song Cao Phu Yen, Vietnam, his online obituary was even shorter:
Mendoza’s mother, Bianca, wants to know why her only son, on the force for less than a year, was driving a 13-year-old patrol car with no reinforcement and no side impact air bags. And she was not satisfied with CCPD’s response thus far.
“He was driving a 2008 Ford Crown Victoria,” Mendoza said. “Why, in 2021, on Tara Boulevard, can’t he drive a patrol car with standard impact equipment? He was going to die. No side impact beams in the doors. No curtain air bags. There was one airbag on the driver’s side. Metal on metal is what killed my son.”
She says patrol cars should be rotated out of service every year or two.
“Or ten years,” Harold Mendoza offered.
Their son’s patrol car was 13 years old.
For more than a year before Mendoza’s death, a sign that used to point to the difficult North Main Street intersection from the southbound side of Tara Boulevard has lain face-down in the median, the steel posts that once held it up crumpled like straw paper. Inmate crews have maintained the grass but the sign had not been replaced.
Bianca Mendoza says she’s had “all kinds of politicians in our face, saying ‘I’m here for you, just pick up the phone.’ I pick the phone up and they’ve done absolutely nothing. If you’re not going to do it, just sit quietly.” The exception, she said, is Franklin, who had a “personal relationship” with Ofc. Mendoza.
All it would take, she said, “is better signage and a plan as to how the roads should be now. I sent an email to GDOT asking them to close the Tara Boulevard crossover to North Main Street. No signs, no yield signs, no paint–nothing indicating what you are about to encounter.”
“The gentleman completely misjudged [the intersection],” Mendoza said. “The result was my son’s death.”
Soon after the wreck, the intersection was resurfaced, along with much of Tara Boulevard, and crews added an inexplicably zig-zagging series of wheelchair cuts across the intersection, leading from the sidewalk to literally nowhere. One leg of the journey is a dangerously long diagonal that would put any able-bodied pedestrian in danger of not making the crossing, much less someone with mobility issues.
Yet there is no stop light on Tara Boulevard–a U.S. highway–at North Main Street, which would allow for protected left turns across Tara onto North Main.
Mendoza’s family wants North Main Street closed and turned into a pedestrian park. His father, Robert, said little. His grandmother, Gileen DeCastro, was too overcome to speak at all when asked about Armando.
“Don’t put a yield sign, put a stop sign,” Bianca Mendoza said. “Flashing lights. A lot of speed bumps in the turn lane. Remove that intersection altogether. Too many have died. If that turn were not there, the gentleman who ran into my son’s squad car would have had to go to the light to make a legal turnaround,”
A caterer by trade, Mendoza said she would not be able to attend the Smart Pedestrian forum Thursday because she had to work an event at CCPD. That’s how Armando Mendoza got interested in becoming a police officer–by helping his mom cater events at police headquarters.
Just down Tara Boulevard on June 22, Kenyell Price, 43, was walking home from work in the predawn hours. He had just gotten off work at Frito-Lay, where he worked in logistics and packaging. He also had just earned his forklift driver certification. His eleven-year-old son usually got up around 3:30 a.m. to greet his dad after a long night’s work. Price had already crossed the street. He only had to walk about ten more minutes to get home.
Just before sunrise, a driver in a black Mercedes struck him–and kept going.
Price’s son never saw his dad alive again.
Clayton County Police have been looking for a black Mercedes with damage to the front end and the passenger-side mirror. Price’s family said CCPD has identified a suspect. But they want to know why it took so long for that to happen–and why the driver who killed the man who kept their family together is still at large.
Price’s brother Wally, his sister Monae, his cousin Harold Wise, Harold’s wife Keyana Wise–over and over–said Kenyell had “the biggest smile,” that Kenyell “was the one who kept the family together,” even though everyone else had started their own families, that he “lit up the room,” “was a hard worker,” “a great dad.”
“He was just an all-around good guy,” Harold Wise said. “Always the life of the party. He had the biggest smile. His smile just lights up the room. You’d never forget that smile.”
Harold wore a memorial t-shirt with three photos of Kenyell flashing his genuine grin.
Monae Price added, “He was very family-oriented. If he didn’t want to do anything else, he wanted to keep us together. And he was very spiritual.”
Although Harold and Keyana’s daughter, Victoria, was born two months ago, Kenyell never got to meet his cuddly second cousin with a head full of perfect curls. Victoria slept through the entire ceremony as she was handed around among her relatives.
Monae Price said a friend had told them that “he was at the Exxon. He had already crossed the street. He was just about to make a right and go to the house. He was ten minutes away, if that, because Kenyell walked fast. It was still dark. There’s no street lights or sidewalks over there.”
