‘A public health crisis’: Residents, officials sound alarm as death toll climbs from E. Washington Ave crashes

After two people are killed in a week's time, some say the city's current plan isn't enough to address the reckless driving and inherent dangers of Madison's most notorious road
Pic For Naomi

Hardly a day goes by that Brittany Grogan doesn’t watch reckless drivers on East Washington Avenue from her Galaxie apartment building balcony.

The sirens woke her early last Saturday morning, when 30-year-old Sean Crisco was killed in a hit-and-run at the intersection just outside the building.

“Living here, I often feel concerned for my safety and safety of other people around here.”

Then came Friday morning–and with it another death, this time two miles up the road as a 57-year-old man tried to cross the crosswalk at the Pawling Street intersection on his bicycle. He was in it when he was hit–and killed.

Police officers spent time in the area Friday afternoon, measuring between two points visible on surveillance footage in order to calculate whether the van’s 28-year-old driver that hit him was speeding. To this point, there’s been no arrests, and police said the driver had stayed and cooperated with the investigation.

The death is the fourth on East Washington in 2021 alone. And while speeding hasn’t yet been established in Friday’s death, reckless driving on the road has long been a sore point–and a deadly threat–to many residents on the Isthmus as the last decade in downtown housing and entertainment development reshaped the formerly-industrial corridor into the city.

“Almost any time I spend an hour or so on the balcony, I’ll witness at least one incident of reckless driving,” Brittany said. She’s lived in the apartment building for three years.

“Whether it’s someone speeding through a red light, using the parking or bike lane on the right to pass other cars, or using a left turn lane to pass other cars and keep going straight–those are probably the things that I see most often.”

That doesn’t even include the well-known drag-racing problem late at night, where anyone living on or within a few blocks of the road can hear the cars racing each other up and down the stretch. She’s a cyclist, but she won’t bike at all on East Washington. Crossing the road is enough of a hazard. Days earlier, just after Sean’s death outside her building, she’d written to Alderman Patrick Heck who represents her area, District 2–and urged other residents to do the same for their alders.

“Is there evidence that simply changing the speed limits without implementing actual structural changes to the design of the street itself is effective in reducing speed?” she asked in the letter. “My anecdotal observations have shown that the answer to that is “no”, but if the city has data showing otherwise, I’d be very interested in seeing that.”

‘A public health crisis’

She wasn’t the only one who pointed out how last year’s reduced speeding limits on East Washington Ave hadn’t seemed to make the road safer. Alderperson Brian Benford, who newly represents District 6 along the corridor and, thirteen years ago, represented another district on the Ithsmus said he’d seen the same thing.

“It hasn’t had an impact at all at creating more safety,” he said. “So we do have to look at reconfiguring the avenue.”

He supports the city’s current ten-year traffic safety plan, Vision Zero, implemented in part for issues like East Washington is experiencing. He points to a need for cultural change among the drivers using the road–he blames the reckless driving on out-of-towners who come to Madison for entertainment. But he also acknowledged that Vision Zero wasn’t enough, and that police enforcement would only get the city so far.

“We have to do something. Otherwise, there’s gonna be more fatalities,” he said.

At least one state-level elected official is drawing attention to the issue. Rep. Francesca Hong used a term at least one other resident used when describing their frustrations for pedestrian and biker safety to News 3 on Friday: a public health crisis.

“Hazardous road design that leads to injury and/or mortality should be categorized as a public health crisis, and the fatal events on East Washington need to be immediately treated as such,” Rep. Francesca Hong (D-Madison) said in a press release Friday afternoon, expressing her condolences to the families and loved ones of the crash victims Friday and the previous weekend.

Her office will be scheduling a community townhall in the coming weeks, the statement said, addressing concerns for both pedestrians and commuters.

Vision Zero: the current plan

Vision Zero is the city’s current approach to eliminating traffic deaths and severe injuries in Madison by 2030. Put in place last year, it’s a method used in cities across the nation to lower traffic deaths and injuries. It’s the solution Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway pointed to earlier this week.

“I’m fed up as well,” she told News 3. The project is why traffic speeds were lowered on East Washington Ave in 2020, from 35mph to 25mph in the corridor closest to the capitol (Pinckney to Baldwin) and from 35 mph to 30 mph from Baldwin Street to Marquette Avenue.

After Crisco’s death earlier this week, the city noted they’ve issued 224 citations along the avenue since May 1 as part of targeted speed enforcement. (Madison police weren’t able to provide five years’ worth of speeding citation data to put that number in context, prior to publishing.)

City engineers have used “traffic calming devices” to narrow lanes along some parts of the avenue. Crosswalk signs have been made more visible. Currently, other projects are completed or underway to retime more than a dozen traffic signals, install bollards, and upgrade crosswalks to continental (large striped) crosswalks.

Yet in 2021 alone, four people have now died on East Washington Avenue. At the time when the city lowered speeding limits along the avenue, they cited 2 deaths and 41 serious injuries from 2014 to 2019. Police are urging more awareness from drivers, but the long term solution is less clear.

“It’s also distracted driving,” Madison police chief Shon Barnes said in a press conference Friday. “It’s also making sure that you understand that we have heavy foot traffic on our Washington street area downtown and many other areas, so we need everyone to be good partners.”

Residents have long been frustrated; now, Friday felt like a tipping point.

Residents: ‘It’s not enough’

Some residents say at the heart of the matter is issues over who controls the road and the ability to restructure it–the state that operates it or the city that uses it. East Washington Ave hasn’t evolved, they say, to match the residential, shopping and entertainment developments along the corridor.

“The street has not evolved along with the rest of the area,” Grogan said. “It’s straight and it’s flat and it’s long, and if that’s how it stays, people are just going to keep treating it like a highway and they’ll speed through it.” For her and others who spoke to News 3, Vision Zero isn’t enough to resolve the problems.

Joel Gratz has lived on East Washington near the high school for years. He recognizes some of the inherent difficulties to making the road safer for cyclists and pedestrians: it’s also the main connection from Madison’s east side into the heart of the city–the capitol and the UW-Madison campus.

“Compared to some other parts of the city, enforcement of things like speeding and red lights along the stretch I know best (capital to Aberg) is pretty non existent,” he told News 3 on Friday. “I don’t like the harassments that can come from having police making lots of extra traffic stops, but at the same time, they should be camped out at some of these lights along here A LOT to get some aspects under control.”

The city’s hands are tied in part, as East Washington Ave is part of U.S. Highway 151, operated by the state of Wisconsin. Residents want to push both entities towards action that could lead to a better, safer route.

“Madison’s just gonna keep growing and getting more dense,” Grogan said. “We need better support for public transportation and pedestrians and bicyclists, and less convenience for drivers.”

Do you live or work on or near E. Washington Ave and have tips or concerns? Contact Naomi Kowles at news3investigates@wisctv.com