Jesse Higgins Jr. was crossing Minnesota Drive in Spenard with his girlfriend early the morning of Aug. 7, planning to grab a soda from the Holiday station across the street from their apartment, when he was hit by a vehicle, his mother said.
Higgins, 24, was taken by ambulance to the Alaska Native Medical Center, and his girlfriend went with police to tell his mother, Doris Sugak, what had happened so they could go to the hospital.
But due to COVID-19 restrictions, Sugak said, she couldn’t see her son, and he soon died.
“His life was just getting started,” Sugak said.
Just hours before Higgins’ death, another pedestrian was struck and killed about 5 miles away, near Airport Heights Drive. The driver who struck 39-year-old Jennifer McBride late Aug. 6 fled the scene and has not yet been identified, police said.
Ten pedestrians struck by vehicles have died so far this year in Anchorage — tied with the highest number the city has seen in a decade. Fatalities ranged from two to 10 deaths a year during the last decade, according to data from the police department. Officials worry that more fatalities are in store this year, as daylight dwindles in autumn.
Since early 2020, a grim trend has emerged: Anchorage has seen fewer collisions involving pedestrians overall, but fatalities have remained high.
This year, through July, there had been 53 collisions involving pedestrians, according to data provided by police. From 2010 to 2019, the average through July was about 91 collisions involving pedestrians.
For all of 2020, there were 82 pedestrian-involved collisions -- lower than the city had experienced during the previous decade. Regardless, nine pedestrians died, police said.
Pandemic influence possible
Officials said there’s no single reason why fatalities have remained high despite dropping collision numbers, but that it could be tied to the pandemic.
Acting Municipal Traffic Department Director Kim Carpenter said traffic plummeted in 2020 as people began to work remotely and lockdowns closed businesses. Carpenter said sparser traffic may have led drivers to go faster or use less caution.
Meanwhile, the number of people going outside for recreation jumped during the pandemic.
“There was definitely more people just walking out and about — they weren’t driving because they weren’t going to work, but the increased number of people out and about and the more openness that the cars could drive in may have actually had something to do with it,” she said.
Traffic has increased in 2021, although Carpenter said it still has not returned to pre-pandemic levels.
Four of the 10 people who died this year in vehicle strikes have yet to be publicly identified by police because of delays in notifying next of kin, said Lt. Scott Roberts, who oversees the police traffic unit.
At least three drivers have been charged in fatal pedestrian collisions this year. Police did not provide information about how many charges or citations have been issued related to nonfatal collisions that involved pedestrians.
Robertson said charges that result from pedestrian collisions usually relate to driver alcohol or drug impairment. In 16 of the 82 crashes involving pedestrians in 2020, impairment was suspected to be a factor, according to data from the traffic department.
In the past, Roberts said, fatal accidents have centered on intersections where crashes involving pedestrians happen at a higher rate. But crashes this year seem to be more spread out.
In general, the worst crashes occur along roads with multiple lanes and higher speed limits, Carpenter said.
Areas with higher foot traffic are also more likely to see pedestrian-involved collisions, Roberts said, especially downtown, Midtown and a stretch of Tudor Road near a city mission.
No data is collected about victims’ housing status, but homeless advocates say people experiencing homelessness are walking or using public transportation at a higher rate, which can put them at risk. They often work nontraditional hours when public transportation may not always be an option, said Owen Hutchinson, communications director at the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness. They may walk or bike along the streets during times when it’s more likely to be dark and they are less visible to drivers, he said.
They also may not have access to reflective materials, said Marcia Howell, executive director at the Center for Safe Alaskans. The center distributes reflective tape each year, focusing some of their efforts at Brother Francis Shelter or Bean’s Cafe. Howell said they also donate clothing or winter hats that include reflective material.
Many of these deaths are preventable, Howell said. But it takes awareness and caution by both drivers and pedestrians to protect the most vulnerable users of the road, she said.
Long-term solutions involve making roads safer by adding crosswalks, lighting intersections, reducing speeds and placing buffers or space between sidewalks and roads, Hajduk said.
In Midtown, where many pedestrian injuries occur, crosswalks are far apart.
“It’s about designing roads that have more frequent crosswalks that are safe,” she said. “We put a lot of space between them, especially in Midtown — it’s over a half-mile in some places. So if you’re trying to get from point A to point B, sometimes it’s much easier to cross outside of marked intersections.”
City and state engineers consider pedestrian safety in their planning, Carpenter said. But infrastructure projects can take years to complete, and city and state departments are contending with shrinking budgets and resources.
Hajduk said it can be helpful for people to voice their concerns and advocate for pedestrian safety at a neighborhood level.
“Community councils can prioritize capital improvement programs ... where there (is) the most need in their community for infrastructure changes, and councils also prioritize traffic calming projects that are needed in the neighborhood,” Hajduk said.
Driver awareness is also a major factor, Howell said. Collisions can be avoided if drivers are paying attention to the road, slowing down and not getting behind the wheel while impaired. Speed is a major factor for how severely injured a pedestrian will be.
After a series of pedestrian deaths last fall, Anchorage police stepped up efforts to educate pedestrians and drivers about safety, Roberts said. Officers targeted busy intersections where crashes had occurred more frequently and had conversations with people in the area, he said.
Many collisions involve pedestrian errors, he said.
“What I am seeing is a lack of pedestrians following the rules and following the right-of-way laws for pedestrians, crossing where they shouldn’t be crossing, crossing against a don’t-cross sign ... and being in the roadway when they’re not supposed to be in the roadway,” he said.
Officers are ramping up education efforts again this year, Roberts said, after the string of deaths in August.
“I’d like to think that maybe one of the pedestrians we’d contacted, when the police weren’t around, they got ready to cross the street and they thought, maybe I shouldn’t do this — maybe I should go down to the crosswalk where it’ll be controlled and they did that,” he said. “Then we save that person from getting hit.”
‘People don’t have to die’
Jesse Higgins Jr.’s mother said she still wonders how her son got hit that night. Police have provided her with few details, she said, as the investigation is still open.
Sugak said she believes the crash was an accident. Maybe the driver was on a phone or otherwise distracted, maybe they didn’t have time to react, she said. People make mistakes, Sugak said, and she forgives the person who hit her son.
“I feel so bad for the person (who struck him) because they have to live with that for the rest of their life,” she said. “And all I ever wanted to tell them was that I forgive them, but I’ve never had that chance.”
Higgins was a “momma’s boy” who always put family first, Sugak said. He was a father to two young twin girls and a 7-year-old boy, and helped raise his girlfriend’s three children. He planned to propose to her with his grandmother’s ring, Sugak said.
Higgins helped build homes in rural Alaska, and Sugak said he found joy in taking care of other people.
Having answers might bring her closure, but it won’t bring back Higgins — her youngest biological son and her best friend. Every day without him has been difficult, Sugak said. She never wants another family to endure the same heartbreak hers has.
“I think people need to start paying attention while they’re driving,” she said. “Definitely need to stay off their phones and they need to quit drinking and driving. They need to start assuming responsibility. People don’t have to die.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Owen Hutchinson’s name.