An ‘epidemic’ of hit-and-runs: Advocates seek traffic safety solutions in the wake of Kelly Oubre incident

“Philadelphia needs Vision Zero more than ever," said one advocate.

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A person crosses a street

The intersection of Spruce and Hicks streets in Center City, where police say Sixers star Kelly Oubre Jr. was struck by a hit-and-run driver. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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Traffic safety advocates in Philadelphia say hit-and-runs have become a crisis the city can no longer ignore.

Six weeks out from the end of 2023, the city has already surpassed last year’s total for fatal hit-and-runs, according to police and PennDOT data.

To date, 38 people have died in hit-and-runs in the city, the majority of them pedestrians. That’s more than double the total recorded in 2019.

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“Hit-and-runs are an epidemic in Philadelphia,” said Sarah Clark Stuart, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.

On Saturday night, the issue made national news after a driver struck and seriously injured Philadelphia 76er Kelly Oubre Jr. while he was walking alone near his Center City home.

The high-profile incident near Broad and Spruce streets landed the small forward in the hospital with a broken rib and other injuries, raising alarm bells for basketball fans and traffic safety advocates alike.

Police are still searching for the person who drove off after hitting Oubre.

“While shocking, this incident is a reminder that traffic violence can happen to anyone. We must get serious about this issue to protect all Philadelphians,” wrote City Councilmember Isaiah Thomas on “X” — formerly known as Twitter — the day after the incident.

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The freshman lawmaker, who won reelection last Tuesday, said improving traffic safety will be one of his top policy recommendations for Mayor-elect Cherelle Parker, who will lead a city with a traffic death rate that outpaces most big cities in the country, including New York City and Chicago.

To Thomas, that’s a big problem.

“When you’re trying to attract new businesses and new residents to the city, because that’s important to our local economy, this is an item that makes people reluctant to relocate here,” Thomas said in an interview. “It continues to promote this gloomy, dark cloud that’s over the city right now. Yet another problem in Philadelphia that gives the perception that our city is dangerous and lawless.”

Parker assumes office on Jan.1. And like Thomas, Clark Stuart hopes the new administration makes Philly’s traffic safety a priority, starting with the Vision Zero Philadelphia program.

Launched by Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration in 2017, the citywide strategy is designed to eliminate all traffic-related deaths and severe injuries, as well as improve traffic safety and mobility on city streets.

“Philadelphia needs Vision Zero more than ever. I’m looking for Mayor-elect Parker to recommit to the goal of eliminating traffic violence, traffic deaths. And to continue, if not accelerate, the program that Mayor Kenney started in 2017,” said Clark Stuart.

People cross a street in Philadelphia
The intersection of Spruce and Hicks streets in Center City, where police say Sixers star Kelly Oubre Jr. was struck by a hit-and-run driver. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A spokesperson for Parker did not respond to a question for comment.

Marco Gorini, program manager for Vision Zero, said the city wants to build on a “hugely effective” pilot program designed to reduce crashes along Roosevelt Boulevard, one of the city’s most dangerous roadways.

Since 2020, the year automated speed cameras were installed, speeding is down 95% at the camera locations, said Gorini. The program, which is set to end next month, is also credited with saving 36 lives during that span.

“The results are really dramatic. And we also see speeding increasingly, unfortunately, across the rest of the city while it’s decreasing on the boulevard,” Gorini said.

A bill introduced in Harrisburg would effectively make the boulevard program permanent, while enabling Philadelphia to install similar speed cameras along other high-traffic roadways, in partnership with PennDOT. The list could include sections of North Broad Street, as well as Lincoln Drive and Kelly Drive.

Over the last year, Philadelphia has secured more than $200 million in federal and state grants, a lot of which is specifically earmarked for traffic safety initiatives. Gorini said some of the money will be used to expand the city’s Complete Streets program, which is dedicated to installing traffic devices designed to slow down drivers.

Increased speeding and reckless driving are the main reasons why fatal crashes continue to exceed pre-pandemic levels, according to Vision Zero’s latest annual report.

“Looking to the Parker administration, we’re excited about the mayor-elect and her strong focus on safety, on ensuring that we have a city that people are safe in. I think that will be something that Vision Zero is closely aligned with,” said Gorini.

On Sunday, families of traffic crash victims and street safety advocates will gather in Hunting Park to commemorate World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims.

Over the last year, traffic violence killed more than 120 people in Philadelphia, per the Bicycle Coalition.

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