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Hispanics suffer highest rates of pedestrian deaths in South

ATLANTA -- Eriberta Mota crossed the unlit four-lane highway with her two little boys so she could call home to Mexico from a nearby business. As the family crossed back with Mota cradling her 18-month-old and grasping her 3-year-old's arm, a car slammed into them, killing the older boy and fracturing the skull of the younger.

Such an accident, this one in the Atlanta suburb of Norcross, is not an isolated tragedy, say officials who are studying pedestrian safety across the South.

Because many of the new immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries have limited access to vehicles or public transportation, they walk where they need to go. At the same time in the South, pedestrian precautions, such as sidewalks, are often lacking, officials say.

The result has been deadly, with Hispanics accounting for the highest rate of pedestrian deaths across most of the region.

''You end up on the road because there's no side of the road you can walk on," said Stephanie Bohon, a University of Georgia demographer who studies immigrant issues.

''These people are walking under hazardous conditions," Bohon added. ''They know they're taking a risk, but they haven't many other options."

In Georgia, it is estimated that nearly 80 percent of non-Hispanics drive to work, but only 34 percent to 58 percent of Hispanics do, Bohon said. Some of the hurdles are immigration-related, such as the difficulty of getting a driver's license. But there is also a more basic issue -- poverty.

''It's more of a socioeconomic issue and lack of planning than a Latino issue," said Jerry Gonzalez, spokesman for the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.

Nonetheless, Hispanic pedestrians are disproportionately victims across the South.

They die in pedestrian-vehicle accidents at a higher rate than any other racial or ethnic group in every Southern state except Arkansas, Florida, and Tennessee, where blacks die at a higher rate, according to 2002 data reported by states to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The highest pedestrian fatality rates for Hispanics were in Mississippi, with 4.72 pedestrian deaths per 100,000 Hispanics, Alabama with 4.71 per 100,000, and South Carolina with 4.62 per 100,000.

Nearly two out of every five pedestrian-vehicle deaths in the United States occur in the South.

Critics blame poor urban planning. As Southern cities and suburbs expanded rapidly in recent decades, planners have focused more on resolving traffic congestion and other growth issues than ensuring pedestrian safety, said Sally Flocks, president of Atlanta-based Pedestrians Educating Drivers on Safety.

''Northern cities are better designed for pedestrians because most boomed before vehicles became the main mode of transportation. That didn't happen in the South until after cars became dominant. Sidewalks then became an afterthought," Flocks said.

Flocks added that crosswalks, pedestrian bridges and lighting are also lacking in many suburbs.

''Counties aren't investing their money in things like that," she said. ''They've been cheap toward pedestrians."

Because those without cars tend to be poor and have little political influence, little is being done to address the problem, said Adelina Nicholls, president of the Coordinating Council of Latino Community Leaders. ''There's no interest on the part of the government to solve the transportation issue," Nicholls said.

Advocacy groups and some government agencies, including the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, have distributed brochures, fliers, posters, and radio public service announcements in Spanish aimed at educating Hispanic immigrants on US pedestrian traffic rules.

A CDC study conducted in four metro Atlanta counties in the late 1990s highlighted the problem. It found that the pedestrian fatality rate for Hispanics in those counties was nearly six times higher than for non-Hispanic whites.

Gwinnett County, where Mota and her boys were struck, was included in that study.

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