They want pretty much what Mendoza’s family wants: a memorial, a street named for Kenyell, more lights, more cameras.
“I want them to put a sidewalk up, name the whole street after Kenyell, and a memorial. With all of the faces that have died on this street. And more lights and cameras.”
In particular, they said, they want “more working cameras.”
Or, as Wally Price put it, “cameras that record.”
“Cameras for [traffic] backup are good, but 25 lives have been lost,” he said. “If cameras were recording, we would probably have more information on who hit him and maybe catch them sooner.”
Of the GDOT cameras placed at major intersections around the metro, Price added, “These cameras are monitored. What’s the purpose of monitoring if no one is able to respond in real time to incidents that are happening?It’s a waste of money. We’re paying for the camera and someone to monitor it.”
“The same night, another person was hit,” Wally Price said. “To learn it was a separate driver makes it even worse. It’s the same type of problem where people are hitting people. Neither party stopped. There’s a problem with that scenario. People should tell Clayton County, ‘What are we going to do to address the issue?'”
Tara Boulevard, named for an imaginary plantation, is a straightaway for miles, a U.S. highway–actually, two U.S. highways: 19, stretching from Memphis, Florida to Lake Erie, and 41, connecting Miami and Michigan.That means a lot of tractor-trailers, a lot of people trying to avoid the interstate, and a lot of locals commuting and running errands across Clayton County. It’s like most U.S. highways that were the main roads before the interstate system was built: dotted with down-at-the-heels businesses and motor courts turned no-tell motels.
What’s known as Old Dixie Road was the old Dixie Highway West between Macon and Atlanta, part of Indianapolis Motor Speedway founder Carl Fisher’s system of paved roads built between 1915 and 1927, largely to promote the car market and to create a tourism industry across the Southeast. A good chunk of that local tourism leveraged Civil War historic sites throughout “Dixie.” At first, people camped alongside the road. Later, motor courts sprang up to provide greater comfort. The Automobile Age also dictated how farms along the highway would evolve into the car-dependent suburbs that define Clayton County.
Depending on where you live in the county, you might or might not have easy access to safe bike and walking trails. Plans are on the drawing board in Forest Park and funds have been secured to build such a multimodal path from Starr Park to the State Farmers Market. Closer to Lake Spivey, Clayton County International Park sports a trail that puts Atlanta’s Beltway to shame–and if you don’t have a bike, you can rent one for $10 an hour from the recreation center.
Clayton County is a place where most residents have to drive significant distances to places where they can walk or bike safely. And if you can’t drive to that place because you can’t walk there either, or because MARTA doesn’t have a bus line between where you live and where you want to go, you probably can’t use it at all.
The roads that Clayton County residents drive on evolved from mule trails to Gilded Age roads to U.S. highways. Two decades into the 21st century, families of those who have died on these roads say it’s time for solutions to the 21st-century problems Fisher never could have imagined.
In the past two weeks, this reporter has witnessed several dangerous incidents on Tara Boulevard alone. One extremely dark night, riding back from a family visit, we barely saw a man crossing Old Dixie Road where it merges with Tara, dragging an oversized suitcase behind him. Less than a minute later, a second barely-visible man was crossing Old Dixie near an apartment complex. It felt like a deadly real-life version of Frogger, the 80s arcade game where a frog tries to hop across a road full of cars speeding in all directions.
And on the way to the memorial service for the 25 people killed on Clayton County roads since January 1 of this year, as this reporter was driving cautiously in the right southbound lane of Tara Boulevard, a young man dressed for work was walking in the narrow not-quite-pullover lane, looking down at his cellphone, texting as he walked northbound where there was no sidewalk for him to walk on.
Anyone who drives in metro Atlanta knows they’re taking their life in their hands. But a consensus has been building, particularly in recent months as people emerge from their COVID-19 caves, that the situation has gotten way out of hand. Roving ATVs speeding alongside paved arteries or speeding between lanes of cars. Impromptu “car shows” where adults and teens appear, flash-mob style, to drift and lay drags. A spate of shootings, some seemingly unprovoked and random, on major streets and interstates around the metro. The constant speeding along Tara Boulevard and other major roads in Clayton County.
The families are demanding accountability–from the county, from GDOT, and from drivers.
“Taxpayers who invest into the community deserve to have walkable spaces to merchants and businesses,” Wally Price said. “Walkability is what people need in this area.”
“It’s not a yesterday problem,” Bianca Mendoza told reporters. “It’s a right-now problem.”
Franklin is holding a Smart Pedestrian Project public meeting on Thursday, July 22 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Flint River Community Center. Citizens are invited to make their voices heard about road and pedestrian safety in Clayton County, as well as how the county might get federal and state funds for things like pedestrian bridges, sidewalks, and street lights.
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