Renee Martinez and Dennis Perez wished they didn’t have to be there, sitting in front of Houston dignitaries near the site of the tragedy they were still grieving.
They would have preferred to be in the company of Jesse Perez, their beloved relative who often wore a smile and had a generous heart.
But they knew that was impossible. Jesse Perez died March 30, when longtime Timbergrove resident Lesha Adams tried to help him wheel to a bus stop across North Shepherd Drive and they were both struck and killed by a car.
So Dennis Perez, Jesse’s brother, and Martinez, his niece, took some solace in hearing that city officials were taking action to make sure the deaths will not be in vain. Mayor Sylvester Turner – flanked by Houston City Council members and the leaders of Houston Public Works, METRO and the Houston Police Department – announced his “Safer Streets Initiative” at a Thursday news conference held near the intersection of Shepherd and 10th Street.
“It was definitely comforting,” Martinez said. “We’re hoping that everything that was talked about will be implemented for the better of Houston citizens and the accessibility of our streets and sidewalks.”
Turner announced a series of initiatives to improve pedestrian safety at intersections across the city, including the one close to where Adams, 55, and Jesse Perez, 63, lost their lives. The wheelchair-bound Perez had purchased groceries at the Kroger at the southwest corner of Shepherd and 11th Street and, instead of the using the crosswalks there or at 10th Street, attempted to cross Shepherd south of there and make it to the METRO stop north of the bridge over 7th Street.
Adams, driving home from dinner with her two daughters, saw Perez, pulled into the shopping center on the west side of Shepherd and then walked into the street to try to help him. They were struck and killed by a car driven by Jada Mimms, 20, who earlier this week was arrested and charged with failing to stop and render aid involving death.
Turner said the nearby bus stop is being removed by METRO, which plans to make most of its 9,000 stops wheelchair accessible by 2024. There is another stop at 10th Street, where the crosswalk markings are faded and there are no wheelchair accessible ramps.
Before the end of the year, public works director Carol Haddock said ramps will be installed there as well as a hybrid pedestrian beacon. That will allow pedestrians to push a button to activate a red light for approaching vehicles.
“Our infrastructure that supports our non-vehicle users, whether they’re on bicycles, feet, rolled or other means of getting around town, are not supported by an infrastructure that is either strong or resilient throughout this city,” Haddock said. “Mayor Turner has made it clear to us, and we are taking the call that it is our mission to address the safety concerns, not only at this intersection, but also throughout our streets, throughout the city of Houston.”
Turner said a safe streets coordinator will be added to the public works department, and the city also is creating a task force to promote pedestrian accessibility and safety. The city already has added a new service request within its 311 system so citizens can report safety concerns on sidewalks and at intersections.
Turner said the city also will have a public awareness campaign to try to alter driving behaviors and reduce distracted driving. Adams’ widow, Stefanie Marsh, said police told her the March 30 deaths were a “distracted driver situation.”
“Quite frankly, it’s not enough to say we are praying and offering condolences,” Turner said. “What we can do, we need to do and must do and need to do with a sense of urgency.”
Police chief Art Acevedo, who said there have been 355 pedestrian deaths in Houston in the last five years, has plans for HPD to increase its enforcement of traffic laws. He said plain-clothed officers will be using the crosswalk at Shepherd and 10th, and will alert motorcycled officers stationed nearby if drivers are not giving pedestrians the right of way.
“Do not yell at our officers and talk about revenue, because when we enforce traffic safety laws, it’s not about revenue,” Acevedo said. “It’s about saving lives, and the life that may be saved is one of your own.
“I’m not going to apologize for that. We want you to know that every life matters, and we want you to know that death if final no matter how you get there. And traffic should not be one of (the ways).”
Maria Town, the director of the Mayor’s Office for People With Disabilities, said the city’s streets are especially dangerous for citizens such as Perez. Town said wheelchair users are 33 percent more likely to be killed in pedestrian crashes than those without disabilities, while seniors in wheelchairs are 75 percent more likely to be killed. She also said people with disabilities are more likely to be pedestrians, because they either cannot drive or cannot afford a vehicle.
So Town said she was not surprised by the details of the crash that claimed the lives of Perez and the good Samaritan who tried to help him, but she was no less devastated. Like the families of Adams and Perez as well as her fellow city officials, she hopes similar tragedies can be prevented.
“When we imagine a safe, walkable, resilient Houston of the future, the pedestrian of the future that we must imagine, that we must plan around, is the 65-year-old woman using a scooter to get safely to the grocery store or the 80-year-old man who’s hearing isn’t as good as it used to be, who’s using a cane to walk to the park to play with his grandkids,” Town said. “(Thursday’s) announcements are a step toward achieving that future.”